Why, and how, should public schools offer classes about the Bible?


Why, and how, should Bible be taught in a public, non-religious, school setting? What is its value as part of a secular curriculum?


Surveys show there’s appalling ignorance about the basics of the Bible, especially among younger Americans. Even religious skeptics would have to admit that’s a serious cultural and educational problem, wholly apart from Scripture’s religious role. Bible knowledge is essential to comprehending the art of Giotto and Chagall, Bach cantatas and African-American spirituals, Shakespeare’s plays, countless allusions in novels and poems, historical events like the Protestant Reformation and the civil rights and anti-apartheid movements, the rhetoric of U.S. presidents, populism and pacifism, and on and on.

This fiasco is not what the U.S. Supreme Court intended when it outlawed mandatory Bible readings in public schools for creating an “establishment of religion” that violated the Constitution’s First Amendment (in Abington v. Schempp, 1963). Though the justices barred ceremonial and devotional use of the Bible, they included this key clarification:

“It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. 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.”  

So the Supreme Court itself has explained the “why,” but the “how” has proven difficult during the ensuing half-century. School districts have been reluctant to apply the Court’s admonition, fearful of legal threats, wary of maneuvering through America’s growing religious diversity, and unsure how to obtain appropriate teachers and curriculums.

President Clinton’s education department provided brief guidance in 1995. Then in 1999 Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center, the Society of Biblical Literature (a body of university and seminary Bible scholars), and the Bible Literacy Project sought to overcome “confusion and conflict” through a remarkable 13-page agreement, “The Bible & Public Schools: A First Amendment Guide.” This policy is endorsed by an unusually wide coalition that includes seven major public school organizations, evangelical and “mainline” Protestants, three prominent Jewish groups, the Council on Islamic Education, and others.

This booklet’s material about curriculum says “objective” Bible coursework should cover a variety of interpretations and “neither promote nor disparage religion, nor should it be taught from a particular sectarian point of view.” Teachers should be selected for academic qualifications, not religious views, with no non-school involvement, just as with other subjects. Textbooks should not be “devotional.” Schools should not “undermine or reinforce” students’ “faith in the Bible or lack of such belief.” Supernatural events in the Bible “may not be taught as historical fact.” Students “cannot be uncritically taught to accept the Bible as literally true, as history. Nor should they be uncritically taught to accept as historical only what secular historians find verifiable in the Bible.” This careful balancing act displeases some religious traditionalists.

While individual schools and teachers have crafted curriculums, there are three noteworthy players on the national level:

Continue reading "Why, and how, should public schools offer classes about the Bible?" by Richard Ostling.

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