Teaching tool

Schools should teach the Bible, but not say it's true or false

Issue: "Casualty of 'peace'," March 24, 2001

Public schools may constitutionally teach Bible courses. The United States Supreme Court many times has so stated; several lower courts have approved specific curricula. Hundreds of public-school districts, in at least 29 states, have Bible courses. Most, if not all, state universities have Bible courses. What is the thinking behind these practices? President Ronald Reagan issued a proclamation declaring 1983 the "Year of the Bible," in recognition of the Bible's influence upon our country. That influence has been so great that one federal judge, approving a Bible curriculum, said: "To ignore the role of the Bible ... is to ignore a keystone in the building of an arch, at least insofar as our history, values and culture are concerned." Leaving the Bible entirely out of public schooling would disparage the religion of many Americans and substitute a nonreligious ideology for objective education. But what is the Bible's place-legally speaking? On this, good Christian lawyers disagree. Some say that schools may use the Bible only as one text among others, in a course in comparative religion or ancient history or ethics. Whenever schools teach the Bible, these lawyers say, they must present it as literature or as an interesting set of stories, because anything more would be unconstitutional. I think this view is mistaken. Such uses are legal, but more-much more-is also legal. The Bible itself, by itself, should be taught. The Supreme Court has said "that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities." But that does not mean that the Bible can be taught only in a history class or as part of a literature reading list. It means also that the Bible, standing alone, may be studied because of ("for") its effect upon history, particularly American history. The Bible as history and literature (the title of a course developed by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools) means that students may study it not as an introduction to world religions, but as an introduction to their world, to attain a kind of cultural literacy. Such a course would be organized around two notions. First, here (in the Bible) is a self-contained world whose inhabitants genuinely believed Jesus was the Son of God, that He worked miracles, and that He sent the Holy Spirit; second, this world has influenced our history and our culture. How, then, might a Bible curriculum cross the line of constitutionality? Basically, there is only one way. That is for the course designer or the teacher to go beyond the two notions and assert that Jesus was, and is, truly the Son of God. This public-school authorities may not assert, even implicitly, in the course of a regular classroom exercise. But note well: This inhibition has its roots in a doctrine of constitutional neutrality. It is a two-edged sword. It prohibits indoctrination not only into Christianity, but also into a secular viewpoint. So it would be unconstitutional to omit from a Bible curriculum all evidence of Jesus' divinity or of Yahweh's special care for the ancient Israelites. Even if innocently intended, the primary effect of such a course would be to disparage the beliefs of Christians or Jews-by secularizing their holy book. One judge who approved a Bible curriculum ordered schools to omit accounts of Jesus' resurrection. His reasoning: The account of the resurrection forms the central statement of the Christian religious faith. Its only reasonable interpretation is a religious interpretation. Its only reasonable message is a religious message. It is difficult to conceive how it might be taught as secular literature or secular history. This line of reasoning is confused, and the conclusion is surely mistaken. The judge was rightly concerned about the line between the Bible as history and literature and the Bible as truth, as a vehicle of indoctrination. The line is there, to be sure, but the court misunderstood its meaning. What this court should have said, and may have been trying to say, is this: The resurrection accounts require a "religious interpretation" because there is no natural explanation for the events related. If the resurrection happened, it was a miracle. So what? The whole Bible is the story of God's action in the history of the Israelites and, then, early Christians. The parting of the Red Sea, the presentation of the Decalogue, Genesis, the infancy narrative, and the many miracles of Jesus all permit only "religious interpretations." Must teachers exclude them, too, from Bible courses? If so, what is left of a "Bible" course? The Constitution, properly understood, does not require that we secularize the Bible in public schools. The Constitution requires only that the state not present the Bible message as true or false. School authorities should teach forthrightly the faith of the apostles, and that the faith handed down has shaped our world. Schools may tell the story of the empty tomb. Schools may not, speaking in their own voice, assert that the tomb was indeed empty. Perhaps most important, schools must not assert, imply, or suggest that belief in the empty tomb is foolish or unfounded. That would be unconstitutional.

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