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Index of Past Commentaries

March 16th / 17th, 2013

"For the Bible Tells Me So"

Bible Studies in Public SchoolsChristians often refer to the Bible as the “Good Book,” and they’re right. Actually it’s a great book, full of expressive prose, parables and metaphors. Some of its messages are also inspirational, but let’s not forget that those words were written by flesh-and-bone humans, not by some deity. These were men who offered their own spin on what God might be thinking.

Frankly I’ve never had much use for middlemen, but that’s another matter altogether.

In any event, over time, the Christian religion adopted the Bible (in one form or another) to be their definitive book of instruction when it comes to faith. Even so, the use of the Bible isn’t consistent among Christian denominations. Walk into a Baptist church and you’ll find several Bibles in every pew. Visit an Episcopal church, and you’ll find none. But despite denominational differences, formal teaching of the Bible has traditionally occurred on Sundays, while teaching the three Rs has been Monday-through-Friday ritual, and seldom did the twain meet. Now, some modern-day lawmakers are determined to change that dynamic.

Late last month, Sen. Stan Bingham and 15 other NC senators proposed a bill that would allow Bible study in public schools, but only as an elective. It was a back-door play to get around one federal law, and convolute another. Fifty years ago the Supreme Court barred official promotion of religion in schools. Then in 1980, the court ruled in Stone v. Graham that public schools may teach about the Bible as long as such teaching is “presented objectively as part of a secular program of education.” And there’s the rub.

The proposed Bible elective might be compliant with the 1980 ruling, but then again, it might not. For one thing, it depends upon who is teaching the course, and whether he or she is secularly objective. Winston Salem Forsyth County Schools have been offering a Bible history elective for eight years without incident, because instructors aren’t preaching or proselytizing. Instead, they teach it as a social studies course which focuses on literature of the Bible, much as it was in my senior English class back in 1972.

The problem is that not every school district in every state is going to be as conscientious as WSFCS. The New York Times cites a number of examples in an article from December 2011. Teachers in Pensacola, Fla. told their students that everything in the Bible is a fact, and one teacher even used a bullhorn to preach to arriving students every morning. In Tennessee, a teacher led students in prayer each day and allowed Gideons to distribute Bibles during regular class time. And in South Carolina, a local preacher was invited to speak to students during school hours, telling them, “A relationship with Jesus is what you need more than anything else.”

These kinds of incidents are growing as six states have already adopted legislation similar to Bingham’s bill. It should also give us pause about supporting the GOP-backed proposal because, if implemented, it would include no provision for effectively monitoring instructional abuse. Still, proponents of Bible study in schools can make the argument that most students who elect to take the course already have a religious background, and would not be offended or harmed by something other than a purely academic presentation of the material. I happen to disagree with that position, but beyond that, there is a more substantive reason for opposing Bingham’s bill.

A student can take only so many elective courses, and if he opts for Bible study, he might not have time to take a course that, for example, prepares young people to become certified nursing assistants. I know that Jesus is alleged to have healing powers, but I would rather have a certified nursing assistant patching me up in an emergency than someone who can quote scripture. And don’t forget that our Republican governor is working to reform our educational system so that it is more accountable and better able to prepare students for a marketable skill. Public school Bible study is not consistent with that agenda, nor will it help contribute to strengthening our economy.

No matter what happens, though, this Bible study matter is a slippery slope with unpredictable outcomes. Case in point: my father. In the late 1920s his Bible study instructor asked each student to recite a line from the Good Book. Dad, who was a faithful Baptist boy and a selective reader of Bible verses, raised his hand and shouted, “Jezebel was a whore!” Given the era in which he blurted that response, what he said was legal, but not acceptable. I fear that’s where we’re headed with Bible electives