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The Bible in Public Schools: Q&A   Leave a comment

This article was first published on June 5th, 2017 at progressivechristianity.org

Becky via Facebook, writes:

Question:

Why is it that our children can’t read a Bible in school, but they can in prison?

Answer: By Rev. David Felten

Not to put too fine a point on it, but where did you get the idea that children can’t read a Bible in school?! Of course kids are allowed to read the Bible in school – ANY tax-supported public school. I’d hope the school would expect the students to complete their other class work prior to reading their Bible, though. Kids are in our public schools for a general education, not religious training.

As I see it, this is one of those trigger questions that usually exists for the sole purpose of provoking a self-righteous tsk-tsk-tsk and a head-shaking “Isn’t it a shame what our country has come to?” response. Most of those who “like” or “share” these intentionally incendiary questions don’t actually follow up on whether the questions are based in reality or not. They’re simply happy to point to another supposed example “proving” their bias that liberals are disrespecting the Bible and ruining the country.

But regardless of whether this is a provocative rhetorical question designed to stir righteous indignation or a legitimate question, it deserves a legitimate answer.

At present, the “establishment clause” of the First Amendment has been interpreted as guaranteeing both the respect of and freedom from religion, so the issue is not primarily about the individual student’s rights as it is about school sponsorship. In practice, Supreme Court rulings basically steer schools toward establishing a non-religious or neutral atmosphere – which is why teachers are discouraged from overt displays of religious paraphernalia at their desks and church groups are not allowed to hand out Bibles and other evangelistic propaganda at public schools.

Why would distributing Bibles at schools be a bad thing? Well, for one thing, not all Bibles are created equal. I wouldn’t want para-church groups distributing The Living Bible, for instance. The Living Bible is a loose paraphrase that, wherever possible, opts for anti-Semitic and homophobic language in its paraphrase – all the better to shore up their pre-existing prejudices.

When I was attending public High School, I took a course that had been intentionally designed as a non-devotional and impartial look at “The Bible as Literature.” This class familiarized us with the text, its origins, and from an objective perspective, analyzed the literary forms and stories in a variety of versions. Extra care was exercised by the teacher to make sure there was no proselytizing and that politically biased translation choices were acknowledged for what they were: theological propaganda. This academic approach to the Bible did not go over well with the more pious students who were not only unable to make the leap to reading the Bible critically, but saw the exercise as an attack on their faith.

And that’s the rub. Many fervently religious Americans just don’t get the fact that the beauty of our civic life together is its intentionally secular nature. This is not an attack on religion but the creation of one of the greatest gifts of democracy to the Western world: an open and tolerant society free from the disruptive influence of religious extremism. Schools and other public institutions must constantly defend against the encroachment of religious bias – or risk the proverbial slippery slope that, unguarded, leads to various worst-case-scenario “Handmaid’s Tale”-style theocracies.

So while Bibles and Bible reading are allowed in our schools, it is with the express understanding that the school is not sponsoring devotional Bible reading. The establishment clause was included in the First Amendment as a safeguard against the tyranny of the religious majority crushing the minority. To that end, it is the obligation of our schools that classrooms remain free of actions or displays by a dominant religious voice that intimidates or discriminates against those of a minority – or no – religious tradition.

Likewise, schools are not allowed to sanction prayer at official events. As a pastor and father, I agree. I am opposed to school prayer on two grounds: compulsion and content. As with Bible reading, I don’t want my kids forced into compulsory prayer and I don’t want to open the door to Evangelical or Fundamentalist Christians shaping the content of those prayers.

There are plenty of opportunities to cover the content of various religions and the influence of religious figures in history class, literature, and social studies. But if the Bible reading you do at home and at church is not enough, then you may want to investigate enrolling your child at a private religious school where devotional Bible reading is part of the curriculum. However, be forewarned. Many schools that include devotional Bible reading will often promote doctrinal compliance over critical thought – and may even expect your child to believe that dinosaurs and humans co-existed together on a 6,000-year-old flat earth created in six literal days.

So, be not afraid of the zealous but ill-informed Christians who continue to warn of certain apocalypse because Bibles are not allowed in schools. Bibles most certainly are allowed – and are sometimes even studied. They just aren’t allowed as a means of evangelism, discrimination, or intimidation.

~ Rev. David Felten

About the Author

David Felten is a full-time pastor at The Fountains, a United Methodist Church in Fountain Hills, Arizona. David and fellow United Methodist Pastor, Jeff Procter-Murphy, are the creators of the DVD-based discussion series for Progressive Christians, “Living the Questions”.

 

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