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USA Today
Teach the Bible? Of course.
Public schools need not proselytize-- indeed, must not--in teaching
students about the Good Book.

By William R. Mattox Jr.
A member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.

(Illustration by Web Bryant, USA TODAY)

Having held a successful "beer-and-nuts summit" to defuse the volatile issue of race in public life, President Obama now needs to hold a "wine-and-bread summit" to tackle the equally volatile issue of religion in public schools.

Because as millions of American children return to the classroom this month, most public schools do not know how to handle the delicate issue of what to teach students about the Bible. Just ask the Texas Board of Education, which is mired in a contentious fight over how textbooks should characterize Christianity's influence on American history.

The battle lines in the Texas shootout are familiar: One side wants to purge public schools of almost any respectful mention of religion, while the other wants the Bible to be given even more reverence in the classroom than that afforded great Americans like say, Martin Luther King Jr.

Given this stark divide, it's easy to see why some educators might be tempted to skirt this topic. Yet, to its credit, the Texas Board of Education is soldiering on, knowing that you can't effectively explore American history without teaching about the Rev. King, and that you can't teach about the civil rights leader without helping students understand the meaning and power of his frequent references to "the Promised Land" and other scriptural metaphors, verses and concepts.

Hopefully, Texas and other states can strike the right balance and raise our nation's biblical literacy levels without engaging in religious indoctrination of one kind or another. For while people on different sides will object to the Bible being misused in the classroom, all of us on all sides ought to object to the Bible being ignored in the classroom.

"Students who want to do serious study of Western civilization need to know the Bible," says Barbara Newman, Northwestern University professor of English, Religion and Classics. "They need to know the Bible, even if they do not believe the Bible."

Professors sign on

Harvard professor Robert Kiely, for one, agrees. In 2006, he participated in an academic survey of professors from many of America's leading universities including Yale, Princeton, Brown, Rice, California-Berkeley and Stanford. The survey commissioned by the Bible Literacy Project, which promotes academic Bible study in public schools found an overwhelming consensus among top professors that incoming college students need to be well-versed in the stories, themes and words of the Bible.

"If a student doesn't know any Bible literature, he or she will simply not understand whole elements of Shakespeare, Sidney, Spenser, Milton, Pope, Wordsworth. One could go on and on and on," Kiely told Concordia professor Marie Wachlin and her research team.

"Knowledge of the Bible can be a key to unlocking other subjects. . . especially literature, art, music and social studies," say Chuck Stetson, co-editor of the visually stunning high school textbook The Bible and Its Influence, and founder of the Bible Literacy Project.

And knowledge of the Bible can be a key to understanding much of today's pop culture. Like Stephen Colbert's irreverent humor on Comedy Central. Or Jim Carrey's screwball spirituality in Bruce Almighty. Or the devilishly clever title of the band White Stripes' release, Get Behind Me Satan.

Not surprisingly, students growing up in non-religious homes are often behind the curve. "Many of my students are quite secular and have very little knowledge of the Bible," Northwestern's Newman says. "This is a major disadvantage."

Indeed, Newman says that trying to appreciate biblical allusions in literature without an underlying knowledge of Scripture is like trying to appreciate a good joke when someone has to explain the punch line. You might eventually "get" the joke, she says, but by the time you do, "it's not funny anymore."

Interestingly, a 2008 study published in Sociological Quarterly found that regular church attendance positively affected students' grade point averages. And while lead researcher Jennifer Glanville of the University of Iowa attributed much of this effect to the social and psychological benefits of being enmeshed in a wider community of like-minded peers and adults, some of this effect might also be explained by the greater biblical literacy young people typically acquire by attending church.

An 'objective' approach

To stem the decline of biblical literacy, three states Georgia, Texas and Tennessee have passed laws in recent years calling for public high schools to offer elective courses that teach the Bible "in an objective and non-devotional manner with no attempt to indoctrinate students" (as Georgia's law puts it).

In addition, some educators have sought to shore up world religion units that too often, in Kiely's words, "go rapidly over all the Quran in one week and all of the Bible in two days."

Though these are welcome developments, Obama could give them a real boost by holding a wine-and-bread summit at the White House to legitimize Bible courses in public schools. And in a strange sort of way, such an initiative ought to please everyone.

For while true believers will no doubt hope that elective Bible courses might whet students' appetites for more, non-believers can take solace in the fact that if schools don't start doing a better job of teaching students about the Bible, many parents who want their kids to be high achievers just might start taking them to church.

3 ways to do it

In Abington School District v. Schempp, decided in 1963, the Supreme Court stated that "study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education," was permissible under the First Amendment. Here are three ways states have facilitated the teaching of biblical text in public schools:

>> Texas, Georgia and Tennessee have passed legislation promoting historical or literary biblical studies as an elective.

>> In Alabama, the state Board of Education approved The Bible and Its Influence as a textbook for public schools.

>> South Carolina has passed "released time" legislation. It allows students to take (and, if the course is eligible, receive credit for) a religious class off-campus during school hours.

By Katrina Trinko

Note from the Bible Literacy Project: The State of South Carolina has also passed legislation providing for the academic study of the Bible in public schools, completely separate from the option for "released time." The South Carolina Department of Education has provided standards for these classes which are fulfilled by a class taught using The Bible and Its Influence.


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