Bible in Public Schools?

Jonathan Merritt says No, what say You?

On Sunday night, the long awaited mini-series “The Bible” premiered on the History Channel. Produced by reality TV mogul Mark Burnett of “Survivor” fame and former “Touched by an Angel” star Roma Downey in an effort to dramatize key stories from Scripture, the series is already being embraced by Christians nationwide. After all, when is the last time “Hagar” was trending on twitter?

Two days before the first episode aired, however, the couple penned a controversial opinion column in The Wall Street Journal titled, “Why Public Schools Should Teach the Bible.” They argued that public schools should encourage or perhaps mandate teaching courses on the sacred book. This should apparently top the list of priorities in a time when America’s educational system is faced with depleting resources and failing to keep up with the rest of the world’s students.

Christian pastors and leaders in social media lauded Burnett and Downey’s article as wise and appropriate. And while the timing of publication could not have been more perfect—the article reads like a thinly veiled marketing piece with a commercial for the television show inserted as the seventh paragraph—the  arguments are worth considering.

Should Christians support teaching the Bible in America’s public schools?

The answer as I see it is a resounding “no” and not because I don’t agree with some of Burnett and Downey’s reasoning. Yes, the Bible has been a primary document of Western civilization. Yes, it is bursting with widely applicable wisdom and knowledge. But, no, Christians should still not support it being taught in public schools….

Do the Christians crying for a reintroduction of Bible courses want their children taught, for example, that the creation account in Genesis is little more than pretty poetry? It’s safe to assume they do not. But most haven’t thought this deeply about the issue.

Conservative Christians should know better than to advocate for such courses. After all, they have long decried the well-documented “liberalizing effect” of public college and universities who offer similar courses. Many conservative Christians leave home for college, take an introduction to religion course, and return with an entirely different worldview than their parents hold. Do they want the same experience with their seventh graders?…

But if those conservatives who advocate for such a shift in public education get their way—and it is admittedly an unlikely scenario at best—it will likely be another case of getting what they want and then not wanting what they get. By advocating for teaching the bible in schools, Christians are unwittingly lobbying for something they could never accept. They think they want it, but they really don’t.

As a lifelong evangelical, I’ve experienced firsthand the value of Biblical literacy. But in the end, this sacred text is best encountered where it can be taught according to the beliefs of individual faith communities. In homes and houses of worship, and for the next nine Sundays, on the History Channel.

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  • fb

    Dr. McKnight — I respect your opinion on this, but disagree. It’s not that I trust a public school teacher to faithfully teach the Bible to my kids; I don’t. That’s my wife’s and my responsibility, as well as our church community’s. But exposing the students to the ubiquity of the Bible in literature and culture and giving them some familiarity with main stories and ideas that come from it is a matter of EDUCATION, not a matter of religious education. It’s simply ridiculous that American school children learn a religionless history of the world and of the U.S. and that they learn nothing of how the Bible and Christianity have shaped western culture. As Downey and Burnett pointed out in the op-ed piece, so much of literature draws on it. How can students (or teachers, for that matter) rightly read those texts without some knowledge of the referent?

    As for your warning about getting what we want and not wanting what we get, I think it not too likely that we’ll face that scenario, as there is nothing I’ve seen in public education that seems to be trending that way. But if it did happen, it’s really no different than how we handle what our kids learn about history or for some of us, science. I wanted my kids exposed to the dominant cultural teachings. But we taught our kids to be critical and analytical — to ask questions and to read outside so that they could interact in a constructive way with what they’re hearing. They learned to be respectful of their teachers, but not passive receivers of whatever was being taught. Does that make sense?

  • fb

    Oops — just realized that’s likely Jonathan Merritt’s opinion, not yours. So, what is your opinion? 🙂

  • Robin

    I agree that I don’t want the bible taught in public schools, but then I have a problem with any teaching of ethics in public schools. We are just going to trade biblical ethics for whatever is in fashion with the majority currently. This is probably the main reason I prefer the private or homeschool options.

  • Ed Holm

    I have no problem teaching any significant writing that has affected world historical event. I suspect that the intention of much of this is not history unless you consider a 6-day creation to be history in the same sense as Will Durrant, not to mention raising the issues of at least 2 contradicting creation stories and different days for the death of Jesus in the Gospels etc. I suspect if “significant effect” is the justification for putting books in the curriculum “Mein Kampf” and “Mao’s Little Red Book” ought to pose problems as required reading for our students.

  • Clay Knick

    The first thing we need to do is teach the Bible in the church!

  • A Medrano

    Here’s the problem with those who advocate bible being taught in public schools; what about people of other religious backgrounds? I believe that if the bible should be brought in, then bring in the Quran and other religious texts as well. If one has a problem with that, then don’t advocate sacred texts to be taught in public schools. Or, have your kids attend a private school. But, here’s the bigger issue: are these who advocate the bible taught in schools teaching their children while at home?

  • Tim Hallman

    TIME magazine republished their original March 1923 edition. A fascinating read of American life in that week. A small piece of news included removal of teaching the Bible in public schools. I believe it was Kansas that was the center of that debate. 1923! The same issue applies now as it did then: Which interpretation will prevail amongst Christians? Will it be a Catholic or Protestant flavor? Or mainline Protestant or fundamentalist Evangelical? Or will it be taught with disdain by a New Athiest sympathizer? Keep the Bible out of public education! Instead, support the missional work of Christian public school teachers who bring the Word of God to students through their life and attitude.

  • Stephen Prothero has argued for the teaching of religion and the Bible specifically in public school since religion plays such an important role in human life. The problem that continually crops up is that some want it taught in objective fashion — as culture and literature — but others want it to be taught from a faith specific perspective. That’s where the problems come in. Although I’m a Christian (I’m a left-of-center pastor), I really don’t want it taught from an ideological perspective. I don’t want Genesis 1 taught as an alternative to science. At the same time, I don’t want it taught from the perspective of Richard Dawkins, who sees it all as the same as “fairiology.” So how do we teach it in a way that we can all affirm?

    Think it’s easy — well remember that in many places in the South they teach Civil War History as the “War of Northern Aggression.” That rubs me wrong as well!!

  • As a ninth grade english teacher in a public school I can tell you this. The Bible is already taught in public schools. How do you teach Lord of the Flies or any Shakesperean text without talking about the Biblical references. How do you teach what a hero journey is without talking about Job, and Jesus. You know why it is hard to teach the Bible in my classroom? The evangelical kids. (I say this as an evangelical.) They have been taught they have to DEFEND the Bible and make sure everyone knows it is THE TRUTH. So, I have to constantly battle them if I want to teach it in a literary context. I too believe it is the truth, and I trust that the truth stands and defends itself. My friend teaches history and dreads the world religion unit because the evangelical kids are so obnoxious about representing Jesus beyond a historical context.

  • Merritt missed one other point (though it’s understandable from a timeline standpoint, as he probably wrote this before reactions to the first episode came out). Many conservative (and even some not-so-conservative) Christians are giving the mini-series a “meh” at best. If Roma and Mark — who I assume are trying to be faithful to the text — can’t get it right (however you define “right”), what are the odds that the agnostic middle school teacher will do better?

  • “. . . the creation account in Genesis is little more than pretty poetry?” The author, here, is concerned about a reductionist view of Genesis. Rightly so, for this reductionism is prevelent in our society (and therefore in our public schools). I think this philosophy (let’s call it philosophical materialism) it ought to be resisted. The problem is, Christian’s can’t resist it when they participate in it. The same philosophy that reduces Genesis to mere poetry is the same one that reduced poetry to mere pretty words. In my writing, I am trying to show that the Christian mind is not an oxymoron. The problem is that there is so much evidence to the contrary.

    In case I am still not being clear: there are several places in the Bible where profound Truth is communicated with poetry–or what some would call “pretty words”; sometimes through story (less pretty words?); sometimes through reporting events (least pretty words). Put these in order of their ability to communicate transcendent truths about Reality–God, sin, human identity, freewill, etc. Poetry wins, especially if it’s inspired.

  • Clay Knick

    Abby, that’s a great point. I think the way you’re handling this is superb. Context is the key. Too bad we’ve taught our youth to defend the Bible rather than let it speak.

    My point above is that we need to teach the Bible in the church. There is pressure to teach a lot of good things: finances, parenting, family life, singles, divorced, recovery, and a host of other things, but the Bible gets lost in that. Individual verses, maybe a chapter here and there, but the scripture serves the topic. What is missing is a way of teaching the Bible in the church that is comprehensive. In the UMC one of the things that has opened many eyes is Disciple Bible Study. This is a nine month study that takes readers through most of the Bible from Gen. to Rev.

    I don’t think teaching the Bible in public school like we would like it taught in the church is the solution. Something will be left out.

  • eliza

    I think it’s a great idea to teach the bible in school. My brother took a class in our public school back in the 80’s called the bible as literature and it was taught by this wise old lady, literally 80 years old and he learned so much. Did it strengthen his faith, maybe stretched it. But we as highschoolers thought it was great that the bible we learn in church was being considered a literary document in our worlds, school, and respect and even maybe authority was given to it. No the school will not teach the interpretation of what we will apply from the scripture to our religion and life choices as christians being it catholic or protestent but it will expose the word of the lord to the people and that is always good. I think it’s a wonderful idea.

  • Bill

    I don’t feel the Bible is taught in many churches. Selected verses are used to bolster views of preachers, priests and religious groups. I don’t think the Bible should be taught in public schools except in religion classes. I agree with Scot.

  • If students were exposed to the Bible in public schools, they might understand the roots of their culture better. Where human rights originated, and the environmental movement, and self sacrificing hero, the dignity of every human being, and the idea of One God, and linear history. They might discover a name for the sense of longing for meaning that they experience. Still, I suppose it’s better we don’t expose children to such ideas. The risk of a humanbeing distorting the absolute and transcendental Truth of the Bible, is too great.

  • TJJ

    To grow up in the U.S. and not know the basic themes and major stories of the Bible is to have a large cultural/literary blind spot. It is silly and myopic over reaction to say there should be no exposure to the Bible on a literary basis in public schools. Do we also not teach the Reformation, the Great Awakening, stop reading the Scarlet Letter, ?

  • I am a public high school teacher. As an evangelical and a seminary grad I concur and see in my own classroom exactly what Abby brings up in her literature class. I teach AP Human Geography and we have an entire unit on religion. It doesn’t go over well for the religiously fundamentalist kids. It seems to me in my 9 years of teaching and my own personal journey through grad school that there is no possible way that an untrained non-Christian high school teacher can properly contextualize the Bible so that it can be understood for how it was meant to be understood. I have to do a considerable amount of deconstruction of presuppositions and directly challenge their youthful hubris for what they think they know already in order to simply lay some basic groundwork for reading properly, learning properly and understanding well. I find that teaching them how to think in they way of the author is incredibly new, challenging and nearly impossible for them. They don’t know how to take themselves out of the center of the text no matter if its a literary work or the Word of God. It’s no wonder why since from their early years they have been taught that their own opinions are important and that knowledge and truth can be found in the shallowest and shortest amount of information. The Bible is not necessarily taught in other classes, but Christianity is. In order for the Bible to be taught properly and with an orthodox perspective not only does the curriculium need to be understood in the proper context of the purpose of scripture but the name of the course would need to be understood that way as well. As it is I disagree with the suggestions for teaching the Bible as a literary course in public high school because of the teachers, the curriculium developers and the students, none of these have the ability to present the scriptures as they should be seen; the authoritative word of God. I’m against it unless the schools, teachers and students begin to recognize posture of submission to the scriptures instead of another way to soften the biblical narrative, criticize it or try to find some gnostic meaning that matches the latest cultural trend. Sorry, I can’t support it either.

  • Edward Vos

    Teaching faith is different then teaching the Bible. You can teach about the Bible without teaching faith. Those that are receptive to faith will automatically be drawn to the truths of the Bible and have nothing to fear. Shame on us Christians who think God can’t use the Bible in a public setting to show non-Christians the history of His love for us. God has use prostitutes to promote his will, so what are we afraid of.

    Teaching faith should be the responsibility of the Church and the Home not a public school. Therefore I have no problem with teaching the Bible in a public school since you are teaching history and literature that have greatly impacted western thought. Who knows you could be sewing the seed for someone to become faithful later in life!

  • Mark h

    Couldn’t agree more with Clay, #5 and #12. When many pastors have a difficult time articulating scripture week in and week out, I’m not sure i want to give interpretive license to mostly state-educated teachers (not intended to be offensive for some).

    Allow the schools to be about reading, math, and science, which is why they are there, and our houses of worship about proclaiming the Word. We can’t even agree on what that means, can we?

  • Andrew

    #3: Robin, I don’t know of any public high schools that teach an “ethics” course. Many schools are barely able to afford or are cutting gym and even social studies to focus on standardized test material; forget an ethics course!
    Also please #4, show me which public high school teachers made “The Little Red Book” or Mein Kampf required reading . . maybe a couple did out of the country’s thousands.

    All of the comments here are presuming the students are Christian or formerly Christian. If a class is majority Muslim, should they be able to teach the Koran?
    The comments alone show that, beyond the clearly defined constitutional issues, no-one would ever be able to agree on how the Bible would be taught even if it was permitted. File this under “never going to happen” and move on.

  • Patrick

    This idea is as backwards from a Christian perspective as the idea of Caesar sustaining us with various provisions or Caesar’s interests and use of killing to advance them being God’s interests and desires.

    When the church “gets” that Caesar is not God or His people or agent for anything past crime prevention, the church probably is wiser for it.

  • Robin


    replace “ethics” with “values” and you might see my point more clearly. I don’t want my kids getting their education about “values” from public high school teachers, whether we are discussing the morality of various marriage arrangements, or the moral implications of capitalism and marxism. I don’t trust the public schools to impart values to my children and if we explicitly allowed biblical education that would be unavoidable.