CHURCH & STATE | “Biblical Literacy” Is the Last Thing the Religious Right Wants to See in Public Schools

Certain ideas sound half decent at first glance, but when you take a closer look, turn out not to be so great.

Consider “Bible literacy” courses, which are suddenly popular in a number of state legislatures. We can acknowledge upfront that the Bible has had a significant influence on American culture and society. Even many humanists accept that and assert that truly objective, factual, and critical instruction about that tome can be useful and indeed necessary for a well-informed person. (And here I use the word “critical” in the academic sense: “an analysis of the merits and faults of a work.”)

The problem is “objective instruction” isn’t usually what the folks who are promoting these courses have in mind. They’re almost always fundamentalists, and the classes they promote are a better fit for a Sunday school than a public school.

The classes got a boost in late January after President Trump decided to weigh in on Twitter (naturally). The president had apparently been watching Fox & Friends (naturally) and saw a segment discussing how six states were considering bills that would create Bible literacy classes in their public schools.

Trump immediately endorsed the plan via a tweet that actually managed to spell every word correctly for a change: “Numerous states introducing Bible 
Literacy classes, giving students the option of studying the Bible. Starting to make a turn back? Great!”

Now, it’s possible that the president is enthusiastic about these classes because he wants to take one. After all, this is the guy, who, when asked during the campaign to name his favorite Bible verse, made one up and who later discussed his fondness for “Two Corinthians.”

But a more likely explanation is that Trump was simply pandering to his far-right evangelical base. The tweet came after a rough few days for Trump. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had humiliated him over the government shutdown, and his pal and adviser Roger Stone had been arrested by the FBI—an all-too-common occurrence for Trump allies these days. The president may have been feeling that he needed a little love, so he sent out a request for hugs to his legions of Christian soldiers.

It doesn’t matter why Trump endorsed Bible literacy classes. They remain a poor idea.

Remember, these classes are not just an abstraction. We’ve seen them in action. Texas passed a law establishing Bible literacy courses in 2009. How’s that working out for the Lone Star State? Well, it is Texas, so many people there probably think everything’s just fine. Those who honor the Constitution are less enthusiastic.

Six years ago, Mark Chancey, a religious studies professor at Southern Methodist University, surveyed courses in sixty districts around the state. Only eleven, Chancey found, were “especially successful in displaying academic rigor and a constitutionally sound” approach. The other forty-nine, he found, “were a mixed bag, some were terrible.”

Chancey singled out twenty-one districts as offering “especially egregious” instruction. According to his research, public school students who enrolled in these courses were taught that “the Bible is written under God’s direction and inspiration,” that Christians will at some point be “raptured,” and that the Founding Fathers formed our country on the principles of the “Holy Bible.” (Kentucky passed one of these laws as well and has had similar problems.)

None of this should surprise us. Texas, like many other states that have passed or considered Bible literacy bills, allocated no money for teacher training in this sensitive subject.

So, while these classes are not on their face unconstitutional, it’s the implementation that really screws things up. Too many teachers are apparently defaulting to what they’ve picked up at church.

Can you blame them? A teacher in the Bible Belt or some other conservative area isn’t likely to bring serious criticism of the Bible into these classes—not if he or she wants to keep his/her job.

Consider, for example, the Gospels. Who wrote them? When were they written? Are they accurate historical accounts? Do any independent sources back them up?

Scholars debate these issues, but it’s fair to say what information has emerged is not encouraging for biblical literalists. Virtually no serious scholar believes the Gospels were written by men whose names they bear, nor are they contemporary accounts.

Religion scholar Bart Ehrman wrote in his 2010 book Jesus Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them):

Though it is evidently not the sort of thing pastors normally tell their congregations, for over a century there has been a broad consensus among scholars that many of the books of the New Testament were not written by the people whose names are attached to them.

He also noted that “[T]he Gospels are filled with discrepancies large and small.” Bear in mind this is not some sort of fringy view. As Ehrman points out, it’s a mainstream position held by most scholars—and it’s not a recent development. They’ve known this for a long time.

Yet imagine what would happen to our imaginary Bible Belt teacher who told kids taking the Bible Literacy course these well-established facts. How long would that man or woman be teaching that course—or indeed still have a job?

The fact is, religious right proponents of Bible “literacy” don’t want students learning literacy at all. To do that honestly would cast doubt on the claims of biblical literalists. They want classes that indoctrinate children into a specific Christian perspective—theirs.

How do I know that? Look at the people who are promoting these classes. Among them is David Barton, a notorious “Christian nation” propagandist and fake “historian” who makes his living peddling the lie that the United States was founded by and for fundamentalist Christians. Barton and his allies are behind Project Blitz, a religious right-led effort to flood states with legislative measures that undermine the separation of church and state. Bible literacy bills are considered a key piece of this strategy.

Or ponder the words of North Dakota state Rep. Aaron McWilliams, who told Fox & Friends that he believes the Bible should be taught in public schools because it has had a significant influence on the development of our legal and legislative systems.

Really? Where does our Constitution say that? As I mentioned earlier in this column, no one can doubt the Bible’s influence on our culture—but it did not provide the basis for our government. Republican government and democracy simply aren’t in the Bible. Theocracy and autocratic kings are, though.

McWilliams and others who push these bills are really promoting “Christian nationalism”—the belief that a certain version of far-right Christianity (the one they favor) is ingrained in the government and that those who fail to embrace it are mere guests here.

It’s bad history and bad theology. And unless we stop them, the religious right will get it into our schools under the guise of legitimate instruction about religion.