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Intensifying debate: Bible and religion in public schools

Bible on a school desk in a classroom.
Bible on a school desk in a classroom. | Getty Images

The state of Oklahoma has entered the emerging debate over the role that the Bible in particular and religion in general should play in the nation’s public schools. Ryan Walters, the state’s superintendent of education, has issued a directive that requires all public schools to “include” the Bible in lesson plans. Walters summarized his directive:

“We have issued this ... so we have standards, that are in place ... that our teachers are to teach the role religion played in the classroom. ... They are not talking about in their classroom the role that the Bible played in American history.”

So, we will be offering additional guidance to districts that they will have to comply with, which is to ensure the teaching of ... the role the Bible played in American history, dating back pre-Constitution, whether it’s the Mayflower Compact, the pilgrims, all the way through Martin Luther King  Jr. and civil rights movement, where he repeatedly quotes the Bible for what he is trying to do there.”

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Walters’ directive also mandates a physical Bible in every classroom. His opponents seized upon this language. Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, asserted: 

“This is about claiming the Christian nationalist myth that America is a Christian country. And this is also about preaching, not teaching, because when Ryan Walters announced the policy, he made clear that he was requiring teachers to have the Bible in every classroom and — quote — ’to teach from it.’  That’s not education. That’s indoctrination and it’s unconstitutional.” 

So, the lines are clearly drawn. Oklahoma’s effort to clearly introduce more about the Bible’s role in American history is opposed by those who really want America’s public schools to be “religion-free zones,” which pretend that America’s society has not been, and is not, significantly religious. 

As I noted in my article last week in The Christian Post, “Making Sense of New Louisiana Ten Commandments Law: Display vs. Recitation,” this deep division and hostility can be traced back to the 1962 and the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decisions concerning official prayer and Bible reading in public schools and the negative reaction they provoked. As Associate Justice Arthur Goldberg warned in his opinion Abington vs. Schempp (1963):

“Untutored devotion to the concept of neutrality can lead to ... approval of results which partake not simply of that noninterference and noninvolvement with the religious which the Constitution commands, but of a brooding and pervasive devotion to the secular, and a passive, or even active, hostility to the religious. Such results are not only not compelled by the Constitution, but it seems to me are prohibited by it.”

Unfortunately, Justice Goldberg’s premonition became a reality in large segments of the American education establishment. 

In the 60 years since Justice Goldberg’s warning, Americans have responded in widely divergent ways. America is a pluralistic society and this pluralism is certainly on display concerning the issue of how much religion should be on display in America’s public schools. 

A study undertaken last year by the University of Chicago illustrates the lack of common ground on the issue of the appropriate place of religion in the nation’s public schools. When they surveyed the American public they found that 37% felt there was not enough religion in the schools, 31% thought there was too much religion and 31% felt that there was a right amount of religion in the classroom, according to The New York Times. 

Of course, these results were a “national,” not state-by-state or regional analysis.  Anyone familiar with American society knows that the answer to that study would vary widely from state to state. It is not just happenstance that Oklahoma is the state that has undertaken this religious initiative. Oklahoma is literally the most “Baptist” state in the union in terms of the percentage of the population belonging to that denomination. 

The recent Ten Commandments initiative is in Louisiana, another state with a rich religious history. It is difficult to imagine California or Oregon taking such initiatives.  This regional diversity complicates the search for a national legal solution.

In the case of the Oklahoma initiative, the attempt to teach the Bible’s influence on Western Civilization and American history seems more achievable than “teaching the Bible.” As Superintendent Walters pointed out, it is impossible to teach a full-orbed American history from the “Mayflower Compact” to Martin Luther King Jr. without the influence of the Christian faith.

However, when it comes to mandating the “teaching of the Bible” one enters difficult, treacherous territory. How do you teach the Bible objectively in a society where tens of millions of people believe it is a sacred text, the Word of God? If you take the devout Christian approach, you violate the rights of those who do not affirm that view. The same thing is true if you take a liberal, higher criticism approach to Holy Scripture. 

What can be done, however, is to teach courses in public high schools that teach objectively the basic tenets of the major religious traditions. In such a course you would lay out the basic tenets of Christianity (with Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Mainline, and Evangelical Protestant distinctives). Then, you do the same with Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. Such a course would certainly be useful in an increasingly religiously diverse society.

And as school choice and voucher programs become increasingly available parents can choose alternatives to the public schools.

One last word of caution to those Christians who want the public schools to teach their faith. You should never want the state to be deciding what is the correct understanding of religion. The last thing any devout follower of Jesus should want is government control of religion. The government will always get it wrong and pious followers of Christ will have their consciences violated.

Our forefathers learned that lesson the hard way and with God’s guidance and assistance they bequeathed to us a legal system with more guaranteed freedom of religious conscience than any yet devised on this planet.

My prayer is that God will give us the wisdom, and the courage to protect and preserve it.

Dr. Richard Land, BA (Princeton, magna cum laude); D.Phil. (Oxford); Th.M (New Orleans Seminary). Dr. Land served as President of Southern Evangelical Seminary from July 2013 until July 2021. Upon his retirement, he was honored as President Emeritus and he continues to serve as an Adjunct Professor of Theology & Ethics. Dr. Land previously served as President of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (1988-2013) where he was also honored as President Emeritus upon his retirement. Dr. Land has also served as an Executive Editor and columnist for The Christian Post since 2011.

Dr. Land explores many timely and critical topics in his daily radio feature, “Bringing Every Thought Captive,” and in his weekly column for CP.

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