Religious Indoctrination, or Simply Another Historical Source?

Georgia’s Board of Education has approved, by unanimous vote, two new literature and culture classes for use in public schools beginning next year. Pending a 30-day comment period, the board is expected to give these courses final, official approval.

The difference between these new courses and others — and the reason why they will be controversial — is that they involve the Bible.

Entitled “Literature and History of the Old Testament Era” and “Literature and History of the New Testament Era,” the classes involve the reading of the Bible as literature, not as a religious text, and are intended to provide cultural, historical, and literary education and context (not religious indoctrination) through the use of a text which contains ample amounts of all.

As Senate Majority Leader Tommie Williams, the program’s legislative sponsor, said, the Bible “plays a major role in history,” and “is important in understanding many classic literary works.”

“It’s not just ‘The Good Book,’” he has been quoted as saying. “It’s a good book.”

While Georgia’s action will cause the usual suspects to claim government establishment of religion, and violation of the doctrine of “separation of church and state,” the fact is that using the Bible as a literary and cultural reference is, in actuality, neither.

The Bible can serve as a history and a literature text every bit as effectively as it can a religious one and, despite statements to the contrary, there should no more problem with offering non-religious classes on the Old and New Testament eras (which involve the study of the Bible as a primary source) than there is with offering classes on ancient Greece, Rome, or any other civilization or culture using Homeric literature. The Iliad and Odyssey, for example, are studied in public schools for literary and cultural edification, yet there is no outcry from those who oppose government-sponsored religion that such instruction is a governmental endorsement of Zeus or of Apollo. Likewise, the Aeneid is read and studied without interference from those who see it as an attempt to impose the Roman pantheon on poor public school students.

Some will argue that those examples are inapposite because the worship of Jupiter, Juno, or Minerva occurs little if at all in modern times. These works, though, were as serious an example of religious and moral texts in their day as the books of the Old and New Testaments have been in theirs. A simple once-over of the Iliad will expose the reader to far more instances of divine intervention in human affairs than occur in the New Testament.   

Similarly, diverse texts of ancient and religious law — such as the Roman Twelve Tables, or the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi — are widely accepted in schools as well they should be. Will the simple fact of greater modern relevance prevent the Bible, which presents the laws of the Hebrews (in the form of the Ten Commandments, among others), and the later laws of Christianity, from being read as the historical documents and mores that they are?   

On the other end of the spectrum, there will be those who oppose these additions to school curricula for the explicit reason that they do remove religious teaching from the study of the Bible. Lost in the protest against any non-religious study of this text, though, is the consideration of the invaluable historical, cultural, and literary knowledge and context which can be gained from such education. Such knowledge and context can be used, by those who so choose, to achieve a better understanding of Judaism and Christianity than a simple Sunday once-over of religious topics addressed by the Bible can hope to accomplish.

The events of the Old and New Testament eras may well be an integral part of the history of Western and Near Eastern civilization — and, by more certainly, are a foundation of our  culture. Furthermore, as a primary source, the Bible offers invaluable information and insight into the culture of its time. Primary sources are the Holy Grail, if you will, of historical scholarship — for, rather than depending on interpretation after interpretation, taken farther out of temporal, spatial, and cultural context, primary sources are the words of the people of the time, and whether it be Herodotos, Suetonius, or the Apostle Paul, a primary source’s words carry a weight, and an authenticity, which cannot be matched by later interpretations or summaries. Outlawing the study, via primary sources, of certain parts of history, and of their particular beliefs, movements, and cultures, out of fear of accidentally promoting religion, would be akin to sacrificing education and erudition on the altar of political correctness. Political correctness is a poor reason for breeding ignorance in our children.

Several groups and individuals claim to oppose this new curriculum because of the lack of clearly-defined boundaries with regard to what the teachers of these classes may (and, more specifically, may not) say. Ironically, many of these also protest the Intellectual Diversity in Higher Education Act — for the precise reason that they see it as a threat by government to establish boundaries with regard to what teachers may and may not say. There is apparently only room for such restrictions when the teaching of a Bible literature class is the subject of the regulation.

Regardless of the obvious good sense of this addition to Georgia’s public school curriculum, there will be protests from both sides of the aisle. In response to this, there are two options: we could kowtow to political correctness on one hand, and to fundamentalists on the other, and prevent the Bible from ever being used in a public educational setting. Or we could recognize that the Bible has as much place in the contextual study of cultural and literary history as does any other primary source and allow it to be used as such.