Constitutional Literacy

Why American Schools Don't Need Bible Classes

The campaign to institute Bible classes in public schools is picking up steam.

Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero has thrown gasoline on the fire with the publication of his recent book Religious Literary: What Every American Needs to Know – and Doesn’t. In the book, Prothero asserts that classes on the Bible should be mandatory in American high schools. David Van Biema, a Time magazine religion writer, endorsed the idea, although he stopped short of saying the classes should be mandatory.

Prothero is getting a bit of a media buzz. He has placed op-eds here and there and even appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s program to plug his book. Legislatures in at least five states, Texas being the largest, are considering classes about the Bible. Legislation has already passed in Georgia.

It’s time to slow down and take a look at some hard questions this approach raises.

First off, there is no such thing as “the Bible.” Rather, there are translations of that work – lots of them. Most people know there are differences between the Bibles used by Protestants and Catholics. That’s just the beginning. Christians use many different translations. One online site listed more than 100 different translations in English alone. The differences among these versions are not minor, as some might argue. People quibble over every word and feel strongly about the accuracy of one translation over others. Which version are we to use in public schools?

The number of Bible translations should not surprise anyone. There are, after all, many variations of Christianity. The Web site, quoting a 2001 edition of the World Christian Encyclopedia, claims there are more than 33,000 denominations of Christianity worldwide.

To be fair, we should point out that many of these groups are small splinter spin-offs of larger bodies. The fact that such splintering occurs as frequently as it does underscores the point that people feel passionately about faith and the holy books that they believe support their beliefs.

We cannot simply gloss over this issue and pretend that it won’t be relevant. In fact, our country has a long history of arguing about the Bible and how it ought to be used in public schools. This issue sparked violence between Catho­lics and Protestants in some parts of the country in the mid 19th century. Some state supreme courts, noting the infighting, blocked public schools from using the Bible in a devotional manner prior to the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in this area in 1963.

But even that hasn’t stopped the squabbling. Debates about how to teach even supposedly objective courses drag on. The North Carolina-based National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools is offering a curriculum that Americans United argues is best left in a conservative Sunday School. Supporters of the National Council frequently take potshots at the rival curriculum offered by the Bible Literary Project.

The Bible Literacy Project’s textbook, The Bible and Its Influence, is certainly better than what the National Council offers, although it too has serious flaws. The ironic thing is, both of these organizations are coming from a mindset that could fairly be called conservative. Yet they disagree bitterly on how the Bible is to be taught in schools.

Battles like this could erupt all over the nation. Imagine you are one of the few progressive Christians, Jews or non-believers living in a small town in Alabama. In an area like this, where fundamentalism holds sway and many science teachers are afraid to even mention the world “evolution,” what type of Bible course will your school offer? Will it be objective and balanced – or will the local band of James Dobson devotees apply enough pressure to make sure the class is taught to their liking?

There is a better way. Rather than single out the Bible, the religious text of only some believers, for special courses in our public schools, it would be better to incorporate objective discussion about religion into the curriculum when it is appropriate.

This could be done in many different types of classes. An English teacher discussing John Steinbeck’s East of Eden could point out that the title comes from Genesis and discuss the biblical allusions in the work. An art history class could discuss the ways biblical themes have appeared in various paintings. History teachers could talk about the role – positive and negative – that religion played in events like the Civil War and the struggle for civil rights.

As long as teachers don’t use these moments to proselytize – overtly or co- v­ertly – academic needs, religious pluralism and the Constitution will all be respected.

This approach is to be preferred because it rests more on the mere transmission of factual information and less on interpretation. No matter how we try to avoid it, a class focusing solely on the Bible requires instructors to wade into theological thickets. There is too much disagreement in American society on what the Bible is, how it is to be read and which version is to be read to avoid problems.

The last thing this country needs is another front in the “culture war.” Public school courses “about” the Bible will provide that – especially if they are mandated. There are better ways to teach about religion in public schools. We ought to pursue them instead.