Today, Jan. 16th in the news there is a story that various Georgia Democrats, presumably trolling for votes in the upcoming elections, are proposing that there be legislation allowing the Bible to be taught as literature and as a cultural artifact, in the public schools. But wait— Should we see this as a violation of the separation of church and state? Inquiring minds want to know. Here are some of the considerations to keep in mind.

Firstly, there is no doctrine in the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence establishing the separation of church and state! What there is, are statements that there will be no “establishment of religion” or “state church”, by which was meant that the government would not sponsor or ‘establish’ any particular church or religion for that matter. The Founding Fathers knew enough about state sponsored churches in Europe to think that was not a good thing.

But the intent and the concern of our Founding Fathers was quite specifically to and primarily to protect the various churches from the state, not the other way around, so as to establish freedom of religion. Of course it is true that various of our Founding Fathers were Deists, and they were wary of a specifically Christian influence on politics and the state. This is perfectly clear from the correspondence of Adams and Jefferson. But even Jefferson wanted his edited down version of the NT taught to children in schools.

So, the question about the teaching of the Bible in public schools is an entirely different matter than “the establishing of a state church” by national or state government. If you study American history you will discover that the Bible until late in the 20th century had always been part of public school life, and even curriculum. In fact, when I went to elementary school (back at the dawn of time when the earth was still cooling in the 50s and 60s) we used to recite the Lord’s Prayer together before we went to lunch, and of course we learned the ten commandments, among other things.

If you are a student of American educational history you will discover that into the 20th century even major public and state universities required courses in “natural and revealed religion” the latter usually referring to the teachings of the Bible. In short, there is plenty of cultural precedent for teaching the Bible in public schools, and there is no prohibition of this in the founding documents of our country. But this does not settle the matter.

The proper questions to ask would include: 1) who would teach the Bible in public schools: 2) how would it be taught? Would it be taught as literature (as in the Georgia proposal). But what exactly does this mean? Does it mean one would study the cultural impact of the Bible on other literature and art in our culture? For example, I once did an essay for a literature class at Carolina on the use of the Psalms in Shakespeare’s sonnets. That would be one non-sectarian approach. Does such a proposal mean the various genre of literature in the Bible would be studied and examined in themselves (e.g. poetry vs.prose, oracles vs. narrative and so on)?

Does it also mean that one would study the Bible as a book of history or is that excluded? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then the question becomes— who is sufficient for these things? Who would do the teaching? Certainly it would have to be someone who is actually qualified, indeed, considering the controversial nature of the subject, they would probably need to be over-qualified, by which I mean they would likely have to have higher degrees in the Bible and in literature mor broadly, not merely ministerial degrees of various sorts. But this still doesn’t answer all the questions. There are plenty of people out there who have higher degrees in Bible, whom many conservative Christians would not want teaching their children the Bible.

Now in the Georgia proposal all they were proposing was an elective course and I doubt that one could hope for a required course in this subject. About electives it would be harder to complain, as it would not be compulsory education for anyone.

It would be interesting to hear all your opinions on this subject. Even if we just say the Bible is an important cultural artifact of American life and should be taught in public schools, how do you react to this? Do you see it as a good thing and a window of opportunity for more to be exposed to the Bible, or would the worries about unhelpful teaching about the Bible outweight these interests?

And last but by no means least, such a course would prompt a debate about which Bible should be taught in public school, and when I say which Bible, I don’t mean which translation. I mean would it be the Christian Bible or the Jewish Bible, or both? It is worth pondering.

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