A good teacher of history knows that you don’t just stick with the textbook.
To really understand an event like the Battle of Gettysburg or Martin Luther King’s March on Washington, you have to read the primary sources—the speeches, handwritten letters, and firsthand accounts of the people who were there.
Otherwise, all we’re left with are far-removed accounts written by people who were never there, and who might not be interested in giving a faithful account.
Religion is the same way. To really understand a religion and its impact on the world, it’s critical to read the primary source documents—the Scriptures.
So it’s odd that over the last 50-plus years, our public schools have by and large expelled religious texts from the classroom, even though understanding religion is hugely important to being an educated person.
President Donald Trump brought light to this issue Monday when he tweeted, “Numerous states introducing Bible literacy classes, giving students the option of studying the Bible. Starting to make a turn back? Great!”
I’m with the president on this. It would be fantastic to see these classes offered, both to help students better grasp American history, as well as to create better understanding between secular and religious Americans.
The State Proposals
Several states are now looking to introduce Bible literacy classes into public schools—not for the purpose of proselytization, but simply to educate students about religion.
The idea is pretty basic: If students are going to understand the Jewish and Christian religions, they need access to the primary source documents.
Kentucky passed a law along these lines in 2017, setting up guidelines for public schools to offer electives on the literature of the Old and New Testament Scriptures.
Now, six other states are considering similar bills—Florida, Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota, Virginia, and West Virginia, according to the ACLU. Similar laws already exist in seven states: Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas.
But this is making some people uncomfortable. Scriptures, they say, should be kept out of school because of the “wall of separation” between church and state.
That’s a common sentiment, but it’s just not correct. The “wall of separation” was a phrase Thomas Jefferson once used in a private letter—it was never written into the Constitution. And for nearly 200 years after the First Amendment was passed, public schools throughout America held daily prayers. Clearly, the Founders didn’t see that as a problem.
Of course, the Supreme Court eventually struck down school prayer in the 1960s—and many Americans protested. A year later, any Bible instruction whatsoever in public schools was struck down as unconstitutional.
But these rulings are not relevant to the new Bible literacy push. The proposals are clear: The biblical text would be taught only from a literary and historical perspective, not as holy writ.
Still, some are terrified by these state efforts.
The ACLU has lined up against them, as has Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Rachel Laser, president and CEO of the latter group, dismissed the bills as “[nothing] more than part of a scheme to impose Christian beliefs on public schoolchildren.”
But if Laser really opposed pushing beliefs on children, she would actually embrace the Bible literacy cause. This may in fact be the most promising proposal in years for restoring cultural understanding and national unity.
50 Years of Alienation
Ever since the early 1960s, when the Supreme Court kicked religion out of public schools, we’ve seen an increasing privatization of religion in America.
Many Americans now assume that religion is a private matter, something you do within the four walls of your church and your home. It has no part in politics, government, and certainly no part in public schools.
This arrangement was intended to make schools a more welcoming place for people who dissented from the majority religion, Christianity. Yet more than 50 years on, the result has not been more pluralism in our schools, but instead a functional embrace of secularism in the classroom and the public square more broadly.
There are many causes for this, but we cannot ignore the role of the classroom. The religion-free classroom has trained too many Americans to think of religion as an aberration from reason, a private option that doesn’t really make claims on the world around us. So religion has been ghettoized, and secularism has filled the void once occupied by a Judeo-Christian worldview.
That’s probably why biblical language in speeches by Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King sound so foreign to us, even quaint. To secular ears, religious language speaks of a time gone by, not of the world we live and act in now.
But this mindset didn’t come naturally. Rather, it had to be cultivated. Religion and religious texts were intentionally pushed out of public schools. This may have achieved some legitimate ends, but it has come at a higher cost than we bargained for.
Religion-free public school has left generations of kids without any exposure to religious worldviews, and this has sowed the seeds of alienation and misunderstanding between secular and religious Americans.
Consider, for instance, the media’s often tone-deaf coverage of religious people. When news broke that Karen Pence, wife of Vice President Mike Pence, had decided to teach at a Christian school that upholds traditional Christian sexual morality, the media responded as if she were teaching a class in flag-burning. The idea of a Christian school holding to traditional Christian teaching was considered abominable. Inconceivable.
Yet anyone with a passing familiarity with Christian teachings would have understood this school to be par for the course. The existence of a conservative Christian school shouldn’t be shocking. It’s actually old news. (Very old news, when you think of Harvard and Yale Universities—two of our oldest universities, both of which were founded as Christian institutions to educate ministers.)
Or consider how the media refers to evangelical Christians more in terms of a voting bloc than a theological camp. The New York Times writes of how evangelicals have reshaped American politics, but a recent study by Ligonier Ministries and Lifeway Research found that 52 percent of self-described evangelicals believe that most people are good by nature—a denial of one of the most basic evangelical teachings. So are the “evangelicals” cited by the Times truly evangelical? It’s not so clear.
As these examples show, the media have a hard time reporting on religion. One likely reason for this is that generations of Americans who were not brought up as religious have been completely cut off from the religious ideas that govern and motivate large sections of the country.
But in contrast, most religious young Americans will easily find themselves aware of the motivations and thinking of secular men and women, which dominate the media and our public school system, not to mention the universities.
Restoring Our Bonds
The state bills currently under consideration that would make Bible literacy classes available are an encouraging step forward—not just for religious education, but ultimately for national healing.
The ACLU and similar groups have nothing to worry about. Under these bills, the Bible would not be taught as authoritative or normative for life, as one would expect in a church. It would simply be used as primary source material to aid in education.
Knowing the Bible would also be an incredible help to students studying American history. It’s really impossible to appreciate American history without a working knowledge of Christianity’s core teachings, since Christianity informed America’s self-understanding going all the way back to the Mayflower.
But perhaps even more than knowing history, studying the Bible would give students a window into the belief systems of their fellow citizens—and this, in turn, could help restore a sense of mutual understanding. The alienation would begin to end.
This is no silver bullet for national harmony, but it just might facilitate the kind of mutual awareness and engagement that secularism has always promised us, yet always failed to deliver.