The debate over whether to include the Bible in school curricula is not new. Although the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that using the Bible in instruction is constitutional, attempts to do so are met with vigorous debate.
The most recent flare-up relates to a Texas law passed in 2007 and put into effect this fall that requires schools to offer an elective class on the Bible. The discourse is dominated by two groups: those who fear that discussion of the Bible will undermine the separation of church and state, and those who welcome the Bible as a moral guide and an aid to spreading Christianity.
Both viewpoints are misguided. The Bible has no place in schools for purposes of evangelism or moral teaching. But it does belong in schools.
We read parts of it in my 9th grade English class in New York state. And it raises some eyebrows. My students are surprised, at the start of this unit, to hear that I am passionately in favor of the separation of church and state. But I tell them I believe a Bible unit in public schools supports that separation. To avoid the Bible because it is religious tacitly gives it privileged status. Our secular school system should include it for its literary merit and its profound social significance.
In English class, we study literature that has shaped our history and continues to exercise influence; that speaks to the human condition, providing insight into who we are and where we came from; and that surprises, entertains, and moves us. The Bible should be included in any list of books that meet these criteria. But there is a vast amount of literature to choose from, so why teach something sacred and controversial when so many other good books would suit the purpose?
The Bible is not merely one choice among many that would serve the same purpose. On the contrary, it warrants study more than any other literature we teach. Here’s the quick list of reasons (beyond its strictly literary value) I share with my students.
First, its influence on the other literature we study is vast. Biblical allusions appear in nearly every book taught in high schools. The College Board recommends that students be familiar with the Bible to do well on Advanced Placement exams, and we do our students a disservice by ignoring it. Any college student who studies literature is seriously disadvantaged without basic knowledge of the Bible.
Second, the Bible’s influence spreads beyond the literary realm into the artistic and the cultural. Any student of art or music will deal extensively with religious material. Moreover, biblical allusions in culture persist into the 21st century: in movie titles, song lyrics, newspaper headlines, billboards, and so forth—even television’s “The Simpsons” draws extensively from the Bible. In short, biblical knowledge enriches our understanding of both high art and popular culture.
Third, and most important, the Bible exercises enormous influence on our country today, since so many Americans consider it a holy book (84 percent, according to a Barna Group poll). Consequently, it holds a special place in our public discourse—all students must have enough familiarity with the Bible to understand and participate in that discourse.
It is this third reason I wish to explore here. Despite the widespread belief in its sacredness, there is remarkable ignorance about the Bible’s content. Even for lifelong churchgoers, it remains highly mysterious. Few of those professed believers have a working scholarly knowledge of what it says, and too often, biblical study is limited to a relatively small number of passages taken out of context. Yet that doesn’t stop people from using the Bible as a political tool. It is cited to justify almost every side of every political issue, upheld as a sacred repository of wisdom.
So what are young people to think when they hear biblical passages taken out of context to both support and refute gay rights, or the Iraq war, or any highly charged issue? They must not be afraid to question and challenge biblically based sound bites. They must have the courage and the foundational knowledge to understand for themselves the source and context of biblical passages. Our reluctance to teach the Bible perpetuates its mysteriousness, which has grave consequences in our intellectual lives and in the wider world in which we live.
Teaching the Bible in a secular setting encourages intellectualism and reasonableness in public discourse. The Bible’s reputation inspires worship, faith, anger, fear, suspicion, and a host of other reactions, but it also discourages rational study. Believers fear that such close study will taint or contradict their dearly held beliefs, which are often based in dogma rather than the text. Nonbelievers might wish to disregard it as ancient fiction, or they fear it will somehow undermine their own, different beliefs. As teachers, we must fight the mystical notion that the Bible should be exempt from critical study.
Biblical scholarship helps American citizens understand the often-ignorant use of its passages in debating national issues. There are plenty of examples to choose from.
In a 2002 speech, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia explained his rationale for supporting the death penalty by claiming in effect that government has divine authority. His support for this comes in part from the Bible’s letter to the Romans, in which the author, Paul, argues that earthly rulers deliver God’s divine justice (Romans 13:1-5). Justice Scalia makes the following commentary: “[T]he core of [Paul’s] message is that government … is the minister of God with powers to revenge, to execute wrath, including even wrath by the sword, which is unmistakably a reference to the death penalty.”
Regardless of one’s stance on the death penalty, it should trouble each of us that Scalia extracts a few lines from a 1st-century text to inform life-and-death judicial decisions. With a basic biblical education, one can understand the context of that line: Before his conversion, Paul had zealously advocated the murder of Christians, likely using the very rationale cited above, before changing his mind as a follower of Jesus. Scalia’s position both blurs the doctrine of church-state separation and uses a biblical quotation recklessly out of context.
But I don’t get into all that with my students. Nor do I debate condoms, abortion, gay rights, the Iraq war, or other hot-button issues in the classroom. It is not my pedagogical goal for them to agree with me, and it would be inappropriate to use the classroom as a soapbox. Students should be equipped to draw conclusions—informed conclusions—about those topics on their own.
Naturally, the enactment of the Texas law raises additional questions about how exactly teachers should conduct instruction about the Bible. It is a sensitive endeavor, to be sure. But we first must recognize the value of undertaking that task. The Bible is a remarkable document, parts of which can stand with Plato in their philosophical depth, with Tolstoy in their political complexities, and with Shakespeare in their poetic beauty.
The religious sphere does not have exclusive ownership over those important words. We should give our young people the tools to understand the Bible, both for their own enlightenment and to better inform their decisionmaking as citizens.
A version of this article appeared in the December 16, 2009 edition of Education Week as The Bible Belongs in Schools