On Monday President Trump tweeted support for state initiatives to require public schools to teach the Bible as world history and literature.
USA Today calls current proposals in six states “a wave.” “Some of the lawmakers – and leaders of Christian groups supporting the bills – say they want to restore traditional values in schools and give students a chance to study the religious text deeply,” the paper reports. The project is supported by WallBuilders, the organization run by Glenn Beck buddy David Barton. Last year, the groups supporting the Bible literacy mandate also pushed laws requiring public schools to post the national motto, “In God we trust.”
As my colleague David Harsanyi points out, it is impossible to be an educated American without a basic understanding of Christianity and the Bible. This is the world’s top religion and the most influential religion in Western culture and American history, by far. While it’s foolish to think that public schools that cannot get more than one-third of students to read proficiently will be any better at teaching religion, this is all clearly well-intentioned.
But it’s all whistling past the graveyard. The truth is that American public schools are currently structured to undermine Christianity. Layering one elective Bible class atop U.S. public schools cannot alter their fundamentally anti-Christian structure, philosophy, and culture.
Not Teaching the Bible Teaches Something about the Bible
Every single public school teaches about the Bible already. Public schools do so — indeed, are legally and culturally compelled to do so — in completely anti-Christian ways: as either not worthy of mentioning, as one religion among many, or as a personal pursuit that people engage in privately (or, often, some blend of these three).
But Christianity claims to be the way to eternal life, not merely one conception of ultimate reality among many equally valid options. It claims to be true, and the only way to eternal life. It is also a holistic religion, meant to affect every single thing believers do. Christianity is not a thing we do briefly on Sundays in private, but a way of life. It ought to affect our speech, our relationships, our behavior — everything.
So for public schools to treat the Bible at all, or even to ignore it, is to either directly or indirectly take a stance on Christianity’s religious claims. In our current legal structure, it is impossible for public schools to take those claims seriously. Considering Christianity’s truth claims immediately crosses the establishment of religion line. Therefore any public school treatment of Christianity, including ignoring Christianity, is anti-Christian. It telegraphs to students that whether Christianity is true does not matter. What matters are its tangential effects upon society.
While of course Christianity affects society, that’s not its central point. Its point is eternal communion with the creator of the world who sacrificed himself to achieve that communion because humankind chose to break it by doing evil. So to treat its secondary effects as the whole of Christianity is to oppose its central religious claims.
Public Schools Are Caught in Anti-Religion Legal Traps
This is an inherent relativism that public schools cannot escape because it is impossible to have a monopoly public school system without either syncretism or secularism. In other words, if all people of all faiths must pay for and send their children to one school system, that school system must either a) teach that one specific faith is true b) teach that all faiths are equal and valid or c) teach that no faiths are equal and valid.
In other words, schools must be specifically religious, relativist, or anti-religion. There are no other alternatives. Additionally, relativism is anti-religion. It denies every religion’s claims to teach transcendent truths. So schools that are legally required to treat all religions the same are ipso facto anti-religious schools, since all religions claim competing truths about eternal realities.
Our current public schools cannot establish a specific and publicly proclaimed religious stance like they used to do when the United States was young and local tax dollars followed children to a wide variety of largely religious schools. The development of constitutional law combined with the foolish decision of dominant Protestants to exclude Catholics from public education funds ended that practice. So today’s religiously neutered public schools tend to blend pantheistic religious relativism and secularism, religious belief systems that directly antagonize Christianity.
The problem is that both of these approaches are religious positions masquerading as non-religious positions. Each makes religious claims that directly contradict Christianity’s religious claims. Both say, directly and indirectly, that Christianity is false, that the Bible is not true. Because if it were true, classes must take its religious claims seriously. Instead, they must trivialize them by only studying topics that are tangential to Christianity.
The best-case scenario is of a public school teaching religion as anthropology. While that is indeed a highly worthy field of study, its effect when dispensed solo is to distance children from religion. It is also to present a religion predicated on the existence of absolute truth in a context of unknowable truth, or, perhaps worse yet, in a context where what is true is simply not considered important. In other words, to teach Christianity relativistically is to teach anti-Christianity. To do so while purporting to teach Christianity is a neat trick, to be sure, but it only deepens the lies involved.
Kids Pick Up What Adults Do, Not Just What They Say
Kids definitely pick up on this relegation, at best, of Christianity to just another “subject,” just another item on the curriculum cafeteria line or an item some people indulge in outside of the curriculum cafeteria. The refusal of their parents and culture to take Christianity seriously by enrolling them in schools that reinforce families’ religious commitments, and demanding that their tax dollars not preference anti-religious indoctrination of their children, accounts for a significant portion of American young people’s growing apostasy.
There is myriad data on the decline in religious belief among each successive generation of Americans in this century. Here is a representative graph from Pew Research.
This is not just an “Oh, they’ll get back to religion when they settle down and have kids, and people are doing that later now” thing. As this Pew graph shows, each successive generation of the past three is less religious than the previous when compared at the same point in their lives.
Before you rush to blame it all on young people these days, notice that the importance of religion tanked first among their parents and grandparents. Here’s longer-term data from Gallup.
There is also significant anecdotal and sociological data to indicate that public schools are directly responsible for some of this dramatic decline in faith among America’s young. For example, the National Study of Youth and Religion at the University of Notre Dame finds that increased family engagement with religious institutions (including churches, of course, but also schools and social groups), more and closer relationships with religious role models, parental commitment to religious observances, and a reduction in interactions with peers who flout Christian behavior expectations all increased kids’ likelihood of retaining their faith into adulthood.
Long-term data from approximately 117,000 children followed by the Nehemiah Institute clearly indicate that public schools secularize children from Christian homes:
In other words, religious peers and role models matter. And so does parent commitment, as demonstrated by serious, significant, and sustained actions, not words. Certainly not deluding themselves with the idea that it’s the children’s job to fight our vicious, religion-driven culture war starting at age five.
Stop Fighting Last Century’s Culture War
When the United States was more explicitly Christian in culture, families could trust that institutions such as public schools, Boy Scouts, and Little League would reinforce Christian social norms such as the importance of reserving sex for marriage, that honor is due to parents and elders, and the wrongness of cheating on a test or one’s taxes. That era is long gone.
Today’s culture is anti-Christian, and so are its public schools. The very teaching methods that predominate in public schools are anti-Christian because they embody philosophies that are antithetical to Christianity, such as that human beings are naturally good and that the point of an education is self-gratification.
Our culture has switched from assuming that Christianity is a positive attribute to the knee-jerk assumption that Christianity is a negative attribute, as Aaron Renn points out (see no. 13 here). Many Christians haven’t realized this is happening. They’re still stuck in a past where if you could just tell a public school to teach the Bible, people will learn to respect its teachings and miraculously understand the good they bring to the world.
We are long past that point. In America’s public schools, teachers are threatened and fired for not wanting to watch naked kids of the opposite sex or use opposite-sex pronouns for their students. A symbolic prayer around a flag pole once a year, or a Bible course whose outlines are inevitably decided by unelected bureaucrats that as a whole are deeply antagonistic to religion, can’t compete.
It’s time to develop and articulate new ways of responding to an America in which a significant, and influential, portion of the citizenry is hostile to basic Christian teachings, and the Republicans faithful Christians vote for and even who are touted as evangelical Christian exemplars cannot be counted on to protect our freedom to worship and live in accord with our consciences.
In this kind of world, Bible classes in public schools are simply pig lip gloss.