Teaching about the Bible in public schools? Yes, if. . .: 1-31-19
January 31, 2019
The other day, this Politico story reported that President Trump tweeted "Great" in response to news that more states are planning to introduce Bible literacy classes to public schools.
I would agree with the president if the classes really were designed to teach students in a constitutional way about the Bible as opposed to inculcating them in Christian or Jewish doctrine. In fact, teaching public school students about the Bible already is legal, as long as it doesn't cross church-state separation boundaries. (And, by the way, people who aren't Christian or Jewish would do well to understand biblical references, too. In fact, Muslims are obliged to know the Bible because many biblical stories are referenced briefly in the Qur'an, with the understanding that readers already know the full story in the Bible.)
Religious literacy in this country is dismally low, and it leads to ignorance and fear. Beyond that, our whole language and culture is simply marinated in biblical language and thought, and it's hard to understand even some common phrases -- being a "Good Samaritan," "walking the second mile," a "burning bush" and on and on -- without knowledge of their biblical roots.
So I have argued for years that there is a place in public school teaching for exposing students to how the Bible came to be and how it has influenced our culture.
In fact, a few years back promoters of this idea created a book to guide teachers, a book that was careful about maintaining the church-state wall but that sought to educate students about the widespread influence the Bible has had. It's called The Bible and its Influence. It's a really good start on how to do this right.
No doubt there are religious people who are trying to use this public school movement to sneak in evangelism, just as there are religious people who want to overturn the old U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed prayer led by public employees in public schools. But they're wrong about both matters, though given Trump's religious obtuseness I don't expect that he understands any of this.
At any rate, there's every good reason to teach public school students about the Bible without indoctrinating them into this or that religion. And there's every good reason to be very careful about how such classes are established and taught.
Just because Trump thinks (perhaps for the wrong reasons) that such classes are great doesn't mean they can't be.
Here, by the way, is a story from the Indianapolis Star about the bill on this subject now before the state legislature there.
(The three-volume Hebrew Bible set you see pictured here today is newly published. It's a translation with commentary by Robert Alter, the great Hebrew scholar from the University of California-Berkeley. My daughters gave me the set for my recent birthday.)
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ON THE OTHER HAND. . .
Staying on the same topic today, I point you to this RNS column by Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, who argues that Americans need to be much more biblically literate than they are now, but that teaching about the Bible in public schools is not the way to do it. Well, he's half right. I think the public school issues can be worked out so that the Bible can be a constitutional subject there. But now you know that at least one person disagrees with me.