March 2019 Church & State Magazine | Editorial

Thanks in part to an endorsement by President Donald Trump, so-called “Bible literacy” courses are catching on in state legislatures.

On the surface, the idea sounds reasonable. When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down mandatory, school-sponsored prayer and Bible reading in public schools in 1963, Justice Tom Clark noted that objective study about the Bible and religion is appropriate in public schools.

“It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities,” Clark wrote in the School District of Abington Township v. Schempp decision. “Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.”

The problem is, many of the people pushing Bible literacy bills today don’t want that kind of class. In a recent article in The Washington Times, former Kentucky state Rep. D.J. Johnson, who had sponsored one of these bills, said Bible study in public school is not “the lightning rod that everyone says it is. This wasn’t a big deal in the ’60s.” He also reminisced about a grade school teacher “who read to our class out of a children’s Bible book….”

Actually, this issue was a big deal in the 1960s. That’s why people, like the Schempp family in Pennsylvania, went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to put a stop to coercive forms of Bible reading in public schools. Also, the situation Johnson describes of a teacher reading Bible stories to her charges would not be permitted under a Bible literacy class because that’s not objective and fair study about the Bible. It’s a devotional practice.

Consider this comment by Flori­da state Rep. Brad Drake, who said he supports these classes: “A study of a book of creation by its creator is absolutely essential. So why not? It’s the book that prepares us for eternity, and there’s no other book that does that.”

Again, this type of approach would not be permitted under a valid Bible literacy course. The purpose of such classes is to impart factual information about the Bible, not portray it as a book that preps students for the afterlife.

It’s clear that at least some people backing these classes want an approach that’s more appropriate for a Sunday school, not a public school. In Texas, where these courses have been in place in many districts for years, a study by Mark Chancey, a religious studies professor at Southern Methodist University, surveyed courses in 60 districts around the state. Only 11 districts, Chancey found, were “especially successful in displaying academic rigor and a constitutionally sound” approach. The other 49, he found, “were a mixed bag, some were terrible.”

Chancey singled out 21 districts as offering “especially egregious” instruction. According to Chancey’s research, public school students in these courses were taught that “the Bible is written under God’s direction and inspiration,” Christians will at some point be “raptured” and that the Founding Fathers formed our country on the principles of the Bible.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone. In Texas, teachers weren’t offered any training about how to conduct these classes. Some of them appear to be winging it.

Rather than cordon off the Bible for special treatment, we’d do better to integrate the objective study about religion across the curriculum. Religion’s impact on history, art, literature and so on could be discussed. But again, the approach must be fair and not designed to indoctrinate.

This means students will hear good and bad things about the effect of religion on humanity. Through­out history, religion has spurred people to do many positive things – but it also sparked some to engage in war and violence. Students deserve a sober, accurate discussion of this topic.

They also deserve to learn about faiths outside their own tradition and the way that secular philosophies, such as those championed during the Enlightenment, challenged some of the claims of traditional religion.

One thing students don’t need is a heap of “Christian nation” nonsense or assertions that the U.S. government was based on the Ten Commandments. These Religious Right claims were debunked long ago. Yet they have resurfaced in some of these Bible literacy courses.

The story of how religious freedom, protected by a wall of separation between church and state, developed in America is powerful and inspiring. Let’s be sure our students hear it as well.

Youngsters in public schools deserve objective education, not fundamentalist indoctrination.