At least six states have introduced “Bible literacy” bills that would allow schools to teach the Bible, a move that some critics say may violate the separation of church and state — but it has at least one big fan: Donald Trump.
President Trump, whose knowledge of the Bible is shaky at best, gave the idea a resounding thumbs-up via Twitter, ensuring that an already fraught discussion would get even more charged.
First, some context. This is not about religious instruction or school prayer. In theory, ”Bible literacy” means that if schools wish to do so, they could teach students about the Bible as a historical document.
In fact, some schools already discuss religious texts in the context of world religions classes or other settings where they’re relevant. For example, when studying the medieval European church in history, it can help to crack open a copy of the Good Book to see what people are talking about.
In some cases, these bills actually require teaching the Bible, adding it to the core curricula that all schools would be expected to provide. Given that these bills do not extend to other religious texts, and that they’re popping up in states where evangelical Christians have a powerful influence on the government, the concept of “Bible literacy” is ringing alarm bells.
These bills are also accompanied by a lot of language about “traditional values” and other buzzwords that very much appeal to the conservative base, but may give others room for pause.
Bible literacy bills are a perfect example of model legislation developed by special interest groups. These groups draft generic legislation that individual state legislators are encouraged to borrow, modify and introduce in their own state houses. And lest you think this is solely about conservatives, there’s plenty of progressive model legislation too.
Model legislation can be a valuable tool for quickly rolling out changes on a state level and encouraging states to pick up tested and effective legislation from peers. Unfortunately, as illustrated here, that legislation can be both good and bad.
Critics fear that Bible literacy legislation could be a backdoor into religious instruction. Instead of teaching students about the Bible, teachers might be more inclined to teach the Bible itself, introducing an element of religious education into the classroom. And that’s a major no-no, not to mention something that has been amply litigated over the years. Evangelism or proselytizing is not permitted in schools, but discussing religious texts in a cultural context is allowed.
In the case of “Bible literacy,” there’s a clear slant towards Christianity that could be a problem if these bills are subjected to legal challenges. Like other issues surrounding curriculum mandates, the Bible literacy bills also raise questions about how much autonomy to give school districts — again, an issue that can be both good and bad, depending on the setting.
The state could, for example, mandate comprehensive age-appropriate sexual education and overrule districts that try to teach abstinence only … or do the exact opposite. And here, the state could make it clear that teaching about religion and using religious texts for reference is a valid educational activity … or it could pass bills that effectively give teachers a license to push Christianity on students. And non-Christians, including teachers, are likely to feel very uncomfortable in what are supposed to be secular schools.
It’s worth keeping an eye on these bills, as well as other education legislation; conservatives have grown very adept at using schools as cover for an agenda that is sometimes hateful and oppressive. In this instance, it’s pretty clear that “Bible literacy” isn’t about making sure that teachers can use a religious text as a class reference if they feel it’s merited, and that it’s more about explicitly centering Christianity in schools.