Bible courses in public schools appeared to get a high-visibility boost Monday when President Trump tweeted about a group of states proposing such classes. “Starting to make a turn back? Great!” he tweeted. As a Bible scholar, I’d join with the president in affirming the value of a good grasp of the Good Book.
But I can’t heartily endorse Trump’s tweet because its words reflect a deep misunderstanding about the way the Bible, in the present and the past, has been handled in public school.
In fact, the measures to which he seems to be referring, state-level bills promoting study of the Bible in public schools, aren’t new and aren’t necessary. It’s already legal to teach about the Bible in U.S. public schools, but the topic has been swallowed in recent decades by politics and culture war that blur that fact. What American public (or private) schoolchildren in 2019 desperately need is broad religious literacy. The backstory of the measures Trump cites, unfortunately, instead makes clear that our youths are sometimes being subjected more to culture war than cultural literacy.
A little history: Courses like the one Trump mentioned, focused on teaching the Christian and Jewish Bibles, have been around for a century, and in most states, at least some schools teach them. But even in their heyday, they were never omnipresent. The president’s expression of nostalgic longing (“Starting to turn back? Great!") reflects misconceptions of the Bible's historical role in the schoolhouse.
But perhaps that’s not a coincidence. The idea that a certain Christian-centric view of the Bible was always taught to American public schoolchildren until very recently feeds into a narrative of loss and restoration popular with his base.
His tweet comes in the midst of a nationwide choreographed effort by a segment of Trump’s base to promote religion in public schools and the public square. Project Blitz is an initiative sponsored by the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, the National Legal Foundation and the WallBuilders ProFamily Legislative Network, all religious-right groups. Project Blitz, which began around 2015, urges legislators to create bills calling for Bible courses alongside measures promoting use of the motto “In God We Trust,” declaring a “Christian Heritage Week” and “The Year of the Bible,” and limiting the civil rights of same-sex couples and transgender people.
Project Blitz materials are clear about its purpose: to reframe debates over religious liberty in ways that favor certain forms of socially and theologically conservative Christianity so that America can return to what blitzers consider to be its biblical roots. Bible bills drawn from the Project Blitz playbook are thus about something different from biblical literacy, which is what people like me want. They dovetail nicely with the call for Bible electives in the 2016 GOP national platform.
Several state bills introduced in this year’s legislative sessions are driven by this goal. Bible bills in Missouri, Virginia and West Virginia contain language that matches Project Blitz’s sample “Biblical Literacy Act” word for word. A bill in North Dakota is constructed differently, but the arguments of its primary sponsor, state Rep. Aaron McWilliams (R), reflect similar ideas. Appearing on “Fox & Friends” on Monday in a segment titled “States Introducing Bible Literacy Bills,” McWilliams erroneously claimed that America’s founders got the idea of having judges from no less a source than Moses.
Trump's tweet appeared shortly after the “Fox & Friends” segment.
But this year’s Bible bills are a continuation of a push that began in 2006 when Republicans and some Democrats decided that bills promoting Bible courses made for good politics. Legislators have introduced bills promoting Bible electives in nearly half of the U.S. states. Seven states (a good biblical number) passed those bills: Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas.
Because no state had previously had a statute calling for such courses, these developments are noteworthy. But it is important to keep them in perspective. Each of these states provides academic credit for Bible courses that are taken as either social studies or literature. None requires schools to offer them or students to take them. Other states have passed related legislation, such as allowing academic credit for Bible courses taken off-campus outside of school hours.
And most Bible course bills die without becoming law. That is what happened with McWilliams’s bill in North Dakota: His colleagues smote it with a 42-to-5 vote of rejection last week.
Of course the measures can be resurrected and introduced again. The list of states with laws on the books establishing these electives is small but steadily growing.
What makes such laws ironic — and signals perhaps more complex motives than merely increasing biblical literacy — is that they are not necessary for Bible courses to be constitutional. Courts have approved such classes as long as teachers present the material academically in ways that neither promote nor disparage religion in general or particular religious perspectives.
To go back a bit further, in history, the key ruling on this topic comes from the U.S. Supreme Court’s famous 1963 case, School District of Abington Township v. Schempp. Schempp prohibited school-led Bible reading, such as reading a certain number of verses each day over the intercom or in homeroom, rightly identifying it as a religious practice that violated the First Amendment’s prohibition of state-sponsored establishment of religion. Those who long to make the Bible the cornerstone of public education often claim that the 1963 ruling effectively banned the Bible from public education.
This is a myth.
Far from banning the Bible in public schools, Schempp explicitly endorsed studying about it in a nonsectarian, academic manner:
“It might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.”
The Supreme Court decision was thus a milestone of a different kind, signaling the end of a school-sponsored religious, devotional exercise but calling for a different kind of Bible study.
Some public schools had read the Bible to their captive audiences of youngsters since the 1800s, but the custom had never been universal and had often been controversial.
By the time of the Schempp decision, the ritual of school-led Bible reading was clearly on the decline. A survey by education professor Richard B. Dierenfield in his 1962 book “Religion in American Public Schools,” sent a few years before that decision to 4,000 schools, found that only about 42 percent of respondents read the Bible to their students, with tremendous variations across regions and between large and small towns.
That same survey also provided a fascinating snapshot of Bible courses. They had first appeared in public grade schools in the 1910s in conjunction with a new emphasis in both church and educational circles on religious education. Usually taught from an explicitly Christian perspective, these courses appeared in many districts across the country for the next three decades, though like Bible reading, they were never universal. If Trump’s tweet is intended to claim that Bible courses were once more popular than they are now, he has a point. But if it is intended to suggest that such courses were the norm, it is an exaggeration. In any case, by the late 1950s, only 4.5 percent of the schools surveyed still offered them. Contrary to the myth of the villainous Schempp decision, their popularity had already faded.
The courses never disappeared entirely, and in some states, such as North Carolina, they are fairly common. Some continue to reflect a bias toward certain forms of Christianity, whether intentionally or not. Others reflect the spirit of Schempp and succeed in presenting the material in an evenhanded, academic way. Multiple studies (including some I have written for the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund) have documented how challenging it is to meet the benchmark Schempp offers of an objective, secular presentation of material.
In courses that meet that standard, students might read Genesis from a literary perspective and compare its creation stories with those of other ancient Near Eastern societies. In those that fall short, students might learn that dinosaurs were Adam and Eve’s playmates, as reportedly happened recently in a West Virginia course.
The reality is that all along there have also been public school educators teaching about religion, with the goal of creating religiously literate Americans who are prepared to engage with the world.
Several contemporary groups, some of which I am a part, have developed resources to help students get it right, such as the Society of Biblical Literature, the American Academy of Religion, the Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum Institute, the Religious Literacy Project and the Pluralism Project at Harvard University, and the National Council for the Social Studies.
What all of those groups seem to agree on is that the goal of religious literacy should not be a return to some mythical past or the creation of a present that privileges certain religious groups above others, the driving motivation of Project Blitz and some of the Bible bills. In a pluralistic democracy and an age of globalization, students and citizens need familiarity not only with sacred texts but also with other expressions of religion, and not only with those religions grounded in the Bible but also with the world’s other great traditions. Students also need an understanding that, contrary to Project Blitz, religious freedom means equal respect for the religious and nonreligious alike. This movement may be less politically oriented than the Project Blitz types, but it is active, influential and growing.
The bottom line is: New Bible bills are not needed for teachers to incorporate more study of religion into their classrooms. Many are already doing so, and they can use our support. Perhaps the next presidential tweet will be about them.
Mark Chancey is a religious studies professor at the Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences at Southern Methodist University. He has published research about problems with the legality of public school Bible courses.
correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the name of the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation.