When I attended public school in York, Pa., in the 1930s, the teacher began each day by reading 10 verses from the Old or New Testament without comment. We then recited the Lord’s Prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance — two decades before the words “under God” were added.
But things have changed. Since the turbulent 1960s, the secularization of American culture has proceeded apace. The “free exercise” of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment has been under increasing pressure by the ACLU, the National Education Association and other liberal voices who insist that “religion” be banned from the public square.
Americans differ on the role of religion in society, but virtually all of them believe that public schools should not be used to proselytize for one religion over another. But they disagree on whether the Bible, sacred to Jews and Christians alike, should have any place at all in the curriculum of tax-supported education.
Some educators insist that the Bible be banned from public schools because its presence would seriously breach the “separation of church and state” — their words, not the Constitution’s. They contend that teaching the Bible would promote sectarian strife and subvert our multicultural society.
But the tide may be turning. A recent survey conducted by the Bible Literacy Project funded by John Templeton found that 90 percent of the top American English teachers consulted agreed that the Bible has had a profound and positive influence on the “laws, morals, politics and other literature” of Western civilization, and that knowledge of the Bible is crucial to a well-rounded high school education. They emphasized that there are no legal barriers to teaching the Bible as literature and that the Supreme Court has not banned the Bible from public schools.
To no one’s surprise, recent surveys have documented widespread historical illiteracy in our public schools. One poll found that more teenagers can name the Three Stooges than the three branches of government. And the top 10 hip-hop tunes are better known than the Ten Commandments. A Gallup poll found that fewer than one-third of the teens could identify any quotation from the Sermon on the Mount and that 1 in 10 thought Moses was a disciple of Jesus.
The illiteracy on weighty issues also reflects the corrosive impact of a “political correctness” that questions the wisdom and legitimately of Western Civilization itself — including the contribution of “dead white males” such as Homer, Plato, Aristotle and Shakespeare.
Respondents to the Temple survey believe that teaching the Bible as literature in the public schools would help close this crucial knowledge gap and foster an appreciation for our rich Western culture. A knowledge of history, geography, politics, art and science — and religion — is essential to a well-rounded education. But they believe that teachers should not press their personal religious convictions.
All literate Americans know that the Bible is a treasury of literature, history and poetry, but that it is preeminently a book of religion — portraying the pilgrimage of the Jewish people and the emergence of Christianity. So understood, the Bible serves as an introduction to the moral heritage of the West.
Like Shakespeare and other Western thinkers, America’s Founders drew heavily on biblical wisdom. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were profoundly influenced by the Bible’s somber but hopeful view of man and history. They confidently asserted that humans were “endowed by their Creator” with certain basic rights, including “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
William Shakespeare has likewise had a profound influence on American thought. The Bible and Shakespeare are by far the most quoted sources in the Western world. In Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, the King James Bible rates 53 two-column pages while the Bard gets 85 pages. In contrast, Charles Dickens gets four pages and Herman Melville three.
Both the Bible and Shakespeare deserve an honored place in America’s public schools.
Ernest W. Lefever is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and author of “Ethics and U.S. Foreign Policy.”