Reading, writing and Revelation

STEPHEN PROTHERO is chairman of the religion department at Boston University and the author of "Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- and Doesn't."

ALTHOUGH THE 110th Congress has brought to Capitol Hill 43 Jews, two Buddhists and a Muslim -- Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), who took his oath of office on Thomas Jefferson’s Koran -- Washington remains a disproportionately Christian town. More than 90% of federal legislators call themselves Christians, making Congress more Christian than the United States itself. The president is an evangelical Protestant. Catholics enjoy a majority on the Supreme Court. Biblical references -- from the Jericho Road to the golden rule to the promised land -- permeate political speech. Yet U.S. citizens know almost nothing about the Bible. Although most regard it as the word of God, few read it anymore. Even evangelicals from the Bible Belt seem more focused on loving Jesus than on learning what he had to say.

In a religious literacy quiz I have administered to undergraduates for the last two years, students tell me that Moses was blinded on the road to Damascus and that Paul led the Israelites on their exodus out of Egypt. Surveys that are more scientific have found that only one out of three U.S. citizens is able to name the four Gospels, and one out of 10 think that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. No wonder pollster George Gallup has concluded that the United States is “a nation of biblical illiterates.”

Biblical illiteracy is not just a religious problem. It is a civic problem with political consequences. How can citizens participate in biblically inflected debates on abortion, capital punishment or the environment without knowing something about the Bible? Because they lack biblical literacy, Americans are easily swayed by demagogues on the left or the right who claim -- often incorrectly -- that the Bible says this about war or that about homosexuality.


One solution to this civic problem is to teach Bible classes in public schools. By Bible classes I do not mean classes in which teachers tell students that Jesus loves them or that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, but academic courses that study the Bible’s characters and stories as well as the afterlife of the Bible in literature and history. Last week, the Georgia Board of Education gave preliminary approval to two elective Bible courses designed to teach religion rather than preach religion. As long as teachers stick to the curriculum, this is a big step in the right direction.

The most common objection to such courses is that they are unconstitutional. But the Supreme Court has repeatedly given a constitutional stamp of approval to academic courses about religion. In 1963, Justice William Brennan wrote in Abington vs. Schempp that “the holding of the Court today plainly does not foreclose teaching about the Holy Scriptures.” And in 1948, Justice Robert Jackson wrote in McCollum vs. Board of Education that “a course in English literature that omitted the Bible ... would be pretty barren.”

But barren of the Bible is just what our public school curriculums are. According to a study by the Bible Literacy Project, which publishes a Bible textbook for secondary schools, only 8% of U.S. high school students have access to an elective Bible course. As a result, an entire generation of Americans is growing up almost entirely ignorant of the most influential book in world history, unable to understand the 1,300 biblical allusions in Shakespeare, the scriptural oratory of President Lincoln and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or even the prominence of Ezekiel 25:17 (actually a mishmash of this verse and passages from Genesis, Psalms and other books) in the film “Pulp Fiction.”

Some have argued against Bible courses in public schools on the theory that they would unconstitutionally “establish” Judeo-Christianity. For Scripture courses to be lawful, this argument goes, teachers must give equal time to all the world’s scriptures, treating the Bible as one scripture among many. But the Bible is of sufficient importance in Western civilization to merit its own course. Treating it no differently from, say, the Zend-Avesta of the Zoroastrians or Scientology’s Dianetics makes no educational sense.

What makes sense is one Bible course for every public high school student in the U.S. This is not a Christian proposal. It does not serve the political left or the political right. It serves our young people and our public life.