The Arkansas state legislature is currently working on a bill that would allow academic study of the Bible in public schools. School districts throughout the state would create their own curriculum for such a course and they would be held to the same standards as all other courses.
These classes would also be electives; they would not be required curriculum. There are many people who believe that such a class is a good idea, provided that it’s in a non-religious format; a study of the history of the books of the Bible and correlating those to events discussed in other historical texts, perhaps studying different translations and discussing those differences, and other avenues of study that don’t include preaching.
Arkansas is not the first state to attempt to adopt such legislation. Earlier this year, Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona signed such legislation into law, creating an elective course entitled “The Bible and its Influence on Western Culture.” This elective teaches about the history of Bible, studying its literature and discussing the influence the Bible has had on Western culture, including how Western countries are governed.
South Carolina, Georgia, Texas, Tennessee, and Oklahoma also allow such courses to be taught. All these courses, however, must adhere to federal regulations maintaining religious neutrality. In other words, they can teach it in an academic manner, but cannot teach it as God’s Word.
In 2007, then-chief religion writer of Time Magazine, David Van Biema, published an article that supports the teaching of the Bible in public schools, calling it “the most influential book ever written,” and noting that it is a best-seller every single year. Religious and non-religious leaders throughout U.S. history have quoted it, and whether the secular among us like it or not, it has influenced our society in a big way.
Furthermore, the Time article argues that, when people are debating the merits of, say, teaching creationism, they need to know what they’re talking about. Many people who grow up in non-Christian households have no idea what the Bible says about anything, simply because they were never really exposed to it. If nothing else, taking a Bible course could help more people have a true understanding of just what they’re arguing against.
Bruce Wilson of Talk2Action.org, however, has a different take on the issue. He believes that Bible classes in school would ultimately serve to create a national religion by teaching one holy book over others. Even as an elective, and even though it’s open to all students and students of all belief systems, including atheist students, have been taking these courses in places like Texas, it still advances one religion without really giving the same opportunity for people to learn about other religions that have influenced Western culture and history.
These types of classes do indeed appear to be a precursor to advancing Christianity in the public school system. The Christian Science Monitor calls Bible literacy a necessity not just for religious purposes, but also for civic and political purposes, going so far as to question how citizens can have meaningful dialogue with biblical inflections on issues such as abortion, homosexuality, even the environment, if they don’t know what’s in the Bible.
The issue with that, however, is that since we’re not a Christian nation, despite the majority of religious people being Christian here, these issues should not be debated from a biblical standpoint. Everyone has the right to believe how they choose here, but when an issue becomes political, as abortion and gay rights are, what’s needed is a move away from biblical arguments, instead looking at each issue from a Constitutional standpoint and as a matter of public health, along with other, more scientifically-based points of view.
Nobody can argue the Bible’s influence on U.S. and Western culture. But the argument can be made that the holy books of other religions are just as influential and essential to understanding other cultures, particularly, in recent history, Islam. Given that the U.S. is a melting pot, would it not be to our benefit to offer courses on the holy books of all the major cultures represented in our population?