Your child deserves to be exposed to the book that made our world
Originally published on September 24, 2023, as an op-ed at Fox News
American students need the Bible—both K-12 students and college students. To some, that will sound scandalous, since we live in an intellectual culture that is hostile to the Bible and has largely ripped it from curricula. After attending our nation’s schools, too many Americans show an extraordinary biblical illiteracy and, as a result, now end up with a distorted understanding of themselves, our national history, our Judeo-Christian heritage, and our political experiment in self-government.
Why do our students need the Bible? 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 in Western history, it is the book that made our world.
Knowledge of the Bible is foundational to understanding Western culture. It has influenced our art, our literature, our philosophy, our education and justice system, our understanding of government and family, and it has had a profound effect on humanitarianism and philanthropy.
The Bible is a cultural key that unlocks vocabulary, symbols, images, metaphors throughout Western culture. Our literature is steeped in biblical references from books by Shakespeare to Steinbeck to the speeches of Lincoln and Martin Luther King. According to surveys by U.S. high school English teachers, we know that Bible knowledge confers a distinct educational advantage on students.
The Bible is also foundational to understanding American history. The early public religion of America was Christianity, which meant the Bible provided the framework for society in early America. Our nation’s founders read the Bible and quoted from it more than any other book.
The Bible informed 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 said that “the first and almost the only book deserving of universal attention is the Bible.” Benjamin Rush supported the teaching of the Bible in schools saying that Bible education is “the best means of awakening moral sensibility” in the minds of young people. It prepared them for self- governance.
Not too long ago the Bible was a key part of our public education system. I can remember the opening exercises of my public school in northern New Jersey which included not only the Pledge of Allegiance, but the Lord’s Prayer and a Bible reading (with the ten commandments posted on the school room wall). And that was a watered-down version of what used to be more intense in school books like The New England Primer and the McGuffey Readers.
The Bible 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.
It gave us a theistic perspective: that there is a sovereign God and a reason to live (as opposed to the current nihilism), that human nature is mixed and fixed (verses the view that it is plastic and we can be whatever we want to be), that there are two kinds of freedom and one is disastrous (where everyone does what seems right in their own eyes), that we should love and respect our neighbor, and that faith and reason are compatible. It taught us about covenants, gave us a sense of what a nation is, and showed us that nations and national leaders can be good or bad (or somewhere in between).
Perhaps you are saying to yourself, “but it is unconstitutional to teach and read the Bible in school?” Well, that thought would not have even arisen until mid-20th century America when the Supreme Court first ruled, in Everson vs. Board of Education, on the basis of a new understanding of church and state (i.e. the complete wall of separation, which led to a separation of God and state). Before that time, even president Roosevelt talked about ours as a nation which held to the ideals of Christianity and democracy.
But there was a shift in our self-understanding in the post-war period from being a Christian democracy to being a liberal democracy. And the Supreme Court did rule in Engle vs. Vitale (1962) and Abington School District vs. Schempp (1963) that school-sponsored prayer and Bible reading were now prohibited.
I personally think that these were disastrous decisions. However, even as written, they do not ban the Bible from our schools. It is permissible to require readings of the Bible if it is being studied academically, as literature, as history or as part of the history of religions. It can be studied as an historical resource. It’s just that public schools cannot use it devotionally or to advance particular religious beliefs. But it can be used as a text and even a primary text to teach about what it says and how it influenced our civilization.
Now, of course, parochial and religious schools have far greater freedom with regard to teaching the Bible. So do faith-based universities. Yeshiva University, an Orthodox Jewish university, is committed to teaching the Torah. Colorado Christian University, the evangelical Christian university where I serve, has required Bible classes as part of its general education requirements.
So, when I say American students need the Bible, here is what I am recommending for our public institutions. We should require the teaching of the Bible in public schools as the primary document of Western civilization, and a book that has had significant influence on our national history.
Teach it academically. Teach it as literature—its narrative and characters. Teach it as not just one of many religions, but as our nation’s formative religion. That doesn’t mean every person must believe in the Bible, but every educated person deserves to know the Bible.
The fact is, we are not doing too well without the Bible. It’s not just the problem of biblical illiteracy, it’s the purposelessness of so many young people, the high suicide rates, the mental health crisis, the lack of character formation, the gender confusion, the new anti-intellectualism (that comes with attacks on the idea of truth, wisdom and yes, reason). And it’s the ideological shift in our schools from liberal democracy to woke neo-Marxism that is leaving us more fragmented, more divisive and more hopeless than ever. On this count, our recent Bible-phobia has been a disaster.