Righting America

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Teaching the Bible in Public Schools: A Bad Idea . . . for Conservatives | Righting America

by Rodney Kennedy

Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. The pastor of 7 Southern Baptist churches over the course of 20 years, he pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years. He is now the interim senior pastor at the Upper Merion Baptist Church in King of Prussia, PA (which is also an American Baptist church) while also teaching homiletics at Palmer Theological Seminary. He is currently putting the finishing touches on his sixth book: The Immaculate Mistake: How Southern Baptists and Other Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump. 

This image shows a classroom in which empty blue chairs surround a long wooden table. A map hangs in the background.
“Classroom” by Academia IF is licensed under CC BY 2.0

A new wave of legislation for teaching the Bible in public schools has hit the nation. A bill pushed by Indiana State Senator Dennis Kruse combines the national motto with the teaching of the Bible. Oblivious to the idolatry of combining Americanism with the Bible, Kruse says, “I think it’s good to remind people of our national motto and that God is who we really place our trust in. This is how we came about as a country.”

Christian Right groups are wringing their hands and gnashing their teeth about how we have lost our national values and they need to be restored, before it is too late. One of the leaders of this movement is David Barton, the fake historian from Texas and director of the Wallbuilders. The name refers to Barton’s attempt to break down the “wall of separation” between church and state. It’s an odd name to give an organization that is attempting to destroy a wall rather than build one, but Barton has been confused from the beginning. If Barton’s name doesn’t ring a bell, he wrote a book called The Jefferson Lies. When actual historians – including evangelical historians – reviewed the book and pointed out that Barton invented evidence from whole cloth to substantiate his argument that historians have told us lies about Jefferson, the publisher took the unprecedented step of removing the book from publication. But Barton has simply self-published his book, all the while continuing his campaign of lies and distortions to adoring audiences across America.

Of course, I think teaching the Bible in the public schools violates the separation of church and state. I am also convinced that conservatives like Kruse don’t want to just teach the Bible in public schools; instead, they want to teach a particular kind of fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible. And while this sort of argument does not convince conservative evangelicals, it is an argument that has served us well in defeating most attempts to infiltrate public schools with a particular Christian interpretation of the Bible.

All this said, I have had an unsettling idea. Maybe we should give conservative evangelicals what they want. Maybe we should allow the teaching of the Bible as literature as an elective in our public schools.

Why do I say this? Conservative evangelicals might not be as “gung ho” for Bible teaching in public schools once the lessons start and the PowerPoint lights up on the big screen. How will these Christians feel about a teacher who tells students that Genesis 1-11 is not actual history but a collection of pre-historical myths, fables, and tales? How will they feel about an instructor who teaches that Jonah is a piece of brilliant Jewish comedy designed to offset the feeling of God’s people that they are superior in every way to other nations? What will they do when Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation are depicted not as literal predictions of the end of the earth?

In the end, wouldn’t conservative evangelicals be better served by continuing to offer their own unique and modern interpretations of the Bible in their own churches? In that setting, there’s no dissent. There’s no disagreement. There’s only the mind-numbing acceptance of fundamentalist literalism.

But allowing the Bible into public schools, where authoritarian pastors can’t control content, context, or the hiring of teachers who might open young minds to new and better ways to read the Bible is very risky. It would turn into a nightmare for conservative evangelicals when school boards hired teachers like me who see the Bible as non-literal truth, as a complex literature filled with symbolic language and multiple meanings and varying interpretations.

But there’s more. There’s abundant evidence that the Bible has a “mind of its own” and ways of infiltrating the minds of others far beyond the control of those who would attempt to coerce the Bible into very particular human forms. That is to say, the Bible has its own power.

On a Sabbath in the village of Nazareth, a young rabbi rose to read the Scripture. The familiar words of Isaiah pleased the congregation. “This is the son of Joseph. Doesn’t he read well?” “I always knew this boy was going places.” “We are proud of him. He’s one of us.”

Then the young rabbi decided to do a little teaching of the Scripture. In the face of a deeply prejudiced congregation who assumed they possessed a righteousness than other nations lacked, the young rabbi explained that God has in previous times came not to them but to foreigners like a widow at Zarephath in Sidon and a leper like Naaman the Syrian. We are told that the congregation was filled with rage and tried to kill the young rabbi.

By all that conservatives hold high and holy, they should rethink this Bible teaching business that will go on outside their churches and out of their control. It’s a bad idea for them.

But if they get their way, if they get the Bible into the public schools, I’m getting my resume together. I can’t wait to teach the Bible in a new setting.