Sunday, January 26, 2020

Bible study (‘biblical literacy’) in public school classrooms

Bilgrami book

From an article in The Conversation (January 16, 2020): 

“As the 2020 election approaches in the United States, President Donald Trump is adding school prayer to the list of contentious issues up for debate. After Trump promised in early January to ‘safeguard students’ and teachers’ First Amendment rights to pray in our schools,’ his administration announced new guidance on Jan. 16. The Department of Education will now require schools to document that they do nothing to impede student prayer. The Trump administration will also mandate that schools report student grievances related to prayer.

This announcement comes after a year in which officials in six states, including the populous swing state of Florida, considered bills permitting the study of the Bible in classrooms. Last January, President Trump tweeted his support for these laws. The evangelical proponents of the legislation insist that the Bible would be treated as a historical and literary source, not as a means of religious guidance. Critics oppose them for fear that their real intent is to teach Christianity. Efforts to return religion to public schools threaten to reignite one of the oldest debates about the separation of church and state.” [….]

Shiffrin book 
Comment by yours truly:
The teaching of “biblical literacy” in public schools is a blatant violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, or so I would argue. In asserting this proposition, there need be no underlying or correlative claim that all religious worldviews are devoid of “truth” (e.g., largely nonsensical, childish, delusory or illusory), or that they serve as vehicles of dangerous or insidious conceptions of what constitutes the “good life” for citizens in a would-be democratic policy, or that they are somehow contrary to individual eudaimonia or personal fulfillment. 

If one is only going to teach “biblical literacy” in a public school classroom it amounts to favoring one (the de facto predominant) religious tradition or worldview, Christianity (or perhaps in some sense two religious traditions, if we include Judaism, although teaching ‘Old Testament’ literacy is not providing a Jewish perspective on this literature; of course even the teaching of ‘biblical literacy’ risks favoring one particular form of Christianity, be it of Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or, most likely, Protestant provenance), unless one is going to teach religious literacy in general, thereby including scriptures or “sacred” texts from many other religious traditions, in effect, relying on a Deweyan or Rawlsian principle of Liberal democratic pluralism. Bible study of this sort in schools is not only a constitutional violation, it is yet another expression of a resurrected and vigorous if not virulent form of Christian nationalism (which often spills over into white supremacist ideology) in the U.S., propounded explicitly or implicitly in varying degrees at all three branches of the federal government, as well as finding fervent expression at state and local levels in our country. The anti-democratic and violent risks associated with religious nationalism, unfortunately, can erupt in quite different religious worldviews (often described as ‘major religious traditions’), especially those associated with a majority of citizens identifying with a particular religious tradition in a particular country.  It is an ongoing and grave threat to (Liberal) democratic values, principles, and practices, wherever it occurs: India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel, Poland ….


Among the values supported by the Establishment Clause,* five in particular are diminished or violated by the teaching of “biblical literacy” in public schools:
  • the protection of religious liberty and autonomy, including the protection of citizens being compelled to support religious worldviews and ideologies to which they are opposed or at least do not want to promote or favor;
  • equal citizenship with regard to worldviews, both religious and non-religious;
  • the protection of the (historically and sociologically documented) destabilizing political effects of a polity actively divided among religious or sectarian lines;
  • the protection of a modern, distinctively Liberal democratic political community;
  • the protection of the autonomy of the state to secure and promote a distinctively public and secular interest in the pursuit of an otherwise elusive common good.
Horwitz book

Steve Shiffrin finds the Establishment Clause protects at least two other values which are not at issue (at least directly or obviously) with specific regard to the teaching of biblical literacy: “it protects churches [or synagogues or mosques … or simply ‘religious worldviews’] from the corrupting influences of the state [a value conservative evangelicals in this country have failed conspicuously to appreciate!],” and it promotes religion in the private sphere [which of course can reverberate, for better and worse and in myriad ways, into the public realm]. Shiffrin also points out how these seven values often conflict, a topic we will not broach here. 

* I have borrowed and modified the language of the first five of the seven values listed by Steve Shiffrin in Chapter 4 of his book, The Religious Left and Church-State Relations (Princeton University Press, 2009): 41.

Audi book


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