Most of the recent discussions about teaching the Bible in school miss the key points.
First, teaching the Bible in public schools is important for students because, without knowledge of the Bible, students can’t fully understand the English language, English literature, history, art, music or culture. For example, there are over 1,200 documented references to the Bible in Shakespeare’s 36 plays. If you don’t know the Bible, you really can’t understand Shakespeare. You can’t get past the first sentence of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick - “Call me Ishmael” - if you don’t understand who Ishmael was in the Bible.
Of the allusions that a student needs to know for Advanced Placement in English Composition and Literature, approximately two-thirds are Biblical allusions, according to AP Literature and Composition. If you don’t know the Bible, you won’t do well on this part of the Advanced Placement test.
Further, Essentials in Education, which has the only First Amendment Safe textbook for teaching the Bible in public schools, did a national survey of high school English teachers. The results revealed that 96 percent of English teachers believe that young people were disadvantaged when studying English literature if they didn’t know the Bible. At the college level, 39 university English professors supplied an aggregate of 72 books they collectively teach in freshman year that require a knowledge of the Bible.
Second, students in the public schools are kept from religious teaching of the Bible by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in 1963 when Justice Tom Clark, who wrote the opinion, stated: “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.”
We need to shift the conversation on teaching the Bible in public schools to what the students need to learn to better understand the world around them.
Further, there is the consensus document “The Bible & Public Schools, A First Amendment Guide,” which our Bible Literacy Project co-published with the First Amendment Center with endorsements from the National School Boards Association, American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association as well as People for the American Way.
Third, in the most recent national survey that we conducted in May 2017, 80 percent of Americans wanted the Bible taught in public schools. However, we know from other surveys that only about 8 percent of public schools do so. Since Bible courses are almost all electives, where only about 25 percent of a class might take the course, the reach is 2 percent. Given that 80 percent of Americans want the Bible taught and only 2 percent are taught this is an eye -opening disconnect.
Fourth, given the lack of responsiveness of public schools to the documented needs of the students, legislation to encourage the teaching of the Bible academically in public schools has been enormously helpful in several regards. While schools, for the most part, ignore it, the legislation does provide protection for the school teachers who want to do what is right for students. It also encourages parents to ask the schools to do what is right for their students.
We have led that effort on a bipartisan basis from an academic point of view, starting with the state of Georgia passing legislation to encourage the teaching of the Bible academically in 2006, followed by South Carolina and Texas in 2007, Tennessee in 2008, Oklahoma in 2010, South Dakota and Arizona in 2012, Arkansas in 2013 and Kentucky in 2013.
We need to shift the conversation on teaching the Bible in public schools to what the students need to learn to better understand the world around them. Our textbook, "The Bible and Its Influence," is currently being taught in 650 high schools in 45 states and has a ten percent market share in six states. It is the dominant textbook and, as noted above, the only First Amendment Safe one. We need all schools to focus on this. We are beginning to get a lot more momentum now and believe that we are not too far away from reaching a tipping point where instead of teachers and schools having to find a reason to teach the Bible academically, they will soon have to find a reason not to teach it.