Bible reading in public schools has been a divisive issue – and could be again

Tim Morris teaches a Bible class to juniors and seniors at Woodland High School in Cartersville, Ga., on Oct. 20, 2011. Georgia was the first state in the country to allow Bible classes in public schools, but the number of districts offering the classes has dwindled to just a handful as budgets remain tight. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

(The Conversation) — Officials in six states, including populous ones such as Virginia and Florida, are considering bills permitting the study of the Bible in classrooms. Proponents of these bills insist that the Bible would be treated as a historical and literary source, not as a means of religious guidance.

Last week, President Trump tweeted his support for these laws, writing, “Numerous states introducing Bible Literacy classes. … Starting to make a turn back? Great!”

As a historian who has studied how American Protestants have engaged with the culture at large, I worry these bills threaten to reignite one of the oldest church-state controversies in U.S. politics. While Trump and his evangelical base support the bills, critics oppose them for fear their real intent is to teach Christianity in public schools.

This is an old debate. Bible reading in schools was among the first social issues to split American Protestants into competing liberal and conservative camps.

Educating moral citizens

In the early 19th century, as many states created public school systems, children’s moral development was viewed as a crucial component of education. Advocates for public schools came from some of the established Protestant denominations such as Congregationalism and growing liberal traditions like Unitarianism.

Since these public school proponents had diverse religious beliefs, they agreed public schools should not teach particular doctrines. But they advocated Bible study to cultivate morals based in what they thought were generally held Christian principles.

Opposition to Bible reading came from Roman Catholics, a growing segment of the population due to immigration. Many schools used the Protestant King James version of the Bible, which differed from the translation familiar to Catholics. Moreover, Bible reading apart from the study of Church teaching, was by nature a distinctly Protestant practice.

Yet even Protestant agreement on Bible reading in public schools did not survive for long.

Advocates of Bible studying believed it would help cultivate morals.. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Split among Protestants

A major catalyst for division was the decision of Cincinnati School Board in 1869 to end Scripture reading in classrooms. Having long objected to Bible study in the city’s schools, Catholics had established their own system of parochial schools. By 1869, over 12,000 children, free from Protestant religious influence, were taught in these parochial schools.

By changing the policy, Cincinnati officials hoped the large Catholic population would return to public schools.

The board’s decision sparked outrage among conservative Protestants. As scholar Steven K. Green has detailed in his study of church-state debates, many churchgoers organized opposition to the policy. They believed it “threatened the moral and intellectual development of youth.”

Not all Protestants agreed, however. Reflecting a larger split within Protestantism, which I have chronicled, liberal Protestants throughout the nation endorsed the Cincinnati policy.

The secretary of Connecticut’s Board of Education, Birdsey Northrop, supported this change. A graduate of Yale Divinity School and a clergyman, Northrop came to denounce “narrowness and bigotry, under the guise of devotion to Bible reading.” In his view, Bible study in schools only fostered religious division.

Major Protestant periodicals echoed these views. The widely read periodical Christian Union ran and reprinted many articles that supported ending religious instruction in public schools. The view took hold among liberal Protestants that religious study should be voluntary and Bible reading should not be a compulsory part of public education.

For these liberal Protestants, there was value in public schools. They were willing to tolerate an end to religious instruction in the hope that education would not become a sectarian endeavor. This liberal Protestant support helped ensure that the Cincinnati school board’s policy remained in effect over conservatives’ objections.

Seniors Jay Salinas, left, and Nathan Thomason sit by as Tim Morris teaches a Bible class at Woodland High School on Oct. 20, 2011 in Cartersville, Ga. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

The liberal-conservative split

In the aftermath of what became known as the “Cincinnati Bible War,” liberal Protestants grew ever more wary of Bible study in public schools.

Still, the Bible continued to be read in some U.S. schools until the Supreme Court stepped in. In 1963, the court declared the practice unconstitutional.

The response to this decision, and to another case on school prayer, highlighted how Bible reading in schools had divided Protestants. In 1964, a constitutional amendment was introduced to restore Bible study. Liberal Protestant groups like the National Council of Churches helped lead opposition to the amendment.

As the historian Neil J. Young has shown, conservative Protestants disagreed on amending the Constitution. Nevertheless, prominent conservative voices urged the return of “Bible reading to the public schools.”

New legislation, old division

Already, these “Biblical literacy laws” have been enacted in more than a half-dozen states since 2000. The campaign to pass them elsewhere shows little sign of stopping, especially as it appears to be an organized effort of Christian conservatives.

Given that this issue was among the first to divide religious liberals and conservatives, it is unsurprising that it is gaining steam at this moment of heightened cultural tension.The Conversation

(David Mislin, is assistant professor of Intellectual Heritage at Temple University. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.)

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  • I have no problem with “Bible Literacy” being taught in taxpayer-funded schools — as long as such schools give equal time and attention to “Koran Literacy”, etc. What’s good for one faith literacy text is good for the other ones. We need better understanding of various faiths, most (if not all) of which share basic human values conducive to human and international relations.

  • “critics oppose them for fear their real intent is to teach Christianity in public schools.” There’s a problem with that? No one minded when we were told by the homosexuals, “We just want to live our own life.”

  • There is no such thing as objective “Biblical literacy.” The Bible can only be taught from a specific point of view. Either one believes it’s the inspired Word of God or one doesn’t. Either way, teaching it does not belong in the public schools.

    Conservatives worry about the state usurping the role of parents, and rightly so. What bigger usurpation can there be than to presume to have the right to form a child’s religious perspective?

  • I think all High School students should be required to take a class in World Religions and Mythology. Such a class would include readings from the sacred texts of each of the religions as well as an introduction to the writings of Greek and other philosophers. They will never fully understand world history without a basic understanding of World Religions, Mythologies and Philosophies have shaped our world.

  • Conservatives: Public schools are full of socialist, Marxists! I don’t trust them teaching my kid about science or sex ed!
    Also conservatives: I want my holy book taught in public schools!

  • Will the Quran, the Hindu Vedas, and holy books of other religions be taught in schools as well? Never mind answering that – it was a rhetorical question – everyone already knows the answer.

  • Lets face it here, the people most interested in Bible study in public schools have zero interest in its value as literature or alleged history. They want state sanctioned proselytizing. It is all about imposing sectarian burdens on schools and discriminating against those of minority faiths/sects.

  • Sandi hates religious freedom and our way of life. She is lazy and wants everyone to pay for furthering her faith.

    If you had kids, pony up the money and send them to a religious school so you can brainwash them to your own delight. If you can’t afford that, tough luck. Nobody else has to pay for your religious faith.

  • But it is never going to happen. The entire point of these classes is to indoctrinate kids in fundamentalist Christian beliefs at taxpayer expense.

  • I’ve long supported the idea of “Bible as literature” classes in public schools. Whatever one might think of it, the Bible has influenced history, the arts, etc. It’s not necessarily wrong to expose them to that and help them understand it. 

    Note, I support that in principle or in theory. How these classes are actually implemented and taught, is another matter entirely. Sadly, I can’t really trust all of these people who’re pushing Bible classes to do this. They don’t want the Bible taught “as literature.” They want it taught as social, political, and metaphorical directive — which of course is something else entirely. 

    Their reasons for it are fairly simple: They think exposure to Bible texts has a kind of magical power to convert people to their own version of Christianity, and keep them there. They think this is true for everyone, but since children are more mentally adaptable and malleable, this magical influence is all the stronger with them. As such, this is a form of idolatry, which of course the contents of their Bible forbid. But they ignore that, because they’re insecure in their beliefs and are desperate to reinforce them by any means available … and that includes proselytizing and indoctrinating others, which in turn fuels communal reinforcement

    As an aside, for similar reasons, I find other kinds of “religious texts as literature” to have value in children’s education. Greco-Roman mythology, for example, has also influenced literature, and other religions have had similar influences in other venues. That includes, of course the dreaded Qur’an and the Hadiths, sacred in Islam — which I’m 100% sure these folk would never want taught to their kids, under any circumstances … and for similar reasons (they think those texts have parallel magical powers to alter people’s minds and lives). 

    Anyway, it all boils down to one thing: Trust. I simply do not trust Christianists to do this right. Until they can demonstrate, conclusively, that they’re capable of teaching “Bible as literature” classes only in the form of “Bible as literature” classes, I’d go along with it … but not until then. 

  • Sorry Sandi, but nobody has to care that your religion is wildly bigoted against other groups. We put up with lots of things offensive to your faith as part of being a civil and free society.

    If you aren’t teaching Christianity in Sunday Schools, that is your problem. It is not the function to teach Christianity in public schools. But thank you for proving there is no legitimate purpose behind such classes. It is solely to illegally further your faith using taxpayer resources.

  • Sorry, but I think Christ can keep better company than most of the people who claim to be his besties.

  • As a Christian, I find her pomposity frankly embarrassing. Jesus would most definitely not approve, but don’t try telling that to Sandimonious – in her mind she’s already planning to usurp Jesus at the right hand of God.

  • Re: “Already been done, quite honestly.” 

    If there are already Bible classes in schools, why the clamor for … well! … Bible classes in schools? There can’t really be a good reason for it, can there? 

  • Be careful there Tater, my heart may just warm toward you but not as unbefitting for a married woman.

  • Just making a statement. I understand you don’t believe there is an issue since all should be told and come to Jesus but that’s not the same for non-Christians.

  • The conservative Christians who are pushing these Bible classes have been very vocal in their support for a president who brags about grabbing women’s genitals. Will they be using these Bible classes to teach kids their brand of shameless hypocrisy?

  • Late 1950’s, I started high school. Went to public high school from a Catholic grammer school. In the Bible Belt South, where I think the Catholic church was still mission territory. Growing up some kids would not play with the “papist”. But I wanted to fit in.

    Home room started with a morning prayer – that seemed normal. Of course, the Our Father was not quite the one I learned, but that was expected. And then there was a reading from the Bible – always the King James version. Little surprise, not much – we studied catechism in Catholic school, learned “the teachings of the Church” far more than the Bible. I was uneasy because I thought we weren’t supposed to study the Bible on our own – Catholic, right?

    Who lead the prayer and read from the Bible passed from student to student in Home Room, as called on by the teacher. There were 20 to 25 students in Home Room.

    I was called on. Being awfully young and naive, I thought that there was no difference between the Protestant or the Hindu or the Buddhist when it came to salvation – it was Catholic or pagan. So, I thought I would introduce the idea that good moral teachings have many sources, not just the Protestant Bible but other sources. I didn’t want to throw Catholicism in their faces, so I chose a Buddhist prayer/poem. It was really quite beautiful, worked around “He said yes, even to me – the Barber”. The barber has low caste in the Buddhist/Hindu world – I thought of the story as another way to see the very Christian idea (the meek shall inherit the earth) as another faith might see it, and that the idea was not just Christian but part of an understanding of God’s love for all and God reaching out to all. Even if some didn’t get the whole story, they got some part of it

    That was Fall, start of school. I was not called on again until Spring time. In the Spring, I followed the formula.

    Is my long ago experience a lesson for today? I don’t know. That was a time of expected great conformity in communities. Is it different now?

  • Absolutely spot on! We need that in a world of jet travel, instant communication, movement of people. We interact more now across the globe. More, we have a growing awareness of how we impact each other – not just war, but global effects of resource stripping, pollution of oceans, deforestation. We are much more interdependent than we have ever had to face before.

  • At the high school I graduated from, there was no need for clamoring. We had a regular, elective, Bible As Literature semester class, taught by the American Literature teacher (who covered everything in Am Lit from Wall Whitman to Jonathan Edwards, Huck Finn to Dr. MLK Jr. Nobody got upset.)

    Again, no complaints, no troubles on any side.

    But look at your own distrust. Look at Spuddie’s. In some Zip Codes, that Distrust calls the shots for the entire school district, unless people who know the potential educational value of public school “Bible-As-Lit” actually speak up and insist on it out loud.

  • Sure you do. you both think you have the only true pathway to god.
    Everything else is simply bad taco sauce.

  • And here’s a little factoid to consider:

    Some folks endorse teaching “Bible As Lit”, some are okay with “Koran as Lit”, some endorse teaching basic “World Religions 101” instead.

    But NOBODY in this forum is hot on teaching **Atheism** to the kids!! Yucky-Poo 101 !!

  • Christian pathway to God – Jesus
    Islam pathway to God – kill people – including homosexuals

  • Do you hold everything you did wrong ten or more years ago, and bragged about against yourself always, or is it just people you don’t want to like. Most of us just learn and move on.

  • The difficulty is Tater, the people who teach it and don’t believe it, don’t normally get it right anyway.

  • Let’s face it, you have neither ESP nor great insight into other people, so a statement like “the people most interested in Bible study in public schools have zero interest in its value as literature or alleged history” tells us about you, not them.

  • Some of the world religions have little or no role in our history and culture.

    Given their lack of knowledge about American history, finding out why the religions of India have hobbled its ability to compete with China, Japan, Korea, and the US is probably sufficiently minor to be skipped altogether.

  • Re: “At the high school I graduated from, there was no need for clamoring.” 

    And yet, we have politicians, clergy and believers all demanding these classes. Hmm. 

    Re: “Again, no complaints on any side.” 

    I’m sure there were none. And yet, despite these classes, there’s a clamor for these classes. What, exactly, are you missing about this incongruity? 

    Re: “But look at your own distrust. Look at Spuddie’s, at Elagabalus.” 

    Yes. Let’s look at it! Do you seriously contend no one has any possible reason for concern? Do you expect me to believe no one is going to take advantage of these classes to proselytize? Or that the people pushing for these classes — a campaign which you say is totally unnecessary — don’t view them as a means to do so? 

    Re: “In some Zip Codes, that Distrust calls the shots for the entire school district …” 

    What difference does the Zip code make? Christianists can’t be trusted. 

    Yes, there are more of them in some Zip codes than in others. For all I know, in the Zip code you grew up in, those classes were offered in your school without any clear authorization to do so, because that Zip code was dominated by Christianists and that’s just what Christianists do. 

    Which, by the way, might explain why there’s a clamor to authorize these classes which you say isn’t necessary because they’re going on all over the place, already. 

  • ” I was uneasy because I thought we weren’t supposed to study the Bible on our own – Catholic, right?”

    No, wrong.

  • Christians—no longer allowed to kill homosexuals, though still would like to put them in jail, and for a certain class of Christian, think they are being virtuous by attack those people and making their lives as difficult, dangerous, expensive, and unpleasant as possible. CF: you, for example,

    Christians—used to kill Jews, other Christians, Muslims, and each other. Only allowed now in case of war or general lack of liberal values. Cf Nigeria, Uganda, etc.

  • I haven’t run into Christians killing Jews, Christians, or Muslims as Christians recently. Where have you been traveling?

    Now throwing homosexuals off roof tops …. that’s still happening.

    Guess where?

  • Apparently the proposal is to teach it as literature without regard to whether it’s the inspired Word of God or not.

    As literature I would assume the text would be the King James version, which had had an incredible impact on the English language and – along with the Book of Common Prayer – is quoted by people who don’t even recognize the source as the KJV.


  • I understand the rationale but I don’t buy it. I believe this is an attempt to try to maneuver a particular version of Christianity in to the public school system.

  • According to your theology, long memories are good. God has a long memory. He remembers something that some lady, tricked by a talking snake, did in the distant past, and he holds her mistake against all the rest of us even now. It would be nice if God had the same kind of selective memory toward us that conservative Christians have toward Trump.

  • Unless you live in one the states which is proposing it and get a vote, your “buying it” seems to be irrelevant.

    Your second sentence requires a bit of plumping with one or more facts and a logical argument to establish that “this is an attempt to try to maneuver a particular version of Christianity in to the public school system”.

  • My buying it or not is only relevant insofar as this discussion is concerned. I have an opinion. I expressed it. That’s as deep as my interest in the topic goes.

  • I began parochial school first grade in 1954, don’t recall much of Bible lessons (if any). Thanks for sharing.

  • Bible reading in schools is fine AS LONG as teachers are allowed (instructed) to answer kids’ questions truthfully. “Are the Genesis stories really true?” “Did they really happen as recorded?” The answer HAS TO BE “Probably not. There is no other evidence for them except what men wrote in this piece of ancient literature”.

  • Well homosexuals kill homosexuals, what is your attempt at a point, Ben. As usual, you try to denigrate with no point.

  • Awwww Tater, just when I start to think you may have redeeming qualities! Why do liberals all think they are psychIc?

  • I have carefully reread my comments, and nowhere have I claimed to be God. Thus, your comment is very puzzling. Did you not bother to read my comments? Or are you trying to shift attention away from the content of my comments and onto my personal inadequacies? Very puzzling.

  • The reason I stated that was because God does forgive Trump, and if you are a Christian who repents of your sin, even you. For the rest of us, our sins are as far as the East is from the West with the Lord.

  • God remembers; yet forgives.
    It’s a simple concept that your bottomless pit of anger prevents you from understanding.

  • Exactly. In Hamilton County, TN public schools, Evangelicals are the only ones allowed to teach the Bible classes and they use their version of the Bible. The funding comes exclusively from Evangelical (i.e. Southern Baptist) churches. The school district isn’t allowed to review or in any way control what the Bible “teachers” (who aren’t even certified teachers, but Evangelical ministers and other non-teachers) teach in the classes. Catholic, Jewish, Mormon, Jehovah Witness, and non-believing parents can exempt their children from the classes, but those kids are ostracized and punished by being put in a room and not allowed to do anything while the Bible class is going on.

    This is what Evangelicals have in mind for the whole country if they can get their so-called “Bible classes” in place in public schools. They want to go right back to what the Supreme Court outlawed in 1963 because they have been enraged about that ruling since it was made. The ’63 Supreme Court ruling is still used to this very day by Evangelicals to raise money. They tell their followers that they’re going to get those Bible classes reinstated and defy the Supreme Court. They think with a majority of Republican Justices on the Supreme Court they can bring a challenge and get the ’63 ruling overturned. The “Bible classes” are the tip of the spear.

  • I have no problem teaching Bible literacy, what I have a problem with is teaching Christology. They are two distinct things and are often confused. Bible literacy looks at the bible as a human document, the later just teaches from the presupposition that Jesus is the Christ. I took the Bible as Literature in school and it started me questionings my religious views.

  • Nice redirection, as always. Don’t you worry. President Trump is going to Make America White Again as soon as Mexico sends the check.

  • And if there were complaints they would be ignored and the people making them ostracized.

    Your own support of such classes just seems to validate the point that they are meant to prosletyze, not educate objectively. Especially given your hostility to public schooling.

  • Cultural globalism is a reality in America so I don’t understand your point. Just because they have little or no role in our history and culture does not mean that there is no value in learning about world religions.

    As to your second point, you seem to be equating a religion’s value with how well it helps a country compete economically. Is that really your argument?

  • Catholics long opposed use of the KJV in public schools. That is one of the reasons the Catholic church pushed for parochial schools. Of course when the SCOTUS ended Bible reading in piblic schools in the early ’60s, Catholic school enrollment declined from 5.5 million to today’s less than 2 million.

  • It would be helpful, but in a different way. We need to understand what formed other cultures, other religions. It would help us understand what has and can and will influence us, our approach to community, to how we live together. More it will help us understand other cultures, religions – what we share as well as what is different. We have a lot of focus on what is different these days without recognizing how much we have in common across many religions.

  • Not in a buffoonish, clownish, vulgar, horse’s ass way. But in a further display of their morals, principles, and values that the holy, howling, bubyull humping Talibangelicals love to brag about they showed just what kind of people they are by dismissing the behavior of their POS in chief as “just locker room talk”. Can you say “worst people in the world”?

  • “The character of man does not change. Only the circumstances do”.-Mark Twain=A POS will always be POS.

  • There is no kook like phony, dishonest religious kook who pretends to believe a fairy tale they know is not real or true.

  • The pledge proclaims “ONE NATION, UNDER GOD..” USA currency reads “IN GOD WE TRUST” and patriotic songs mention “GOD- (BLESS AMERICA)…” or related vocabulary. CHRISTMAS is still an important HOLIDAY, in spite of “PC” liberal Americans.

    Our forefathers came to America seeking religious freedom. Religion and God are an important part of US History. LET children READ THE KJV of the bible, with testing, to understand ALL of the above, in structured classrooms with religion neutral facilitators. Our country and our children will be better for it. PEACE

  • The most common English Catholic translation of the Bible in the 20th was largely based on the KJV. Missing were some disputed NT books, and there were minor translations issues.

    As literature no one disputes the importance of the KJV.

    Parochial schools arose because public schools were Protestant with some minor exceptions. That did not change until the inter-war period after WWI.

    The primary causes of decline in Catholic primary school enrollment were cost and a decline in church attendance.

  • The average young American needs to understand what formed THIS culture and OUR history first.



  • Two Catholic universities reported to the federal government that the enrollment decline was due to “chamging parental preferences” — after the school prayer and Bible rulings in theb early ’60s.

  • So far no college names, no dates, no citations, nada.

    Just your assertion; yeah, I feel pretty comfortable thumbing my nose.

  • So, two institutions of dubious Catholicity at the behest of the administration of a President you’ve elsewhere called a crook.

    In any case, they were wrong.

  • “LET children READ THE KJV of the bible,…”

    God forbid. Kids wouldn’t understand the language, and I’m not sure that “facilitators” would, either.