That was the title of an article by Stephen Prothero in the Boulder Daily Camera this morning (March 19). Professor Prothero is the chairman of the religion department at Boston University, and his article was run on the Web site (latimes.com) of the Los Angeles Times under the title, “We live in the land of biblical idiots: Public school courses that promote Bible literacy can enhance our civic life.” Professor Prothero argues in favor of teaching the Bible as literature and the Bible in history. His primary argument is as follows:
Biblical illiteracy is not just a religious problem. It is a civic problem with political consequences. How can citizens participate in biblically inflected debates on abortion, capital punishment or the environment without knowing something about the Bible? Because they lack biblical literacy, Americans are easily swayed by demagogues on the left or the right who claim — often incorrectly — that the Bible says this about war or that about homosexuality.
One solution to this civic problem is to teach Bible classes in public schools. By Bible classes I do not mean classes in which teachers tell students that Jesus loves them or that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, but academic courses that study the Bible’s characters and stories as well as the afterlife of the Bible in literature and history. Last week, the Georgia Board of Education gave preliminary approval to two elective Bible courses designed to teach religion rather than preach religion. As long as teachers stick to the curriculum, this is a big step in the right direction.
As long as teachers stick to the curriculum. There, as Hamlet might have said, is the rub. Can we find enough teachers, especially in the Bible belt, who will not inject their religious or, for that matter, antireligious beliefs into the class? Indeed, given the difficulty of teaching biology in some schools, I wonder whether the students themselves will allow a secular discussion of the Bible or whether teachers will be pressured to teach from a religious perspective.
Whereas I agree with Professor Prothero in principle, I wonder if he is not making the same mistake as those who believe in nonoverlapping magisteria: despite what we think, they overlap.
I am afraid, therefore, that the headwriter at the Daily Camera may have got it right: Reading, Writing, and Revelation. Revelation, unfortunately, is exactly what we do not need in the public schools. I’d be very curious to know what others think of the proposal and especially whether anyone has had first-hand experience with teaching the Bible in the public schools?