Does Reading the Bible Make Children Violent?

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.



Traditionalist Teaching for Progressive Teachers? Lisa Delpit and Fundamentalism in Black and White

Fundamentalists don’t like progressive education.  They may not realize that they have some potential allies deep in the heart of the academic education establishment.

What do fundamentalists mean when they fight against “progressive education?”  For one thing, fundamentalists tend to pooh-pooh reading instruction that allows children to ‘discover’ reading on their own.  And they dismiss the notion that classroom teachers should put authority in the hands of students.  Also, fundamentalists often look askance at education professors who advocate soft-heading, child-centered classroom teaching that fails to deliver basic information and academic skills.

Generally, fundamentalists make these complaints from outside of the academy.  Some historians and other prominent academics—folks such as Arthur BestorRobert Hutchins,  or Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.—have critiqued the claims of progressive education, but most of the effective critics have worked outside of higher education.  But in the past generation, at least one prominent academic educator has critiqued “advocates of any progressive movement” who fail to consider the opinions of those “who may not share their enthusiasm about so-called new, liberal, or progressive ideas.”  The work of this world-famous educational activist is read at every school of education, especially ones in which teachers are trained to use progressive teaching methods.

Then why does she talk this way?  Because she framed the issue not as traditional and progressive, but as black and white.  Her name is Lisa Delpit, and her traditionalist critique of progressive education did not lead to her exclusion from the education academy.  On the contrary, she has received some of the academy’s most prestigious awards for her work, including a MacArthur “Genius” award in 1990 and Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Outstanding Contribution to Education award in 1993.

To be clear, Delpit demonstrated considerable differences from many other traditionalist education activists.  For example, she backs a multicultural approach to education, most conservative traditionalists do not.  (See the ILYBYGTH discussion of traditionalist critiques of multicultural education here, here and here.)  She supports reading in depth and excoriates rote instruction.

But she also pushes a traditionalist ideology of teaching.  She offers withering criticisms of progressive teachers’ justifications.  In one career-making speech and article from the late 1980s, Delpit castigated progressive educators for their misplaced softness toward students.  She cited with approval one African American classroom teacher who described her anger at white progressive teachers as “a cancer, a sore.”  This teacher had stopped arguing against progressive methods.  Instead, she “shut them [white progressive teachers and administrators] out.  I go back to my own little cubby, my classroom, and I try to teach the way I know will work, no matter what those folk say.”  Delpit suggested that a direct-instruction model matched more closely the cultural background of most African American students.  In one model Delpit described favorably, the teacher is the authority.  The goal is to teach reading via “direct instruction of phonics generalizations and blending.”  The teacher keeps students’ attention by asking a series of questions, by eye contact, and by eliciting scripted group responses from the students.  Such traditionalist pedagogy, Delpit noted, elicited howls of protest from “liberal educators.”

In a sentence that could come straight from such conservative traditionalist leaders as Bill Bennett or Max Rafferty, Delpit supported the notion of many African American educators that “many of the ‘progressive’ educational strategies imposed by liberals upon Black and poor children could only be based on a desire to ensure that the liberals’ children get sole access to the dwindling pool of American jobs.”

In another critique, Delpit argued that white, middle-class teachers hid their classroom authority in ways that were confusing to poor and African American students.  Teachers of all backgrounds, Delpit suggested, need to be more explicit about their power and authority in the classroom.  A good teacher, Delpit noted, was seen as both “fun” and “mean” by one African American student.  Such a teacher, Delpit’s interviewee argued, “made us learn. . . . she was in charge of that class and she didn’t let anyone run her.”

More important for fundamentalist activists, Delpit’s voice is not alone.  A call for traditional pedagogy and schooling seems to be gaining adherents among African American parents and educators.  We could look at the deep traditionalism of such prominent schools as the New York Success Academy Charter Schools.  Or we could probe the attitudes of those who run KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) Schools, which tend to serve significant numbers of African American students.  In a recent article about school “paddling” in USA Today, one African American school administrator confirmed that she believed in spanking “because I’m from the old school.”

The numbers indicate African American students tend to receive corporal punishment more often than students of other racial backgrounds, but don’t indicate the level of support for such punishment among African American teachers as opposed to teachers of other races.  There are some indications that African American parents tend to use corporal punishment more often than other groups.  This would support Delpit’s assertion that many African American students have different cultural expectations from other students when they get to school.  But the same study asserts that a huge majority of parents of other groups also use corporal punishment at home.  And, indeed, there is a lot of support for corporal punishment at school among white conservative activists.  But such support generally comes as part of a broader traditionalist, anti-progressive ideology of schooling.

Delpit’s argument is different.  She argues for traditional authoritarian teachers within a progressive, multicultural educational system.

What does this mean?  I’ve got a couple of reflections, and I’d welcome more.

For one thing, it tells us something about the current state of education scholarship.  Seen optimistically, we might conclude that the popularity of Delpit’s work proves that education scholars are willing to embrace a true diversity of opinion.  That is, education scholars might not be the petty intellectual tyrants some traditionalists accuse them of being.  To cite just one example, arch-traditionalist Max Rafferty in 1968 accused the “education bureaucrats” of only speaking to regular people “with that air of insufferable condescension.”  Such “educationists,” Rafferty charged, only listened to one another; they only hoped to turn America’s schools into something approaching a “well-run ant hill, beehive or Hitlerian dictatorship.”  Delpit’s example of progressive traditionalism might suggest that education scholars are more open to dissent than Rafferty and others have consistently charged.

In a less rosy light, though, we might conclude that this is yet another example of the ways the mainstream academy is hamstrung over racial ideology.  We might wonder if Delpit’s ideas would be welcomed as fervently if education scholars weren’t so terrified of being considered racially insensitive.  It helps, of course, that Delpit is a wonderful writer and powerful polemicist.  But it is hard to ignore the question: How warmly would a scholar be welcomed who trashed the idea of progressive pedagogy in general?  Not just for one group of students, but for students and schools in general?

One other point jumps out at us: we apparently need to be more careful when we talk about traditionalist education.  I’ll plead guilty.  I am most interested in those traditionalists who act out of what we can fairly call a conservative impulse to transform American schools and society.  Folks like Rousas Rushdoony, Max Rafferty, Sam Blumenfeld, Mel and Norma Gabler.  Groups like the Daughters of the American Revolution and the American Legion.  Activists from these groups have long believed that teaching must be made more traditional so that American society itself can reclaim some of its lost glory.  But there are traditionalists like Delpit who hope that schools will transform school and society in a vastly different way.

Perhaps we need to treat “educational traditionalism” the way we treat “evangelicalism.”  A lot of folks, scholars and normal people alike, tend to treat “evangelicalism” as if it were the sole domain of white, conservative folks such as Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell.  But religious historians are also interested in other forms of evangelicalism.  There have always been leftist evangelicals, for instance, as Raymond Haberski has recently noted.  And, of course, there has always been a strong evangelical tradition among African Americans.

Perhaps the most important notion to think about here is that we have more than one kind of educational traditionalism.  Bashing progressive education has long been the national pastime of educational conservatives.  For the last twenty-five years or so, such conservatives have been joined by an influential cadre of mainstream education scholars.

Further reading: Lisa Delpit, “The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children,” Harvard Educational Review 58 (Fall 1988): 280-199; Delpit, (1986). Skills and other dilemmas of a progressive black educator. Harvard Educational Review, 56(4), 379-386; Delpit, Lisa. (1995). Other People’s Children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. New York, NY: The New Press; Delpit, L & Perry, T. (1998). The Real Ebonics Debate: Power, Language, and the Education of African-American Children (Eds.). Boston, MA: Beacon Press; Delpit, L. & Dowdy, J. K. (2002). The Skin That we Speak: Thoughts on language and culture in the classroom (Eds.). New York, NY: The New Press; Delpit, L. D. (2012). Multiplication is for White People: Raising expectations for other people’s children. New York:The New Press.


Everyone wants America’s schools to teach values.  Progressive types tend to imagine schools that teach children the value of egalitarianism, of celebrating the rich mosaic of cultures that make up America. Traditionalists tend to imagine schools that train students in traditional cultural values.  As we have argued in earlier posts about the “Cult of Multiculturalism” (see here and here), traditionalists could argue that the values of progressive education aren’t real values at all.  Traditionalists might argue that the only real moral instilled by the progressive educational regime is a lamentable and decadent relativism.  According to this traditionalist argument, children are indoctrinated by progressive educators in the pernicious notion that there are no transcendent values, that all values must be welcomed equally.

Such traditionalists have insisted that America’s schools must instead lay out an explicit menu of true moral values for their students.  In its more sophisticated forms, this traditionalist argument has pointed out that we can distill a reasonable list of these values that does not simply impose traditional Christian values in public schools.  Rather, it is simple enough to create a short list of moral values that will incorporate the traditions of all cultures.

For example, writing in the 1960s, California School Superintendent Max Rafferty built his career, in large part, on his insistence that public schools must return to their original mission of instilling traditional moral values in children.  The problem with progressive education, Rafferty believed, was that it denied the obvious and inescapable truth that there are “positive and eternal values.”  In such an educational environment, which Rafferty believed had dominated America’s schools since the 1930s, this moral irresponsibility had drastic effects.  Not only did students fail to grasp obvious moral truths, but under the progressive educational regime,

the mastery of basic skills began insensibly to erode, knowledge of the great cultures and contributions of past civilizations started to slip and slide, reverence for the heroes of our nation’s past faded and withered under the burning glare of pragmatism.

In the place of time-tested values, Rafferty argued, progressives offered “such airy and ephemeral soap bubbles as ‘group dynamics,’ ‘social living,’ and ‘orientation.’”

Rafferty noted that such innovations meant both educational and moral failure.  It also ignored the wishes of the vast majority of Americans.  As Rafferty argued in 1964,

Parents, by and large, want what they have always wanted for their children.  They want them turned into civilized, patriotic citizens speaking and writing good English; able to succeed both in business and college; possessing at least a passable knowledge of our great cultural heritage; trained in such minimum essentials as reading, basic mathematics, spelling, grammar, history, and geography; and, above all, well enough grounded in habits of diligence, perseverance, and orderly thinking to enable them to prepare for adult life. 

Such values did not imply, in Rafferty’s opinion, that minority groups and non-Christians would be made to feel unwelcome in public schools.  Rather, Rafferty believed that everyone agreed on a few basic values that schools must impart.  For Rafferty, these included love of country, non-sectarian religiosity, and character traits such as bravery, honesty, thrift, and hard work.

Writing in the late 1960s, Rafferty noted with alarm that public schools had been divested of their traditional role as moral guardians.  As he wrote in 1968,

Parents pay us to introduce their children to the accumulated culture, wisdom and refinement of the ages, not to give them a mud bath in vice and suggestiveness.  They expect us to inspire in those children a love for the good, the true and the beautiful.

Anybody can pick up obscenity and irreverence on any street corner.  You don’t have to go to school to learn four-letter words and ugly racial slurs.  The schools are built and supported to fight against this sort of dry rot, not to go over to it and embrace it.

We teachers need to set standards, understand them and then uphold them.  And this we cannot do until we abandon an educational philosophy which holds that all standards are fictitious and all truths mere fantasy.

The problem with progressive education, in Rafferty’s opinion, was its “bizarre and even creepy” insistence that public schools must “uproot the ethical standards of 2000 years and to substitute for them the moral criteria of a pack of sex-starved alley cats.”

Max Rafferty’s unabashed insistence on traditionalist education for California did not take his career quite as far as he had hoped.  He ran for U.S. Senate in 1968, on an unapologetically conservative platform that included, in the words of one Newsweek article, “shooting looters, summary street courts-martial for other rioters, more capital punishment, abolishing most foreign aid, and escalating the Vietnam war (perhaps with nuclear weapons).”  Unlike other conservative California politicians, most notably Ronald Reagan’s successful bid for governor in 1966 and Richard Nixon’s win as President in 1968, Rafferty lost his election by a huge margin.  Nevertheless, his fulminations on the importance of including traditional values in America’s public schools won him a large and dedicated following among traditionalists.

William J. Bennett shared many of Rafferty’s beliefs about the importance of traditional values for America’s public schools.  As U.S. Secretary of Education in the mid-1980s under President Reagan, Bennett encouraged American schools to encourage “Moral Literacy.”  Bennett built his educational program around what he called the “Three C’s:” Content, Choice, and Character.  He insisted that teaching students traditional moral values was a necessary function of public schools.  Only by doing so, Bennett believed, could schools help young people develop their character, their unique individual moral quality.  Such moral values, Bennett argued, did not imply the imposition of one set of moral values on a culturally diverse American population.  They did not, as his critics allege, yearn for a return for an imagined past in which only the values of White European Americans were valued.  No, Bennett insisted in 1986, “there is a good deal of consensus among the American people about these character traits.”  Americans of all cultural backgrounds, Bennett believed, could agree that schools ought to teach such traits as “thoughtfulness, fidelity, kindness, diligence, honesty, fairness, self-discipline, respect for law, and taking one’s guidance by accepted and tested standards of right and wrong rather than by, for example, one’s personal preferences.”

Bennett worked during his tenure as Secretary of Education to encourage public schools to teach these values formally and explicitly.  He also published the phenomenally successful Book of Virtues to help parents, educators, and young people learn these time-tested standards of right and wrong.

More recently, two academics have attracted attention beyond the usual ranks of committed traditionalists with their concoction of a list of universal character traits that schools ought to be teaching.  Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson claimed by 2004 to have distilled twenty-four universal values from their survey of moral thinkers from all cultures, from all periods.  As one New York Times article described their work, Seligman and Peterson “consulted works from Aristotle to Confucius, from the Upanishads to the Torah, from the Boy Scout Handbook to profiles of Pokémon characters.”  As we might expect, their list of character traits included some of Bennett’s and Rafferty’s favorites, including bravery and integrity.  They also include personal traits such as gratitude.  As many commentators have noticed, Seligman and Peterson also added a few that might surprise traditionalists, such as the need for “zest” among young people.

Most important for our discussion here, the notion that schools ought to do more than expose children to a variety of moral values has continued to attract vehement supporters among large numbers of parents, scholars, and educators.  According to these supporters, the fundamental presumption of progressivism—that schools ought to help students discover their own morality rather than imposing an external list of disembodied moral values—has proven to be both ineffective and morally indefensible.  Instead, schools must teach students actively and explicitly that they must practice a short list of traditional values.  They must be honest.  They must be charitable.  They must be kind.  They must be brave.  At times, of course, students may stumble and fail as they learn these traits, just as they might not master long division on the first try.  But one of the primary functions of schooling, in this traditionalist argument, must be to guide students toward learning these fundamental values.


FURTHER READING: Max Rafferty, What Are They Doing to Your Children (1964); Rafferty, On Education (1968); William J. Bennett, Moral Literacy and the Foundation of Character (1986); Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (2004).