Does reading the Bible lead to violent crime? That’s the question nobody is asking these days.
Here at ILYBYGTH, we have to ask: Why not?
After all, it seems violent crime has been falling in the past few decades. Those have been the decades in which American children no longer prayed or read the Bible in their public schools, officially at least.
Religious conservatives have long bemoaned the social dangers of kicking God out of public schools. Is it only fair, then, to blame God for all the rapes, burglaries, and assaults that haven’t been happening lately?
That doesn’t seem like a comfortable suggestion for most religious conservatives. Yet thoughtful conservatives must recognize that they have long warned about the dangers of removing traditional religion from public schools. Some of those warnings, at least, seem to have been flipped on their heads. Without mandatory Bible-reading in public schools, American society has grown noticeably less violent.
This is not what religious conservatives have predicted.
In 1942, for example, Bible activist W. S. Fleming insisted that more states must pass mandatory Bible laws for their public schools. As I noted in my 1920s book, these mandatory Bible laws were a prominent but little-noticed element of 1920s educational culture wars. Fleming, a former Chicago pastor and full-time activist for the National Reform Association, claimed that Bible laws for public schools would enable society to maintain basic morality. Fleming pointed out that most states gave Bibles to prison inmates. Why not skip the middle man, he asked, and deliver the Bibles to the schools? If Ohio had followed this suggestion in 1925, he recalled, “as her neighbor, Pennsylvania, did, with the same result, more than half of her present 9,310 convicts would now be law-abiding citizens.”[*]
Two decades later, just after the Schempp decision by the US Supreme Court seemed to eliminate Bible reading from public schools, William Culbertson of Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute warned that the decision did not bode well for America’s public safety. “No nation can turn its back on God without tragic consequences,” Culbertson cautioned. “We have traveled a sorry road of unbelief in the less than two hundred years of our country’s history. The Supreme Court decision—and our willingness in many cases to justify it—say plainly that a sorrier road may lie yet ahead!”[†]
Similarly, in the early 1980s, Donald Howard, creator of the Accelerated Christian Education curriculum and an energetic supporter of independent evangelical schools, preached a fiery jeremiad about the dangers of removing Bibles from public schools. Because “the Bible by judicial review [had been] legislated out of the schools,” Howard warned, schools in the 1970s suffered from an array of terrible problems, including “X-rated textbooks,” 70,000 assaults on teachers in one year, violence, vandalism, alcohol and drug abuse, a profusion of “witchcraft and the occult,” and rampant deviant sexuality. This lamentable situation, in Howard’s opinion, underscored the need for independent evangelical schools. Only there, he argued, could students be safe from the perils of the now-Godless schools.[‡]
In the 1990s, prominent conservative intellectual William J. Bennett published his blockbuster Index of Leading Cultural Indicators. This collection of worrisome statistics demonstrated, Bennett claimed, what happened when a society abandoned its traditional moral teachings. Crime soared, despair ruled. Though Bennett noted a dip in crime during the 1990s, he argued that since 1960 the trend was clear: less traditional morality meant more violent crime.
Less prominent conservatives, too, warned that schools without prayer and Bibles led directly to a wave of violent crime. By “kicking God out of public schools,” Americans traipsed foolishly down the path to Sodom and Gomorrah.
Without prayer and the Bible, religious conservatives have insisted, public schools had turned into sin factories. Young people did not learn to check their carnal instincts. They killed and fornicated with abandon.
So what does it mean about Bibles in schools if violent crime has dropped precipitously in recent decades?
As reviewed in a fascinating article in this week’s Economist, violent crime has plunged in industrialized nations around the globe in the past twenty-five years. As the article describes, talking heads have ascribed this happy circumstance to an array of possible causes: more abortions, fewer young men, better policing, even better violent video games.
Back in the 1950s, when the US Supreme Court had not yet “kicked God out of public schools,” violent crime skyrocketed. To be consistent, we must ask: Did all that violent crime result from students reading the Bible? Saying the Lord’s Prayer? If conservatives predicted that removing Bibles from schools would cause more violent crimes, must they now acknowledge that the USA is a safer place without all that school Bible-reading?
[*] W. S. Fleming. God in Our Public Schools. 3rd ed. (1942; repr., Pittsburgh: National Reform Association, 1947), 90.
[†] William Culbertson, “Is the Supreme Court Right?” Moody Monthly 63 (July-August 1963): 16.
[‡] Donald Howard, “Rebirth of a Nation,” Facts About A.C.E. (Lewisville, TX: Accelerated Christian Education, n.d. [1982?]), 25.