The Texas Board of Education, the nation’s second largest purchaser of public school textbooks, is revising its K-12 social studies curriculum and deciding how to characterize religion’s influence on American history. Three consultants have recommended emphasizing the roles of the Bible, Christianity and civic virtue of religion. As America’s children go back to school, how would you advise the Texas board? How should religion be taught in public schools?
With its many poetic passages that have greatly enriched our language and literature, ideally I would like to see the Bible taught in public schools, but only if done the “right” way. Of course, my right might differ from yours. The Bible and religion would have to be taught as objectively as possible. Any course that does not include the good, the bad, and the ugly in its subject matter, is unlikely to pass my objectivity test.
We can, for example, point out that many fine Christian leaders deserve credit for working to abolish slavery, but not without also pointing out that many Christian leaders also used their Bible to perpetuate slavery, especially those Southern preachers who defended it as an institution established by God. We should also include some of the many non-religious people who were motivated by humanistic principles to work for abolition.
This is probably not the sort of thing the Texas Board of Education has in mind. What they did to the teaching of evolution, some now want to do to social studies: replace documented evidence with sectarian religious belief. In Texas, evolution is a political and religious controversy, not a scientific one, and the board allows for non-scientific creationist critiques of evolution in science class. Some on the board now want social studies textbooks to say that the foundational principles of our country are Biblical, that Christianity is an overall force for good, and that this is a key reason for American exceptionalism.
If I were teaching a social studies course that incorporated the Bible, I would ask my students to compose an essay giving evidence from the Bible to support fundamental American ideals like individual rights (including those for women and blacks), democratically-elected representatives, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion. I’ve read the Bible carefully, and I expect those essays would be very short. I would also assign other necessarily short essays on any scientific statement in the Bible that is not contradicted by modern science, and on all mentions of God or Jesus in the U.S. Constitution.
There would not be much chance of getting my syllabus through the Texas School Board. Since local politicians exert so much influence over what goes into a public school curriculum, perhaps it would be better to drop Bible teaching entirely, and not embroil the public schools in yet another needless controversy. In fact, the major problem seems to be local control, itself. Why should evolution or the Bible be taught so differently in Texas than in Vermont? Our system cries out for national education standards, which exist in most developed countries.
Regardless of personal religious beliefs, students should learn about the importance of religious liberty–and why it is threatened when the government endorses any particular religious view, as some influential leaders in Texas propose. Many students falsely believe that the original Pledge of Allegiance contained the words, “under God,” words added in 1954 during the shameful McCarthy era. In the melting pot called America, we are one nation under the Constitution (or maybe under Canada), but not one nation under God. In fact, given how the religious right opposes the teaching of evolution, or any scientific or social view that conflicts with a literal interpretation of the Bible, we are really becoming one nation under-educated.
Photo Courtesy of: Michael 1952