Trump Endorses Teaching Religion in the Public Schools. What Can He Be Thinking?

In the Washington Post, John Wagner reports that legislators in six states—North Dakota, Missouri, Indiana, West Virginia, Virginia, and Florida—have introduced bills to permit public schools to teach the Bible as literature.  President Donald Trump endorsed this effort last week in a tweet: “Numerous states introducing Bible Literacy classes, giving students the option of studying the Bible.  Starting to make a turn back?  Great!”

The President advocates teaching about the Bible to “make a turn back”—to Make America Great Again.  He wants to appeal to his base.

I suspect the promoters of teaching “about the Bible” also have something else in mind.  Their purpose is obscured by some vague language that very likely tries to hide a violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  Some promoters of the “teach about the Bible” movement describe wanting their schools to teach Biblical literacy, and some say they are interested in “teaching about the historical significance of the Bible.”  What is implied here can mean very different things to different people.

For 12 years before my retirement, when I worked as an advocate for public education in the setting of the national office of a Protestant denomination, the United Church of Christ, I chaired the Committee on Public Education and Literacy of the National Council of Churches.  The National Council of Churches is an ecumenical partnership of 38 Christian communions in the United States.

During those 12 years, I remember only one intense, heated discussion that ran our committee’s meeting long past the time we were supposed to have concluded.  We had been asked to read and review a lavishly illustrated and expensively produced textbook, supposedly to be used in public schools to teach about the Bible as literature. The book also covered what its authors considered “the historical significance of the Bible.”

The amazing thing about that long and very heated meeting was that we all agreed.  Every one of us believed that the textbook in question should never be used in a public school. And, as we went around the room, every member felt compelled to explain her or his reasons for rejecting this book’s use in the public schools.

The meeting in question was probably a decade ago, but I still remember it.  I am not a seminary educated theologian, but other members of the committee were well educated Christian educators in their denominational offices.  Everyone agreed that the purpose of the book was not to educate about the Bible as literature but instead to expose children to the Bible.  Every person identified religious indoctrination as the purpose of this book

One member of the committee worried about the book’s approach to “the historical significance of the Bible.” He had read the book carefully and he had brought a list of all the ways the book was not only Christian-centric, but also the ways it endorsed a history of Christian colonialism in the Global South.  Additionally, he said, the book was filled with examples of American exceptionalism, and he read us passage after passage to prove it.  Members of the committee unanimously agreed that using this book to “teach about the Bible” would be impossible in an American classroom.  They also thought schoolteachers asked to teach the book would very likely bring their experiences—their particular religious backgrounds and biases—to the conversation.

Another serious question is whether it is possible to look at the Bible as literature without considering its religious implications. Neither all Jewish communities nor all Christian denominations read the Bible the same way.  In fact, they do not all read the same translation of the Bible.

I thought about biblical translation this week myself as I read Adam Gopnik’s secular biblical analysis in The New Yorker. In his review of Robert Alter’s new translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, Gopnik reads the Bible as literature—with a special focus on the poetry. Gopnik favors Alter’s new translation because, as a modern English translation, it has “some of the solemnity and sublime simplicity of the King James Version….” Gopnik seems to be a sort of King James Version originalist, because he loves the poetry of the early seventeenth century. The King James Version, he writes, “along with Shakespeare’s First Folio, published twelve years later, (is) the bedrock of English literature…. The King James Version was entangled, root and branch, with the art of Shakespeare and Donne and Herbert and the other poets of the greatest age of English verse….”  Gopnik disdains “so many contemporary Christian translations, like a TV evangelist’s homey English.”

As I thought about Gopnik’s review, I realized that reading the Bible through an entirely secular lens—as it would have to be taught in a public school—is an inadequate approach to understanding the meaning of any particular translation of the book.  Ignoring, for example, legitimate questions about the book’s religious meaning for the members of modern churches, Gopnik happily accepts the King James translation’s patriarchy and the patriarchy in Alter’s version, both of which translate God as “the Father.”  The modern translators of the New Revised Standard Version instead name God in gender-neutral language as “the Creator.” If one reads through a secular eye that examines the book only as language and poetry, one is likely to neglect essential theological issues in a religious book.

Students in a public school classroom could, of course, study the Bible as the product of the societies where the stories emerged from an oral tradition into written text and examine changes in the world since those times, along with considering the implications of various translations over the generations, and, of course, their style, including the poetry which Gopnik loves.  At the end of our long and emotional meeting, members of the National Council of Churches Committee on Public Education and Literacy agreed that any study of religious literature in public schools ought to include the study of the history and texts of the world’s religions, a sort of comparative religions course. But we suspected the creators of the text we had been asked to review did not have that kind of curriculum in mind.

We were also unanimously certain that the study in public schools of the text in front of us would violate the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.  The First Amendment protects the citizens of the United States from the government’s using public funds or institutions like public schools to endorse or establish any particular religious tradition. The first clause of the First Amendment protects against the government’s “establishment” of religion, and the second clause guarantees our people the right to practice whatever religion they choose: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”