We can’t say it’s the most surprising thing we’ve read in some time, but it’s close: TIME magazine, on the cover of last week’s U.S. edition, vows to explain “why we should teach the Bible in public school (but very, very carefully).” In the article, titled “The Case for Teaching the Bible,” TIME senior religion writer David van Biema outlines the current state of Bible education in America’s public classrooms and offers several reasons why Bible education should be welcomed in public schools nationwide.
The role of religion in American life has become such a much-discussed topic that TIME’s rival publication Newsweek magazine (the U.S. edition) has similar articles in its just-released issue, including the results of a recent national poll ), which revealed that: “Nearly half (48 percent) of the public rejects the scientific theory of evolution; one-third (34 percent) of college graduates say they accept the Biblical account of creation as fact”1—this finding (which mirrors the results of recent Gallup polls) strongly suggests that biblical creation organizations in America have had an impact in stemming the tide of evolutionary indoctrination in public schools, science museums, and the secular media.
Van Biema of TIME begins his piece with brief coverage of a Texas Bible class offered at a public school. The course “has its share of conservative Christians,” but is not without at least one atheist; two interviewed students indicate that they took the course to ward off their ignorance of the Bible—even though the mother of one is a Sunday school teacher.
Of course, the question at the top of many minds is: is it legal? Decades of a misconstrued “separation of church and state” idea (the words are not found in the Constitution) have led many Americans to wrongly assume any course dealing with the Bible must be against the Constitution. Van Biema cites the 1948 Supreme Court case McCollum v. Board of Education, in whose concurring opinion Justice Robert Jackson wrote, “One can hardly respect the system of education that would leave the student wholly ignorant of the currents of religious thought that move the world society for ... which he is being prepared.”
Additionally, Van Biema recalls a clarification Justice Arthur Goldberg presented in his response to 1963’s Abington Township School District v. Schempp (which outlawed public school prayer): teaching about religion is permissible, but the teaching of religion isn’t. The conclusion: “It is beyond question that it is possible to teach a course about the Bible that is constitutional,” according to Marc Stern, general counsel for the American Jewish Congress.
The article continues by giving several reasons to teach the Bible. Van Biema points out that the Bible is “the most influential book ever written,” given its status as the best-selling book of the year every year and its role as centerpiece to the world’s largest religion (although, of course, Christian views on the Bible vary from absolute reverence to vague “respect”). Van Biema also cites the Bible’s importance in understanding literature and history (including references in famous speeches, such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech).
Despite such good reasons, public school Bible education draws expected attacks from many. For example, lawyer Wendy Kaminer argues,“If you teach the Bible outside of close conjunction with other religions, then it becomes a kind of promotion of the majority faith. It becomes too hard for most folks to draw the line between teaching and preaching.” (One wonders if Ms. Kaminer would apply this logic to the teaching of theories on the origin of life as well—after all, the worldview of evolution is taught outside of “close conjunction” with other theories on life’s origin!) And Joe Conn and Rob Boston of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State are worried how schools will find teachers that can and will give the Bible “secular treatment.”
Van Biema concludes positively after considering the comments of Stephen Prothero, Boston University religion department chair. “Bad courses will be taught. People will teach it as a Sunday school class. And we’ll do what we always do when unconstitutional stuff happens in America. We’ll get a court to tell us what to do, and then we’ll fix it.”
Despite our enthusiasm for promoting biblical literacy, Bible education in public schools is a two-edged (at minimum) sword. On one hand, the Bible is clearly prominent enough in society to merit students’ study of its content; even atheists have a difficult time denying this argument. More Bible education will, at the very least, allow individuals to better understand apologetic arguments and be more familiar with the gospel message. And certainly, reading the first eleven chapters of Genesis puts one on better footing to understand the creation/evolution debate.
With all this going for it, what’s the downside? First, we wonder—similar to some people quoted in the article—how easy it will be for educators to fairly present biblical content without revealing (even unintentionally) their own worldviews. (It’s important to remember that everyone has some presupposed worldview.) Objective instruction could especially be a problem if class sessions descend into outright debate.
We also fear that pro-Bible and anti-Bible biases will be handled differently. For instance, the slightest teacher comment seen as favoring the Bible may be grounds for dismissal, whereas teachers may be given carte blanche to criticize the Bible without any repercussions or mere hand-slapping. While Christian students may see through a teacher’s ridiculing of the Bible, other students may, without realizing it, accept a teacher’s criticisms as objective fact.
This possibility highlights the fact that we cannot rely on public schools to in any way educate young people adequately about the Bible. Even if such Bible education becomes more widespread, the church and Christian parents retain responsibility for teaching the Bible and evangelizing society, and training up children to understand the Bible.
All that said, we do not want to exaggerate potential problems with Bible ed. programs; we believe that the Bible is fascinating enough (and God’s Spirit powerful enough, and the gospel wonderful enough!) to enrapture students who are exposed to the Word of God in these classes, and for that reason, and in spite of the potential hazards, public school Bible education could be an important element in reclaiming otherwise lost generations.
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