Last week President Trump, in a tweet, hailed the fact that a number of states are introducing bills to legalize the study of the Bible in public schools. To an extent, I agree with him: there is nothing wrong with the desire to teach the Bible in public schools. This statement may come as a surprise, coming from a Humanist and an atheist, but it really isn’t that unusual. The Bible is one of the most influential and important cultural documents in history, and guides the daily lives of billions around the globe. It is cited and references endlessly in literature, films, music, philosophical writing, and other cultural products. Christian institutions play an enormously significant role in American public life. All of this is much harder to understand if you have no knowledge of the Bible, and if one of the roles of public education is to empower young people to be thoughtful, knowledgeable, and critical participants in world culture, then some knowledge of the Bible is essential.
I came to appreciate this more deeply when I worked for some time as a high school teacher of English. My passion was introducing young people to literature, particularly the greats like Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Milton. I discovered again and again that it was impossible for my students to mine the rich veins of literary allusion present in texts like these if they had no knowledge of the Bible. Nor was it possible for them to grasp the cultural context in which these authors wrote without some understanding of the religious beliefs many people held at the time. Learning about the Bible can be a profoundly empowering experience, and I wouldn’t want to prevent any young person from enjoying that.
However, the bills Trump hails in his tweet have little to do with empowering young people, and much more to do with promoting Christian dominance in the USA. It is in fact already legal to teach the Bible in the way I have described – as a cultural and historic document which adds to students’ general knowledge of world culture and which enriches their appreciation of the religious beliefs of many. Contrary to much conservative scaremongering, the Bible is not banned in public schools (nor is prayer – another favorite lie of would-be theocrats). As long as they ensure their teaching is objective and secular – not based on promoting one religion over others, or religion in general – schools can teach students about the Bible (and about other religious texts) perfectly happily, and no legislation is required to enable them to do so.
What public schools cannot do – and what they should never do – is try to indoctrinate young people into a particular religious faith, using the resources of the government to push sectarian religious views. This would be a monstrous example of government overreach, an imposition on the religious freedom of every school-going child in America. Such would be the behavior of a religious dictatorship like Iran, not that of a free nation.
The bills currently being considered by legislators across the USA (handily summarized by the American Humanist Association’s Emily Newman here), which seek to “make it legal” to teach the Bible in public schools, are therefore largely unnecessary: the sort of academic, elective, nonreligious courses on bible study most of them promote are allowed already. So why are they being promoted so vigorously? Because they aren’t really about promoting secular study of the Bible for general educational benefit: they are about making public schools into Christian spaces which guide children into Christianity.
We know this because the lobbies which are pushing these bills have tipped their hand in some of them: some seek to explicitly legalize the teaching of creationism, while others do not spell out that the courses must be objective, fact-based, and essentially secular. Furthermore, many of the bills use language crafted by the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, an organization seeks to “Keep Faith in America.” Their chosen tactics are transparent: put “One Nation Under God” everywhere, including in public school classrooms, on courtrooms, and in other public institutions, and promote these “teach the Bible” bills in legislatures across the country – even though their own website recognizes that the right of public schools to teach the Bible in a secular was is already protected by law:
Schools may teach about religion, including the Bible or other scripture, the history of religion, the Bible-as-literature, and the role of religion in the United States and other countries. Schools are to be neutral with respect to religion. However, they may play an active role with respect to teaching civic values and virtue, and the moral code that holds us together as a community. – Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation
If the CPCF itself admits that these bills are unnecessary, why is it promoting them? Because they are one step in the organization’s plan to increasingly impose a conservative interpretation of Christianity on the nation (this is made utterly explicit in the document from which language for some of these bills was drawn, which can be read here).
Don’t fall for it. The United States should be proud of creating a nation which welcomes people of many different religious beliefs, and of achieving decent levels of tolerance for many religious groups. Our task now is to improve on our commitment to religious freedom, by ensuring that all people have the right to choose their own religious path – not to diminish our commitment to freedom by embracing Christian hegemony.