Should Liberals Teach the Bible in Public Schools?

Usually, when we hear pleas for the teaching of the Bible in America’s public schools, they come from conservative evangelical Protestant activists.  Today, though, liberal scholar and friend of ILYBYGTH Mark Chancey makes the liberal case for teaching the Bible in public schools.  Do you buy it?

Chancey attracted attention a while back for his study of the ways public schools in Texas teach the Bible.  Too many of them, he concluded, teach a sectarian theology.  Too many public school programs, he found, don’t teach students about the Bible, but rather try to tell students what to believe about the Bible.

Recently in the pages of Religion & Politics Chancey outlined the ways the Bible should be taught.  He offered an eight-point outline of the ways good public-school Bible programs work.  Everyone interested in religion, he argues, should staunchly support the teaching of the Bible in America’s public schools.  To do it right, though, schools need to learn from the successful Texas programs he saw in his review.

What do good public-school Bible programs do?  Here are Chancey’s pointers:

  • They relied on resources informed by a broad range of biblical scholarship, not just the scholars of one particular religious community.

  • They informed students about the unique features of the Bibles of different traditions (Jewish, Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox).

  • They were intentional in exposing students to biblical translations associated with different religious traditions.

  • They were sensitive to the different ways various religious communities have interpreted particular passages and did not present one tradition’s interpretation as normative.

  • They recognized the importance of biblical texts as ancient historical sources without lapsing into a tone of assumed historicity.

  • They discussed the Bible’s moral and theological claims without presenting them as authoritative for the students.

  • They recognized that the Bible is not a science textbook.

  • They treated Judaism as a religion in its own right and not merely as the foil or background for Christianity.

I never learned squat about the Bible in all my public-school experience.  Part of that might be geography.  I grew up in the liberal heartlands of suburban Boston.  Chancey’s study focuses on the Bible teaching in Texas.  I know there are plenty of conservative religious folks in Boston, but the history and culture of Boston’s public schools differs in enormous ways from that of other regions.

I agree wholeheartedly that educated people should know about the Bible.  But here is a question for ILYBYGTH readers: should liberals push for more Chancey-style Bible education?  That is, should liberals encourage their local public schools to teach about the Bible, even as they don’t try to cram Biblical Christianity down students’ throats?  Or is that too eerily similar to mainstream scientists who might agree to teach “problems with evolution” in public-school science classes?

In other words, we might all agree that students should learn the real scientific debates about evolution, just as we might agree that students should learn about the Bible.  But the history of controversy over the teaching of evolution—just as with the history of controversy over the teaching of the Bible—has made it difficult if not impossible for liberals to support the teaching of scientific debates over evolution.  Too often, because of political meanings, teaching the “debate” over evolution has been code for teaching religious ideas in science classes.  Is the same true here?  If public schools attempt to teach about the Bible, would it tend to devolve into cramming religion down students’ throats?

Professor Chancey says no.