As you may have already heard (here, here, here, or possibly here) a suburb of Oklahoma City is planning to go ahead with teaching the Bible in public schools. The folks over at Americans United think this is probably a bad idea, for the obvious reasons:
…it seems obvious from his speech that [Hobby Lobby owner] Green doesn’t believe those facts need to be embellished. He believes they speak for themselves, and that’s what he intends to teach high school students.
If that’s the approach, then this class isn’t intended to teach the Bible. It’s intended to teach Christian apologetics and promote a fundamentalist view of that tome. And there lies the trouble.
Of course, there wouldn’t be an issue if Green, and the Mustang public schools, wanted to create an elective in religious studies. As long as the class is taught in an objective manner, there’s no constitutional violation. But it is unquestionably illegal to teach the Bible as scriptural truth.
What we have here is a classic no-win situation. If the Bible is taught in an objective and scholarly way, as history and literature rather than inspired holy writ, then students will be encouraged to take a critical approach to the subject matter, questioning whether it is sufficiently evidenced to be considered believable. For an early example of this approach in practice, consider the advice of Thomas Jefferson to his school-aged nephew Peter Carr:
Read the Bible, then as you would read Livy or Tacitus. The facts which are within the ordinary course of nature, you will believe on the authority of the writer, as you do those of the same kind in Livy & Tacitus. The testimony of the writer weighs in their favor, in one scale, and their not being against the laws of nature, does not weigh against them. But those facts in the Bible which contradict the laws of nature, must be examined with more care, and under a variety of faces. Here you must recur to the pretensions of the writer to inspiration from God. Examine upon what evidence his pretensions are founded, and whether that evidence is so strong, as that its falsehood would be more improbable than a change in the laws of nature, in the case he relates. For example, in the book of Joshua, we are told, the sun stood still several hours. Were we to read that fact in Livy or Tacitus, we should class it with their showers of blood, speaking of statues, beasts, &c. But it is said, that the writer of that book was inspired. Examine, therefore, candidly, what evidence there is of his having been inspired.
Obviously, the mostly God-fearing and Christian population of Mustang is not going to be thrilled to find that their children are being taught to examine in a dispassionate and scholarly way whether the pretensions of biblical authors to divine inspiration are indeed well-founded. School officials would find themselves fielding angry phone calls from various congregations when it is discovered that the school has imperiled the eternal souls of their children by encouraging them to think freely about whether the Bible is inspired and true.
If the Bible is not taught in an objective and scholarly way, then the schools will run into another set of problems altogether. Not only would the people of Mustang run the risk of enriching the coffers of the ACLU or AU at taxpayer expense, but by teaching the Bible as holy writ they will inevitably run into the problem of interpretation of key passages. Part of the reason why Protestantism is historically schismatic is that each new denomination comes up with a different spin on the Bible than what its parent denomination promulgated as official church doctrine. Even seemingly innocuous passages may be found at the center of denominational schisms, and we are to expect that public schoolteachers will be able to navigate this theological minefield without doing injury to the doctrines of one denomination or another? This is never going to happen. Instead, school officials will find themselves fielding angry phone calls from various congregations when it is discovered that the school has imperiled the eternal souls of their children by promulgating the “wrong” interpretation of some particular passage.
There is no way this is going to work out well for the people of Mustang and their otherwise admirable school system, but on the upside, they will serve as a cautionary example for the remainder of the State of Oklahoma. If I could pray for those kids, I would.