Constitutional Literacy: Why American Schools Don't Need Bible Classes

Church & State, May 2007 | Go to article overview

Constitutional Literacy: Why American Schools Don't Need Bible Classes


The campaign to institute Bible classes in public schools is picking up steam.

Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero has thrown gasoline on the fire with the publication of his recent book Religious Literary: What Every American Needs to Know--and Doesn't. In the book, Prothero asserts that classes on the Bible should be mandatory in American high schools. David Van Biema, a Time magazine religion writer, endorsed the idea, although he stopped short of saying the classes should be mandatory.

Prothero is getting a bit of a media buzz. He has placed op-eds here and there and even appeared on Oprah Winfrey's program to plug his book. Legislatures in at least five states, Texas being the largest, are considering classes about the Bible. Legislation has already passed in Georgia.

It's time to slow down and take a look at some hard questions this approach raises.

First off, there is no such thing as "the Bible." Rather, there are translations of that work--lots of them. Most people know there are differences between the Bibles used by Protestants and Catholics. That's just the beginning. Christians use many different translations. One online site listed more than 100 different translations in English alone. The differences among these versions are not minor, as some might argue. People quibble over every word and feel strongly about the accuracy of one translation over others. Which version are we to use in public schools?

The number of Bible translations should not surprise anyone. There are, after all, many variations of Christianity. The Web site www.adherents.com, quoting a 2001 edition of the Worm Christian Encyclopedia, claims there are more than 33,000 denominations of Christianity worldwide.

To be fair, we should point out that many of these groups are small splinter spin-offs of larger bodies. The fact that such splintering occurs as frequently as it does underscores the point that people feel passionately about faith and the holy books that they believe support their beliefs.

We cannot simply gloss over this issue and pretend that it won't be relevant. In fact, our country has a long history of arguing about the Bible and how it ought to be used in public schools. This issue sparked violence between Catholics and Protestants in some parts of the country in the mid 19th century. Some state supreme courts, noting the infighting, blocked public schools from using the Bible in a devotional manner prior to the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark ruling in this area in 1963.

But even that hasn't stopped the squabbling. Debates about how to teach even supposedly objective courses drag on. The North Carolina-based National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools is offering a curriculum that Americans United argues is best left in a conservative Sunday School. …

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