Why you should care

Because, y’know, religious conflict sheds no small amount of blood.

I was one of a handful of leftist non-Christians at a private Christian high school in the Deep South where, at graduation, everyone received a Bible embossed with their names in gold lettering. Which made me an oddity at college, in the bastion of liberal values that is the American Northeast: Reflecting on high school with my classmates, I mentioned one of my favorite classes was a course on the New Testament. And I thought that everyone should study it in school. Private or public.

Please, put down your fiery stakes. My classmates weren’t into it, either.

I called up a few of my old teachers from my alma mater, the Westminster Schools, including its former president Bill Clarkson — a Ph.D., and a graduate of Duke and seminary who calls himself a “priest-academic.” Fresh from a conference about interfaith studies, Clarkson told me he believes strongly in teaching religious texts in a “non-proselytizing” way.

He’d rather have students read the stuff than “parrot what they hear their parents say,” he explained. And, he adds that the world needs “younger people who will need to lead in making peace in the world, not war.”

But a 2013 poll showed only one in five Americans regularly study their Bibles — i.e. crack the spine a few times a week. Me? I’ve read it. In English, and Spanish. I called up another former teacher — who also holds a Ph.D. in classical languages — named Tom Curtis, now retired. He’d ditched academia to teach at a high school where he lectured 17-year-olds on the Bible as a literary text and graded papers in German, Spanish, French and Latin. My favorite exercise in his class (yes, I was that kid) was called an exegesis, in which students close-read a single phrase or sentence in a text, complete with historical context and etymology. Few of my classmates at Yale had done anything so rigorous in high school. Too bad for them: It helped me learn to write great papers fast — and made me a smart skeptic and a better citizen, too.

Of course, there are good reasons not to stick religion into public schools. For pluralism’s sake, educators would need to teach not just the Bible, but also the Quran, the Torah, the Gita and more — and religious scholars are in short supply. Barry Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, points out it’d be “ludicrous” to introduce religious texts into schools when so many are chopping arts, phys ed and even civics classes. And how would you choose, he asked? Would you have to include, say, Scientology? Plus, he worries about the First Amendment implications (so do people on the other side, for that matter): Would Christians censor an attempt to teach the Bible objectively?

  • Thomas Jefferson writes to the Danbury Baptists (1802): “Religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God,” introducing the phrase “a wall of separation between Church and State.”
  • Engel v. Vitale (1962): SCOTUS rules against prayer in schools.
  • Abington Township v. Schempp (1963): SCOTUS distinguishes — objective teaching about religion is fine, since it’s not the same thing as school-sponsored prayer (not okay).
  • BUT: voluntary prayer is considered permissible, and same with walking around with a Bible tucked under your arm. Just read it on your own time, the court’s said.
  • Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971): Unanimously, the court rules that school districts can fund private school teachers who teach religion.
  • Lee v. Weisman (1992): SCOTUS says freedom of religion means “freedom from coercion” — in other words, no religion allowed at mandatory school events, like graduation ceremonies.

Points taken. Except, I can’t help thinking of how we teach “European History” next to the impossible amalgam of “World” History. Educators are already making millions of choices about what histories our kids learn. Mightn’t we add a few extra tidbits to those curricula?

Lynn, for his part, figures teachers can add Biblical context when it “comes up” in reading, say, Shakespeare or Faulkner — and Muslim context when it comes up in class debates over … terrorism.

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