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American students need the Bible, whether they are K-12 or in college. To some this will seem scandalous, since we live in an intellectual culture that is hostile to the Bible and has largely removed it from school curricula. After attending our nation’s schools, too many Americans demonstrate extraordinary biblical illiteracy and, as a result, are now left with a distorted understanding of themselves, of our national history, of our Judeo-Christian heritage and our political experience of self-government.
Why do our students need the Bible? Let’s start with the fact that it is the best-selling book of all time and we are raising a generation ignorant of its contents. Add to that its status as the primary document of Western history, it is the book that made our world.
Knowledge of the Bible is fundamental to understanding Western culture. It has influenced our art, our literature, our philosophy, our education and justice systems, our understanding of government and the family, and it has had a profound effect on humanitarianism and philanthropy.
The Bible is a cultural key that opens the way to vocabulary, symbols, images and metaphors throughout Western culture. Our literature is steeped in biblical references ranging from the books of Shakespeare to Steinbeck to the speeches of Lincoln and Martin Luther King. From surveys of American high school English teachers, we know that knowledge of the Bible confers a clear educational advantage to students.
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The Bible is also fundamental to understanding American history. America’s first public religion was Christianity, which meant that the Bible provided the framework for society in early America. Our nation’s founders read the Bible and cited it more than any other book.
Why do our students need the Bible? Let’s start with the fact that it is the best-selling book of all time and we are raising a generation ignorant of its contents. Add to that its status as the primary document of Western history.
The Bible inspired both our Declaration of Independence (“all men are created equal”) and our Constitution (itself a national covenant). John Adams called it “the best book in the world.” His son John Quincy Adams agreed and declared that “the first and almost the only book worthy of universal attention is the Bible.” Benjamin Rush supported Bible teaching in schools, saying that biblical education is “the best means of awakening moral sensitivity” in the minds of young people. This prepared them for self-government.
Not long ago, the Bible was a key part of our public education system. I remember the commencement exercises at my public school in northern New Jersey, which included not only the Pledge of Allegiance, but also the Lord’s Prayer and a reading from the Bible (with the Ten Commandments posted on the wall of the classroom). And it was a watered-down version of what used to be more intense in textbooks like The New England Primer and McGuffey Readers.
The Bible has shaped our understanding of law and freedom and exposed us to all kinds of stories, from creation to Moses to Jesus, including a redemptive story that has animated our civilization.
This gave us a theistic perspective: that there is a sovereign God and a reason to live (contrary to current nihilism), that human nature is mixed and fixed (as opposed to the idea that it is plastic and that we can be whatever we want). being), that there are two kinds of freedom and one is disastrous (where everyone does what seems right to them in their own eyes), that we must love and respect our neighbor, and that faith and reason are compatible. It taught us about alliances, gave us an idea of what a nation is, and showed us that nations and national leaders can be good or bad (or somewhere in between).
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You may be thinking, “But is it unconstitutional to teach and read the Bible in school?” Well, that idea wouldn’t even have arisen until the mid-20th century in America, when the Supreme Court first ruled, in Everson v. Board of Education, based on a new understanding of Church and State (i.e. the complete wall of separation, which leads to a separation of God and State). Before that time, even President Roosevelt spoke of our nation as one committed to the ideals of Christianity and democracy.
But in the post-war period, our perception of ourselves has evolved from a Christian democracy to a liberal democracy. And the Supreme Court ruled in Engle v. Vitale (1962) and Abington School District v. Schempp (1963) that school-sponsored prayer and Bible reading were now prohibited.
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I personally think these were disastrous decisions. However, even in its written form, they do not ban the Bible from our schools. It is permissible to require reading the Bible if it is studied academically, in literature, in history or in the context of the history of religions. It can be studied as a historical resource. It’s just that public schools can’t use it for devotional purposes or to promote particular religious beliefs. But it can be used as a text and even a primary text to teach what it says and how it has influenced our civilization.
Today, of course, parochial and religious schools enjoy much greater freedom in the teaching of the Bible. The same goes for religious universities. Yeshiva University, an Orthodox Jewish university, is committed to teaching Torah. Colorado Christian University, the evangelical Christian college where I work, required Bible courses as part of its general education requirements.
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So when I say that American students need the Bible, here is what I recommend to our public institutions. We should demand that the teaching of the Bible in public schools be the primary document of Western civilization and a book that has had a significant influence on our national history.
Every educated person deserves to know the Bible.
Teach it academically. Teach it like literature – its story and its characters. Let us teach it not just as one religion among many, but as the formative religion of our nation. This does not mean that everyone must believe the Bible, but every educated person deserves to know the Bible.
The fact is, we don’t do very well without the Bible. It’s not just the problem of biblical illiteracy, it’s also the worthlessness of so many young people, the high suicide rates, the mental health crisis, the lack of character building, the confusion of genders , the new anti-intellectualism (which is accompanied by attacks on the idea of truth, wisdom and yes, reason). And it is the ideological shift in our schools, from liberal democracy to woke neo-Marxism, that leaves us more fragmented, more conflicted, and more desperate than ever. In this regard, our recent Bible phobia has been a disaster.