Why conservative Christians should oppose teaching the Bible in public schools

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A Bible class at Woodland High School in Cartersville, Ga. Courtesy of Associated Press

A Bible class at Woodland High School in Cartersville, Ga. Courtesy of Associated Press

A Bible class at Woodland High School in Cartersville, Ga. Courtesy of Associated Press

(AP) A Bible class at Woodland High School in Cartersville, Ga.

On Sunday night, the long awaited mini-series “The Bible” premiered on the History Channel. Produced by reality TV mogul Mark Burnett of “Survivor” fame and former “Touched by an Angel” star Roma Downey in an effort to dramatize key stories from Scripture, the series is already being embraced by Christians nationwide. After all, when is the last time “Hagar” was trending on twitter?

Two days before the first episode aired, however, the couple penned a controversial opinion column in The Wall Street Journal titled, “Why Public Schools Should Teach the Bible.” They argued that public schools should encourage or perhaps mandate teaching courses on the sacred book. This should apparently top the list of priorities in a time when America’s educational system is faced with depleting resources and failing to keep up with the rest of the world’s students.

Christian pastors and leaders in social media lauded Burnett and Downey’s article as wise and appropriate. And while the timing of publication could not have been more perfect—the article reads like a thinly veiled marketing piece with a commercial for the television show inserted as the seventh paragraph—the  arguments are worth considering.

Should Christians support teaching the Bible in America’s public schools?

The answer as I see it is a resounding “no” and not because I don’t agree with some of Burnett and Downey’s reasoning. Yes, the Bible has been a primary document of Western civilization. Yes, it is bursting with widely applicable wisdom and knowledge. But, no, Christians should still not support it being taught in public schools.

Too much of this debate has centered around the question of if teaching the Bible is appropriate in a public school setting, but few recognize that the question of how is far more contentious. The strongest support for implementing such a curriculum comes presumably from conservative evangelicals who mostly claim to read the Scriptures literally. They assume the Bible would be taught accordingly, but it most certainly will not.

According to a recent Gallup Poll, only 3 in 10 Americans say they read the Bible literally. Seventeen percent say the Bible is a book of fables or legends. And those who believe the Bible is “the word of God” decreases as their education level increases.

Those who teach these courses will most likely be non-literalists trained at secular state universities, not homeschooled conservative evangelicals or Bible college graduates. They may believe that the many “seeming contradictions” of the Bible are actual ones. If asked, they may teach students that the stories of “Jonah and the Whale” or “Noah’s Ark” are mythic allegories, rather than historical accounts of miraculous events.

Do the Christians crying for a reintroduction of Bible courses want their children taught, for example, that the creation account in Genesis is little more than pretty poetry? It’s safe to assume they do not. But most haven’t thought this deeply about the issue.

Conservative Christians should know better than to advocate for such courses. After all, they have long decried the well-documented “liberalizing effect” of public college and universities who offer similar courses. Many conservative Christians leave home for college, take an introduction to religion course, and return with an entirely different worldview than their parents hold. Do they want the same experience with their seventh graders?

Support for teaching the Bible is not merely an obscure position held only by fringe conservatives. Last year, a poll conducted by conservative news outlet The Blaze found that 74% of the 1,658 respondents supported reading the Bible during class time. The outcry swelled in the wake of the Newtown shootings when some Americans wondered if prayer and Bible reading should be reintroduced into schools. When those elements were present, they reasoned, we didn’t have tragedies such as Newtown and Columbine. (Proponents failed to recognize that school systems in many wildly secular countries like Canada haven’t faced an epidemic of violence either.)

But if those conservatives who advocate for such a shift in public education get their way—and it is admittedly an unlikely scenario at best—it will likely be another case of getting what they want and then not wanting what they get. By advocating for teaching the bible in schools, Christians are unwittingly lobbying for something they could never accept. They think they want it, but they really don’t.

As a lifelong evangelical, I’ve experienced firsthand the value of Biblical literacy. But in the end, this sacred text is best encountered where it can be taught according to the beliefs of individual faith communities. In homes and houses of worship, and for the next nine Sundays, on the History Channel.

  • Paul Sterrett

    Thank you Jonathan for articulating a strong argument against the Bible being taught in public schools. I agree with you, and hope that reasonable Christ-followers will see the wisdom in your position. In a society in which the Bible is not even taught in many churches, I can’t imagine how it would be trivialized by a skeptical or even hostile educational system.

  • Agreed, Paul.

  • Ben

    A good look before the leap always helps.

  • michele

    You know, when I was a kid, just before God was no longer welcome in school, the teacher would start the day with a reading from Psalms and the 10 Commandments were posted on the wall.I think most schools were like that. Put the Bible back in schools, but just don’t complicate it. Jeesh.

  • Michele,

    Are you saying you think the Bible should just be read aloud or also taught?


  • Chris

    As someone currently pursuing a doctoral degree in education, I am being exposed to many of the ills that our public schools are facing across the nation and the corresponding solutions that are emerging. Our education system is already behind other nation’s systems in terms of literacy in itself.
    As an evangelical Christian myself, I would much rather students leave school with the ability to study and critically think about scriptures for themselves than to be exposed to the spectrum of viewpoints of teachers (who are already burning out with what is on their plates right now — 50% within their first 5 years of teaching, costing the nation 7 billion dollars a year).

    Thank you for this article. Hopefully many proposing this “solution” will open their eyes to these realities.

    “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” ~ Proverbs 18.17

  • Chris,

    Would love to know what you think the solution to teacher burnout might be. That’s something worth discussing!


  • Alan Bruton

    Very good points. Our public schools for the most part can’t teach rudimentary reading and math, much less scripture. I would never want my child taught scriptures by a public teacher. Heck, it took me 3 years to get the atheistic crap they were force-fed in college out of their heads, and they went to what is considered a conservative university.

    However, I feel strongly in private schools and sent my children to private schools that are Biblical based and all Christian. That is our faith and belief and we should keep it that way.

  • Dennis

    1. I’m not comfortable outsourcing my own kids spiritual development.
    2. Too many evangelical parents are nostalgic rather than wise with this issue.
    3. Christianized culture is gone! Trying to recapture it, instead of reaching people relationally in our current cultural context, is not going to work.

  • The truth written in this article is not why we are friends. But it makes me proud that we are.

  • Ha. Thanks, Rob.

  • Dennis,

    I couldn’t agree more with your three points, especially #2. Many Christians imagine that teaching the Bible in schools would look like what they experienced in the 1950s when in fact it would be much different.


  • Denny Howard

    As an evangelical pastor for 38 years I agree!

  • I don’t know if I agree with you here, but that might be a word choice issue. For me at least, the question is less about “teaching” the Bible than it is about “exposure” of the Biblical text to a greater audience.

    Public school teachers, by virtue of Euro/US History, and US Lit, are already expected to expose their students to -some- level of Christianity (I recall my sophomore textbook containing excerpts of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”); I don’t think incorporating the Biblical text in the classroom and making that understanding more grounded would be out of line.

    Now, giving the Bible its own separate class, as I have heard some people suggest, goes too far; but allowing the text to permeate through areas of study it should -already- be a part of? That would be a solid middle ground that I think would (or should, at least) satisfy a great majority.

  • Nathanael Snow

    Just as harmful is the attitude of some Christians that the Bible should be taught in schools because it affirms western culture. The Christiandom we are living in the shadows of was an era of privilege for nominal Christians, and era when Christians assumed that by controlling culture they could redeem it. An era when it was assumed that public schools were also Christian. But Jesus shows another way, redeeming culture through sacrifice.
    Christians would do so very much better by supporting Christians schools, particularly for those being underserved by the public schools. Instead we tend to support uppity Christian schools with a few token scholarship kids.

  • When God was “in the schools,” whites and blacks didn’t drink from the same water fountain. I think it’s time we moved on from that idealized history. It’s a tired conversation. Also, we have not “removed God” from anywhere. God is present wherever He choses. If you can remove your god from somewhere, you may need to find a new god. God, the one the writers of the bible describe, is self-existing, before and after, eternal, and, as seen in Jesus, quite comfortable going into “God-forsaken” places. If God seems absent in our world we may just be getting close to a moment of faith, which is hope in things unseen.

  • Lynn

    I believe that the schools need to stick to academics and let the Church stick to teaching the word. The carnal mind cannot understand spiritual things. Whose to say if the teacher will even be saved that’s teaching the word. That means the children will get the wrong interpretation. Jesus tells us that there are things that we will see because we know him that unbelievers will not be able to see, so how could they possible teach correctly. And who would decide who gets to teach it. in the church Jesus is the head and decisions on leadership is to made by someone hopefully that is led by the holy spirit but this would not be the case in schools. This is only another attempt of satan to do what he always does, cause confusion. It defeats the purpose to teach something if there’s a possibility that it may not be taught properly.

  • Tom

    Public schools accept all students–those who are poor, who have disabilities, and who do not meet a moral code of conduct. Christian schools generally do not. Which is more biblical? Why is this reality not more important in the minds of Christians than public prayer over the loud speaker? Churches need to teach the Word, rather than entertain. Most public high school teachers cannot even count on the Christian students to know their own faith, much less recognize a Biblical allusion in Literature class. Public schools would be better places if evangelicals would support, rather than abandon and disparage.

  • Some interesting points, Lynn.

    Tom: I agree. Thanks for sharing.

  • I taught American culture at a Chinese university within mainland China. Our textbook mention the Bible and the Christian faith. I was quite surprised. The facts were truthful and there was no presentation that one would be foolish to believe such things.

    We spent quite a bit of time on that chapter:)

  • Now this is certainly something Christians need to consider when discussing allowing the Bible to be taught in public schools. Over the years I have been part of conversations on this topic and no one has ever mentioned the points you make here. Thank you for “stirring the pot” so to speak! Good stuff!

  • Thanks, Christopher.

    Nathanael: Yes, I agree. It derives from a very Western-centric mindset and an inadequate cultural theology.

  • Jay

    “74% of the 1,658 respondents supported reading the Bible during class time.”

    I bet 99% of all these people dont bother to read the bible in their spare time and most probably couldnt even tell you what God’s Kingdom really is based on scripture.

  • Matt Thornton

    Would it be OK to have verses from the Koran as well? The Vedas?

  • Doc Anthony

    Unfortunately you’re right, for the reasons you stated. The good news is that it’s a long-dead horse anyway.

    I hate to say this, but I’m probably not even going to watch Burgett’s and Downey’s show. I gotta have Cecil B. DeMille, or else I’ll just read the Bible myself. Some things are best done the ole-fashion’d way!

  • I’m a recently retired public high school and college instructor. The State of Texas has approved me as a “Continuing Professional Education Provider”, meaning that I can train state certified educators and they can get CE credit toward their certification renewals.

    If Bible-believing Christians don’t lead in the teaching of the Bible as a major influence on American culture to provoke their students to research and read the Bible for themselves, then the secular American culture will gladly continue to lead our educational systems and children down the broad path of destruction. Christian leaders must get up, stand up and speak up or the secular humanists will sit on it, cover it up and distort it. That’s one reason why true Christians are called “The salt of the earth”. Are you a Christian? Then be the salt of the earth and quit making lame excuses!

    You can review my landing page at http://www.biblecultureit.com.

  • Peace2All

    @Larry Dozier

    Apparently children aren’t getting enough prayer, bible study, fire and brimstone sermons, etc… at home, church and Sunday school, not to mention all of the other church events?

    Now, you want the public schools to teach the bible.

    If they can stick to teaching the bible in it’s context as literature, or even a comparative philosophy or world religions course… that might be o.k.

    You evangelicals want the bible to be overly taught at the expense of courses they they need to get a job and function in our society, and… to be taught as absolute literal/historical fact.

    That’s not o.k., and… that’s why it will most likely never happen. At least it *should never* happen.



  • Peace2All

    @Derek Sweatman

    Pretty good post.


  • Peace2All

    @Alan Bruton

    You Said: “Heck, it took me 3 years to get the atheistic crap they were force-fed in college out of their heads, and they went to what is considered a conservative university.”

    So… you felt the need to take away your *adult* children’s ability to think critically about things they were taught in college.

    Nothing like making sure they’re brainwashed into having to believe the “silly”


  • Doc,

    I’d urge you to consider reconsidering watching the miniseries. It takes certain liberties, but it is actually quite good and entertaining.


  • You’re probably right, Jay. Sadly.

  • Abdul John Khan

    Why not teach the Upanishads, the Guru Granth Sahib and the Koran in school ?
    Surely they should be an essential part of education ?

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  • Alison

    Back in the day when Christians were fighting for prayer in the public school these same arguments came up. Then a friend who was still in high school came home from graduation horrified that a Wican had been chosen to deliver the invocation. You can’t have it both ways.

  • Thoughts

    I’ve taught public high school in a few states and teachers typically have some latitude on what they cho0se to teach from literature texts. All throughout high school textbooks are interwoven references to biblical texts, specifically the Old Testament via British Literature. Unfortunately, many teachers have chosen to ignore selections authored by Jonathan Edwards, Anne Bradstreet, Cotton Mathers and others–given their “Christian” tones in our current culture. I did not. Nor did I ignore the cross and multicultural references to Islamic and Hindu texts, for comparison and reference. It made for lively classroom discussion. For seniors studying British Literature, they had the option, per the textbook, of memorizing Psalm 23, or The Bells. Given the choice, many chose Psalm 23. The class bulletin boards were decorated with stained glass windows representing Canterbury Tales. We openly discussed the historic and religious positions. Don’t think that by excluding biblical texts you will remain “neutral,” you will actually CHEAT students out of a solid education which involves learning about, if perhaps not accepting the truths of Scripture. Remember in Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” Moses, the bird, represented organized religion–how are students to understand the implication of that if we don’t tell them about Moses? In my opinion ALL teachers need to have a course in major world religions and need to learn to TEACH and those of us who believe need not fear teaching.

  • Thoughts

    Because when we are teaching classic literature and history in this country, it is with the understanding that these are the foundations of western civilization. That said, many textbooks provide cross references and illustrations and examples denoting similarities in the texts of other countries and continents. But this is America and when we study basic literature and history — we do so from the point of view of America — at least in elementary and secondary school (with the exception of world history and literature).

  • I wholeheartedly believe the Bible should be taught alongside and with equal merit to the canonical texts of other religions such as the Mahabharata, the Koran, and so on, and that what are now taught as “myths”, such as the Iliad and Odyssey, should be taught more correctly as the canonical texts of the religions of their time and place. If your belief in your religion is strong enough, the comparison with other religions and their texts will be educational. If your beliefs are weak, then exposure to these other belief systems will be highly enlightenment

  • carrisima

    Jonathan presents a valid perspective that I really never considered as a Christian. I would suppose that the only way to lend credibility to such courses would be to have a qualified bible teacher or pastor develop curricula and teach such courses. In other words, atheists and agnostics would certainly not be the ideal teachers. Since the world has twisted the definition of church and state, it is unlikely this will happen on any major scale. Regardless of the outcome, the best place for religious teaching still remains the home and the church. peace.

  • As a church youth director living in Germany, where religion class is mandatory, I can see German public schools serve as one example where religion class means little and less to teenagers. Members of my youth group have made it clear that these classes teach very little truth about the saving power of Christ and that (at least for this small sample size) there are usually only one or two Christians in the class…the teacher not being one of them.
    In spite of all this, such a class does give opportunity for faithful witness as it gives my youth group the ability to share the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
    So while we shouldn’t expect teachers to teach to our theological standards, we can help our students to share their faith boldly in such a setting…if such a movement happens in America. I honestly can’t say whether I think it would be good or bad if the Bible was taught in schools, but I think churches and individual families can prepare appropriately.

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  • Lee Devine

    So you would be ok with the teaching of the Koran as literature also? I mean that is part of history and modern American Culture isn’t it. That is the problem with introducing religion into schools, since Christians are in the majority they feel that only Christianity should be taught in schools. What about a community that is mostly Muslim. Should the Christian children be forced to sit through Koran readings. Keep religion where it belongs… in the home and church on what ever day you worship. I don’t want my kids exposed to your wonky belief systems…

  • Brad

    I actually have in my possesion a student textbook,that says Old Testament as taught in Public Schools in Indiana.Its from 1928. Yes that was a very long time ago.But I look at my great grandparents and they were strong in their Christian faith.And not compromised because of secular misteaching as in Evolution & Science. Creationism should be put back into schools.This country was founded on Christian beliefs.Athiests and all other religions come to our country and use our “in God we trust” $ So why cant they study the same in schools,at least they wouldnt be taught a lie that they were evolved from an Ape,or goo.

  • Brad

    I think the burn out of the teachers is now they have a curriculum that is back to back.With hardly no time for students to ask questions,just hurry them through on to the next subject.

  • Brad

    “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” by Jonathan Edwards very good book.

  • Marc Weinberg

    As an orthodox Jew, I completely agree with you. The Bible was taught in this country for over 170 years. It was legal and constitutionally protected.
    Thomas Jefferson, the first president of the Washington, D.C. school board instituted the Bible as a book for schools. Look at what our society has turned into, 2011—12,644 murders, 35 every day. 80 Billion dollars to incarcerate all the criminals. Our culture is in the toilet and we have the Supreme Court of the U.S. to blame.

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