Can Educators Teach about the Bible?

Posted On 13 Jun 2020 by religionmatters

Tim Hall, Ph.D.

Use of the Bible in public education can beg questions and promote educator anxiety? Can and should educators teach about the Bible in the classroom? What would be the pedagogical approach? Can schools have an elective class focused on the Bible? What would the benefits of a course focused on the Bible be? The purpose of this blog is to answer these questions, which can cause many challenges and controversies. 

To begin, I will answer the most simple questions first. Can the Bible be used in the classroom? Can an elective class be taught about the Bible? In short, yes. As Justice Clark stated in the majority opinion in landmark First Amendment case, Abington Township School District v. Schempp (1963), an education “is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historical qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.” Of course, this does not mean that teaching about the Bible in the classroom has not been without controversy. Most recently, The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a case challenging the constitutionality of a Bible course in Mercer County, West Virginia. In the end, the school system suspended the Bible in the Schools program for the 2017-2018 school year, offering a new elective class to high school and middle schools. The new course called “The Bible and Its Influence” teaches about the Bible’s literary and historical significance. 

The controversy surrounding the Bible in schools can be avoided through the educational approach in the classroom. The Freedom Forum’s Religious Freedom Center provides guidelines in its A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools. These objective and academic guidelines include: 

  • Teachers should be academic, not devotional in their treatment of all religions. Objectivity is the key to this perspective.
  • Teachers should only teach for awareness of religions, not an acceptance of religion. There should be no proselytizing in the classroom regardless of personal religious view, which is private.
  • Teachers should only teach about religion, not practice religion. Students should not be participating in religious ceremonies.
  • Teachers should educate for student understanding of the diversity of religious views and not have an imposition of a particular viewpoint.
  • Teachers should not promote OR denigrate religions. Adverse events associated with a specific tradition of faith do not characterize the entirety of the religious group. (e.g., the perpetrators of the horrors of 9/11 do not characterize the 1.8 billion other people who are Muslim.)
  • Teachers should only inform about beliefs, but they should not seek to make students believe. [1]

But there are additional guidelines for the Bible in schools for educators who want more specifics. These can be found in the following documents:

There is also a textbook which has been extensively vetted for its constitutionality entitled, The Bible and Its Influence published by The Biblical Literacy Project, which provides excellent guidelines about teaching the Bible in the classroom. 

So an educator has the tools to teach about the Bible in the classroom. What are the benefits of student knowledge of the Bible? What is the educational payoff? To differing degrees, the Bible is a foundational source document of the Abrahamic religions, which include Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These religious traditions make up a little over half of the world’s population. So an understanding of the Bible provides some insight into half of the world’s population. Additionally, if students learn about the diversity of belief and interpretation associated with the Bible within those traditions, it supports the Asia Society’s model of Global Competence. In this case with this type of teaching and learning, “students recognize that they have a particular perspective and that others may or may not share it.” [2] For the success of our students in the globalized world of the 21st century, this will be essential. 

[1] First Amendment: A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in Public Schools

[2] Asia Society: Center for Global Education

General source: Mark A. Chancey, “Ch 12: Teaching about the Bible in a Social Studies Context,” in Haynes, Charles C., ed. Teaching about Religion in the Social Studies Classroom.

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