Teaching the Bible in US Schools


I came across a very interesting article in TIME magazine online. It’s about the teaching of secular classes on the Bible in US schools. I’ve included some edited snippets below. Read the full text at

The author of the piece is David Van Biema, TIME’s senior religion writer.


Not 20 ft. away sat a blond atheist who asked that her name not be used because she hasn’t outed herself to her parents. Why take a Bible class? I asked her. “Some of my friends are Christian,” she said, shrugging, “and they would argue about, like, whether you can be a Christian and believe in evolution, and I’m like, Okaaaay … clueless.”

Williams signed up for a similar reason. “If somebody is going to carry on a sophisticated conversation with me, I would rather know what they’re talking about than look like a moron or fight my way through it,” she says. The class has “gotten a lot of positive feedback,” she adds. “It’s going to really rise in popularity.”

Polls suggesting that over 60% of Americans favor secular teaching about the Bible. It is argued that teaching the Bible in schools–as an object of study, not God’s received word–is eminently constitutional. The Bible so pervades Western culture that it’s hard to call anyone educated who hasn’t at least given thought to its key passages. The current civic climate makes it a “now more than ever” proposition.

Is it constitutional? Marc Stern, general counsel for the American Jewish Congress, says that for over a decade, any legal challenges to school Bible courses have focused not on the general principle but on whether the course in question was sufficiently neutral in its approach.

According to Religious Literacy, polls show that nearly two-thirds of Americans believe the Bible holds the answers to “all or most of life’s basic questions,” but pollster George Gallup has dubbed us “a nation of biblical illiterates.” Only half of U.S. adults know the title of even one Gospel. Most can’t name the Bible’s first book. The trend extends even to Evangelicals, only 44% of whose teens could identify a particular quote as coming from the Sermon on the Mount.

SIMPLY PUT, THE BIBLE IS THE MOST influential book ever written. Not only is the Bible the best-selling book of all time, it is the best-selling book of the year every year.

According to one estimate, Shakespeare alludes to Scripture some 1,300 times. As for the rest of literature, when your seventh-grader reads The Old Man and the Sea, a teacher could tick off the references to Christ’s Passion–the bleeding of the old man’s palms, his stumbles while carrying his mast over his shoulder, his hat cutting his head.

If literature doesn’t interest you, you also need the Bible to make sense of the ideas and rhetoric that have helped drive U.S. history. “The shining city on the hill”? That’s Puritan leader John Winthrop quoting Matthew to describe his settlement’s convenantal standing with God. In his Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln noted sadly that both sides in the Civil War “read the same Bible” to bolster their opposing claims.

When Martin Luther King Jr. talked of “Justice rolling down like waters” in his “I Have a Dream” speech, he was consciously enlisting the Old Testament prophet Amos, who first spoke those words. The Bible provided the argot–and theological underpinnings–of women’s suffrage and prison-reform movements.

Recently, the Democratic Party seems to have come around to the realization that a lot of grass-roots Democrats welcome use of Bible rhetoric in speeches.

Evangelical pundit Chuck Colson favors Bible-literacy courses. “Would I prefer a more explicitly biblical Christian teaching?” he asks. “Of course. But you can’t do that in public education. What you can do is introduce the Bible so that people are aware of its impact on people and in history and then let God speak through it as he will.”

The American Jewish Congress’s Stern, who has participated in Supreme Court establishment-clause-violation cases, sees Bible class as a plus for anyone following in his footsteps. “Take creationism,” he offers. “Unless you are literate in the first two chapters of Genesis, you have no idea what people are fighting about. People are tired of the culture wars. There’s a broad middle who want to do something productive.”

The author visited New Braunfels high in early February. Jennifer Kendrick is a conservative Protestant. But her students don’t know that, and nothing in the class I saw suggested it.

Kendrick aces the compulsories–notes John Locke’s use of the Beatitudes and Frank Zappa’s riffs on “the meek shall inherit the earth,” and ponders why various politicians have found it more convenient to attribute the “city on a hill” to Winthrop rather than to Matthew.

When a student asks how Jesus could say the meek shall inherit the earth, when Christianity inherited it only after attaining tremendous strength, she suggests, “When he was giving the sermon, people took it not just as a physical award but an emotional or spiritual kind of award. Later on, when they became more powerful, say, in the Crusades or something, they weren’t trying to inherit the earth. They were trying to take it over.”

Explaining why Jesus’ famous sermon took place on a mount, she reminds the students that Matthew was writing for Jews, and a mount is where Moses received the Ten Commandments. “So, supposedly,” she says, “Jesus is the new covenant, the new law, for the Jewish people.”

She gives over much of the class to a Socratic symposium on Jesus’ simplest yet most difficult sayings, which reveals a lot about the class’s earnest attempts to make sense of rather disparate worlds.

“‘Turn the other cheek’–Does that mean we’re supposed to let them hit you on the other cheek too?” she asks. A boy answers, “You should, you know, just take what’s coming. It’s not like if someone hits you. If someone doesn’t give you the right change back, you shouldn’t come back looking for a fight.” A girl argues that it is more of an ideal than a mandate. “So it’s a guideline,” asks Kendrick, “and you apply it to the situation and see what fits?”

This, in turn, upsets a girl in the third row, who asks, “Does that mean that the Ten Commandments are exceptions?”

Kendrick: “That they’re literal?”

Everyone: “Yes!”

Trying to make sense of both this consensus and his possible future, an ROTC cadet notes, “Some people say, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ is really ‘Thou shalt not murder,’ and in Ecclesiastes it says, ‘There’s a time for war and a time for peace.'”

And, oh yes, there should be one faith test. Faith in our country. Sure, there will be bumps along the way. But in the end, what is required in teaching about the Bible in our public schools is patriotism: a belief that we live in a nation that understands the wisdom of its Constitution clearly enough to allow the most important book in its history to remain vibrantly accessible for everyone.


You can see also an update on the teaching of the Bible at Bible Textbook Approved in Alabama, USA.

7 Responses to “Teaching the Bible in US Schools”

  1. shane zucker Says:

    how about a comparitive religion class. dont you think this is more integral to the current affairs of the world and would serve the better purpose of attaining the goals of tolerance, respect and understanding. yes, the bible is important and influential but works from the other religions are obviously just as impactful and influential in the bigger picture.

  2. Charles R. Donaldson Says:

    Your article did not say which Bible would be taught. King James version might be okay for some but many would find this version deficient. Ethopians have 81 books which most of us will not accept as holy. The point is that what ever version of the Bible you select, you will have people who will object.

    What about the Islam? Qur’an and the Sharia should be included.
    We have many from the Far East so the books Buddhist books, the Vinaya Pitaka, the Sūtra Pitaka and the Abhidharma Pitaka should be studied. These groups are now contributing to our modern historical development.

    Also, the Book of Mormon is the most American of all religious books so it should be taught.

    Please do not try to give interpretation since there are hundreds of interpretations. Further, the high school teachers probably are not trained to do this. Recently I found a problem in the book of Philippians where the word is “rubbish” but in Greek it means “excrement”.

    When I see attempts to put the Bible in public school, I see efforts to back door the teaching of religion. Those who do this are the ones who see the Bible as the only source of faith. Unfortunately, many of us do not agree and if you are teaching religion you need to teach more than just the Bible no matter which version you select.

    If you want to read the Bible, go to any hotel and read it. There is usually a copy in the bedside table.

    Now what really bothers me is that 20% of our population is unable to read a menu and could not read the Bible, the Qua’ran or any other holy book.

  3. Scott Thong Says:

    Dudes, dudes… Uh, I’m not in charge of the education system. I’m not even an American. I’m just reporting what I read in the TIMES article. Which if you read the entirety of, btw, you’d see that a comparative religions class is one thing the author recommends.

    The class is not mandatory, rather it is an elective – the kids going to those classes WANT to learn about more the Bible, they aren’t being FORCED to. It’s like a free tuition class, ok?

    If you want my opinion, right now there is one religion that dominates every classroom, is taught as the only truth and only fact, and is compulsory if students want to be accepted into the mainstream.

    It is the belief system of naturalism, Darwinism and humanism. They have their own set of creeds like any spiritual religion. The difference is it is taught as logical and reasonable, while spiritual faiths are shoved into the ‘philosophy’ and ‘superstition’ section.

    Christianity says that God is in charge of the universe, that God created life, and that humans are subject to God’s rules for living. As opposed to that, the liberal school system teaches that only natural forces run the universe, that life evolved from nonliving chemicals, and that humans are free to do whatever they like.

    So yes, teaching comparative religion is a good idea. And offering Bible classes as an elective is just the first step in promoting alternatives to atheism.

  4. Ken Keeton Says:

    I do not see why my tax dollars should go towards teaching religion in public schools… if these people want to learn about religion then find another source. Public school is there to educate our children on reading, writing and arithmetic. I am a Deist, therefore any teaching of a revealed religion in public school offends me greatly. I believe that Christianity or any other revealed religion are dysfunctional and are at the root of many problems in the world.

    The founding fathers put separation of church and state in the framework of our government for a very good reason. One is tyranny of the majority. They understood the dangers involved when you ignore the rights of minorities or individuals.

    The majority of Americans are Christians, but there are over 100 million Americans who have other beliefs. Included in this group are those of us who are opposed to having our children exposed to any revealed religion until our kids have become adults and have the necessary judgment to make up their own minds.

    Personally, I would not want any children of mine to be Christians, Muslim, etc… I would want my children to be agnostic free thinkers, and until they left the home, I would shield them as much as possible from any revealed religion.

  5. Scott Thong Says:

    Ken, the US education initiative is merely an elective, and a taking a secular view at that. Its role is to offer an OPTION to students to learn just what makes those ‘dysfunctional’ people act the way they do.

    I wholeheartedly agree with you that no child should be automatically indoctrined and swallowed up into a religion. They should be given the chance to choose their own beliefs, be it theistic or atheistic belief.

    However, I also feel that parents have some right to encourage (some would say, influence) their own children regarding their beliefs. You could say it’s unavoidable: If the parents practise Christian or liberal values in the home, the children will be exposed to those values.

    And after all, it’s the same with all the rest of the parents’ (non-religious) philosophical leanings: Children growing up in a home with smokers have a higher tendency to become smokers, those with a feminism activist mother will be exposed to feminism from an early age. It’s practically impossible for children to grow up completely without any outside influences whatsoever.

    And in your own case, wouldn’t your own children be influenced by your wanting them to have agnostic free thinking? Could this upbringing skew their worldviews through to adulthood, when they are supposed to make their own free-from-outside-interference choice?

    Or do you feel that the philosophy ‘there isn’t enough information to make an informed choice about God’ is the most neutral? (I myself prefer to go for the most factually true, which is why I’m still a Christian despite having a skeptical mind and scientific training.)

    Would it be fair to say that in all likelihood, your children will have 18 years of influence towards becoming agnostic free thinkers? Is this really any less indoctrinating than sending kids to Sunday school?

    On free thinking, as I like to say: “I think freely, but I’m not a Free Thinker”. That is to say, my mind is very open to all ideas, but after scrutinizing and weighing them I am not convincingly persuaded to reject my revealed religion. And not all Free Thinkers have a free mind, if they dogmatically reject any form of religion.

    In my opinion, true freedom of thought is the ability to learn about the different choices and make an informed, intelligent decision of your own.

    I thus personally feel that many so-called Christians are merely nominal, never having actually thought or made a personal decision about their declared faith. How many of these ‘Christians’ regularly go to church, know and follow what Jesus taught or put God’s will above their own whims? Like the TIMES article says, many do not even know their own Divine Constitution, the Bible.

    The majority of Americans are therefore actually non-religious. Is it tyranny then, when the majority (who believe that evolution is real) force the minority (who believe that evolution isn’t proven) to learn about Darwin’s naturlistic philosophy in schools? In EVERY school, MANDATORILY. Don’t you think it offends theistic parents when their children are indoctrined with atheistic views, as sanctioned by law?

    It’s such a simple yet brutally efficient tactic. When anything that doesn’t agree with naturalistic or humanistic views shows up, label it ‘religious’ and ‘infringing on the separation of church and state’ and get it thrown out. Is it any wonder then that religious believers counter-accuse that the liberal worldview is itself dogmatic enough to be a religion? Just because there is no god in there doesn’t mean it’s not a religion (as Buddhism shows).

    And finally, I personally believe that wilfull human sin and selfishness are the true root of all problems in the world. When man is given complete freedom and mandate to do as he pleases, he shows just how ‘wise’ and ‘humane’ he is.

    To wit: Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Pol Pot, Ho Chi Minh, Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il. Each of these atheists believed that man is his own god and lived by his own rules. They rejected any concept of a higher authority that they could be held accountable to.

    Can revealed (theistic) religion therefore be blamed for their combined oppression of millions? That in one century slaughtered more people than all the victims of all organized religions for the preceding history of civilization?

    Christianity puts limits and gives guideline on what we can and cannot do. So at least when a self-professed Christian commits heinous acts in the name of God (such as launching an Inquisition), we can say that he is wrong and not following what Jesus taught. (I cannot speak for other religions on this matter.)

    But when an atheist persecutes others because he says only he himself can choose his own standards of right and wrong, we can only congratulate him on his correct doctrine.

  6. James Says:

    I dont see a problem with discussing the bible, so long as the discussion is balanced. I think the bible, particularly the old test. contradicts itself…I particularly like an open letter to Dr. Laura that was written a while ago. Dr. Laura Schlessinger is a radio personality who
    dispenses advice to people who call in to her radio
    show. Recently, she said that homosexuality is an abomination
    according to Leviticus 18:22 and cannot be condoned
    under any circumstance. The following is an open
    letter to Dr. Laura penned by an east coast resident,
    which was posted on the Internet. It’s funny, as well
    as informative:

    Dear Dr. Laura:

    Thank you for doing so much to educate people
    regarding God’s Law. I have learned a great deal from
    your show, and try to share that knowledge with as
    many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the
    homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind
    them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an
    abomination. End of debate. I do need some advice from
    you, however, regarding some of the other specific
    laws and how to follow them:

    When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know
    it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord – Lev.1:9. The
    problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not
    pleasing to them. Should I smite them?

    I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as
    sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what
    do you think would be a fair price for her?

    I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while
    she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness –
    Lev.15:19- 24. The problem is, how do I tell? I have
    tried asking, but most women take offense.

    Lev. 25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves,
    both male and female, provided they are purchased from
    neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this
    applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you
    clarify? Why can’t I own Canadians?

    I have a neighbor who insists on working on the
    Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put
    to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?

    A friend of mine feels that even though eating
    shellfish is an abomination – Lev. 11:10, it is a
    lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don’t agree.
    Can you settle this?

    Lev. 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of
    God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit
    that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be
    20/20, or is there some wiggle room here?

    Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed,
    including the hair around their temples, even though
    this is expressly forbidden by Lev. 19:27. How should
    they die?

    I know from Lev. 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a
    dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play
    football if I wear gloves?

    My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev. 19:19 by
    planting two different crops in the same field, as
    does his wife by wearing garments made of two
    different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He
    also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really
    necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the
    whole town together to stone them? – Lev.24:10-16.
    Couldn’t we just burn them to death at a private
    family affair like we do with people who sleep with
    their in-laws? (Lev. 20:14)

    I know you have studied these things extensively, so I
    am confident you can help. Thank you again for
    reminding us that God’s word is eternal and unchanging

  7. Scott Thong Says:

    Hi James. Thanks for brining that up and inspiring me to post a full article response here:

    On the supposed contradictions in the Old Testament, could you give more specific examples? For example, the different total number of Israelites counted, or to do with Mosaic laws?

    I’d also like to note… Society today is as bad as it is partly due to much laxer laws. For example, serial rapists are released on parole, only to immediately return to their old ways. Murderers can slaughter whole families, but avoid the death penalty and live off taxpayers’ money for the next 50 years. And he gets lots of comforts in prison due to ‘human rights.’

    I suppose it’s a case of choosing forgiveness over vengeance. But sometimes it feels more like a miscarriage of justice where the criminal’s rights are upheld over the rights of his victims and the greater good of society.

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