Bible class laws do much less than you hope or fear

The Bible might be coming back to public schools in West Virginia.

The state’s House of Delegates passed a bill Tuesday that would permit county boards of education to offer elective social studies courses on the Old Testament, the New Testament, or both, provided the content is approved by the state’s Department of Education. A version of the legislation in the state Senate speaks more generally of coursework in “sacred texts or comparative world religions,” an amendment rejected in the lower house, but if that difference can be resolved, it seems likely the measure will be signed into law by Gov. Jim Justice (R).

This is almost certainly not as big a deal as supporters and critics alike suppose. The bill would do much less than either side hopes or fears.

We know this because West Virginia isn’t the first state to consider or pass legislation like this in recent years. Georgia passed a similar bill in 2019, a curious thing given that biblical literacy electives were already approved by the state legislature in 2006, when the law was legitimately innovative and the recipient of strong bipartisan support.

Georgia’s needless reauthorization of the classes is telling in two ways. First, as Christianity Today reported this past fall, even in a state where non-Christian religions are represented at half the national rate and Christian affiliation is about 10 percent above national average, very few school boards choose to teach the Bible. “Georgia Department of Education statistics show that in the 2018–2019 school year, 163 of the state’s 181 school districts did not offer Bible classes,” the CT report notes. “Most schools prioritize the core curricula evaluated on state tests and don’t have the staffing — or high enough levels of student interest — to teach Bible electives.”

Chuck Stetson of the Bible Literacy Project, which lobbied for the 2006 bill, told Christianity Today his organization’s curriculum was only purchased by 10 percent of the state’s school districts, and most classes established after the initial law were dropped from the electives roster within three semesters, often due to low student engagement. By 2019, a mere 740 out of half a million Georgia high schoolers took a biblical literacy elective at a public school.

The other interesting thing about Georgia’s second law was its inaccurate celebration and condemnation as a big political win for the religious right. “Numerous states introducing Bible Literacy classes, giving students the option of studying the Bible. Starting to make a turn back? Great!” President Trump tweeted in January of last year, apparently after watching a segment on Fox & Friends.

Trump’s post launched the usual bickering over religion in public schools, just as the West Virginia proposal has on a smaller scale. Opponents argue that students from other faiths will feel excluded or demonized by their peers if they decide not to take these classes; that the courses will violate the Constitution’s Establishment Clause if teachers present from a devotional perspective; and that the curriculum will run afoul of many practicing Christians’ beliefs if it takes the scholarly approach needed to pass legal muster.

But again, looking at how this has played out elsewhere is instructive. “People think I’m ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ up there, but that’s not the approach,” Matthew Alligood, who teaches biblical literacy at a high school near Savannah, explained to Christianity Today. “It’s just like a literature class: What’s [Jesus] saying in the text?” The few Bible electives in Georgia public schools cover topics like understanding how the chapter and verse organization system works, how the Bible was assembled, and how knowledge of its stories can help students better interpret allusion-laden literature like Herman Melville’s Moby Dick or Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.

When the West Virginia legislature first considered a Bible electives law two years ago, Education Department General Counsel Heather Hutchens said classes were already permitted provided they were “voluntary and from a historical perspective only.” As the present bill continues to require Department of Education review as well as instruction from a position of “religious neutrality,” its passage or failure thus means little in practice — just like the 2019 Georgia law before it.

But even if these proposals truly changed curricula, the reality they’d produce is pretty mundane. The case for basic biblical knowledge as an asset in literary and historical analysis is irrefutable: Knowing a bit about the Bible really will make much of world history and literature far more intelligible for students.

It’s possible to argue the literature curriculum should evolve, but that’s a different conversation. Denial of the influence of the Bible on the writings and historical events of Western and Western-colonized parts of the world (i.e. almost the whole world) is just not credible. (Linguists say the King James translation of the Bible shaped the English language more than any other work.) As Christianity declines in the United States, religious affiliations both decrease and diversify, and ever fewer students have a cultural familiarity with the Bible, the scholarly value of studying it will only rise.

And in our litigious society, the looming threat of court challenge — certain to be championed pro bono by the ACLU and just as certain to be successful should any school district dare to make Bible classes mandatory or any teacher make them demonstrably devotional — will ensure what vanishingly few classes do appear are strictly optional and academic in tone.

If that‘s what produces a fifth Great Awakening, it will clearly be an act of God.

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