WHITEHOUSE, Texas — At some point this year in John Keeling’s Bible class at Whitehouse High School, students will open their textbooks to page 222 of Unit 9, “The Four Gospels.”
In the next four pages, they will take in artwork such as Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper and Paul Gauguin’s The Yellow Christ, learn about the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar and gain insight into biblical allusions in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and Countee Cullen’s poem “Simon the Cyrenian Speaks.”
Similar scenes are unfolding every school day this year in 170 public schools across 43 states, as students and teachers tackle the Bible using a textbook first published in 2005 by the Bible Literacy Project, The Bible and Its Influence.
Many welcome the return of the Bible to public education. According to the Bible Literacy Project website, in a 2006 survey of English professors from Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Texas A&M, University of California-Berkeley and others, all agreed with the statement: “Regardless of a person’s faith, an educated person needs to know the Bible.” Another 2005 study showed 98% of high-school English teachers agreed Bible literacy was academically advantageous.
“The conclusions of these studies were that students do need to know about the Bible in order to be conversant about Western literature and culture,” said Sarah Jenislawski, executive director of the Bible Literacy Project. “So many works of literature were written assuming readers would understand these [biblical] references.”
The works of Shakespeare alone contain 1,300 biblical allusions. John Milton’s works draw heavily from the Bible. Much of Martin Luther King Jr.’s teachings and writings are incomprehensible without knowing the Bible, and the same could be said of many great American leaders. And the Advanced Placement English exam is rife with biblical allusions.
First Amendment Protection
Still, it may be surprising to some that teaching the Bible in the classroom is legal in a country where all forms of religious devotion and prayer were prohibited from public schools by the 1963 Supreme Court decision Abington Township School District v. Schempp.
A recent Pew Research Center study showed that 67% of Americans do not think it’s legal to read from the Bible at all in a public school.
However, Schempp made it clear that academic study of the Bible is still permitted: “Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study,” wrote Justice Thomas Clark in the majority opinion.
But is it possible to teach the Bible in a nonsectarian manner?
“We absolutely think so,” Jenislawski said. “You can inform students about the beliefs, but you can’t ask them to conform to the beliefs. You never ask the students to change their belief or defend the belief.” For example, “If a student says, ‘I want to know what the right answer is,’ we refer them to the parents or to their spiritual leader. The teacher is not expected to address these questions,” she said. Teachers receive training and use a “very clear” teacher’s guide, she said.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State acknowledges that the study of religion in public schools is constitutional, but advocates using a different approach.
“Rather than cordon the instruction off into a special elective course that many students won’t even take, [we] favor a different approach: Integrate discussion of the Bible and religion into the curriculum where appropriate, and make certain the approach is truly balanced,” Americans United spokesman Rob Boston said. He cited a study in Texas that found “that many public-school courses on the Bible reflected a fundamentalist Protestant perspective.”
Boston raised concerns about another Bible curriculum, published by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, which he said has been outlawed by federal courts in Florida and Texas. He said The Bible and Its Influence is “better but still has flaws.”
The Bible and Its Influence was reviewed by a panel of more than 40 evangelical, Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish and secular scholars, teachers and legal experts — including retired Auxiliary Bishop Richard Sklba of Milwaukee and retired Auxiliary Bishop Emil Wcela of Rockville Centre, N.Y., both former chairmen of the Catholic Biblical Association. Neither was available to comment for this story, but Bishop Sklba has endorsed the text, calling it “solidly researched and professionally written.” The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was unable to comment on the text because it was unfamiliar to them.
Keeling, the high-school social studies teacher in Whitehouse, has taught the Bible course for three years. “I establish rules up front,” he said. “The class is academic. It is nonsectarian. It is not devotional.”
“It’s as if the class gives [students] a pair of glasses with which to see the world with new eyes,” he said. “They quickly come to realize just how pervasive the [biblical] influence is, and I think it helps them appreciate their own history, the history of their country, and the history of their families.”
Janneke Pieters writes from Asheville, North Carolina.