Bible in Public Schools?
By Alan Reinach
A Special Message from Alan J. Reinach, Esq.
Religion sells magazines. So every major holiday, Christmas and Easter especially, newsmagazines feature Jesus or church on the cover. This Easter, Time magazine ran a story about teaching the Bible in public schools. Americans are biblically illiterate, Time reported, according to a Gallup poll. Only about half of adult Americans can name even one of the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Hence, the pressure is building for the academic study of the Bible as an elective course in public high schools. Is this a good idea? The short answer is "yes, but."
Yes. The Bible is of critical importance to understanding western civilization, the arts, history, literature, economics and politics. Insuring that American youth are literate in the Bible is basic to education.
But … there is a right and wrong way to approach the Bible in public schools. The right way is for teachers to treat religious content as objectively as possible. To the surprise of many, the Supreme Court has agreed that the Bible may be taught for its educational value. The wrong way is for teachers to seek to inculcate faith, to interpret the Bible, or advocate its spiritual message. It is not the teacher's job either to promote belief in the Bible, or to criticize the faith.
I well remember an example of the wrong way to teach the Bible that happened when I attended law school in North Carolina. In a nearby public high school, a dispute arose about a Bible class. Those who objected to the class were run out of town by the good Christian citizens who defended the teaching of the Bible. The newspaper report observed that the teacher had been teaching Genesis, and that each day of creation was an eon of time. Although I knew that many in that town believed that each day of creation was a literal day, no one objected to what was being taught. I was amazed. Do you see the problem? The teacher was taking sides in an age-old dispute. As an employee of the government, the teacher was offering her interpretation as the gospel truth. This is precisely why government officials must refrain from making religious determinations -- they simply have no authority to do so, and when they usurp the authority, they frequently make serious mistakes!
Let's be clear about one thing: the problem of biblical illiteracy is not the job of the state to solve. It is a problem that belongs to the churches, and our families. It is not the state's job to inculcate faith, or to teach Bible doctrine. That's our job, and clearly, we are failing. Still, it is an excellent idea for state schools to recognize the significance of the Bible, and religion, and to include them in the curriculum.
Sadly, the political efforts to adopt a Bible curriculum risk turning the Bible into a political football. Some religious conservatives favor a curriculum based on the Bible as the textbook in order to present Christianity as the foundation of the nation. There is an alternate curriculum available that has been approved by a wide swath of the faith community that avoids political and theological divisiveness. Political battles over curriculum can profane the sanctity of the Bible, as it becomes a symbol to fight over, instead of a sacred revelation of the character of God.
People of faith and good will can support the academic inclusion of the Bible in public school, understanding that the state must be fair and objective, neutral toward religion. Teachers will require adequate training in order to stay within constitutional boundaries. Teachers may easily express views in an unprofessional manner that are either critical of religious convictions, or unduly dogmatic in advocating such beliefs. This is why neutrality is essential.
Our public schools include people of many faiths. Too often, I hear that Jews or Muslims don't object to devotional Bible reading or prayers in public schools. In fact, they do object, just as Christians object to Muslim prayers in public school. It is easy to be insensitive to the other person's beliefs. The public school is a place where our youth must be taught to be respectful of differing religious beliefs. It is important to hold one's own convictions without insulting and denigrating those of a different faith.