Recently, there was a bill before the Virginia State Legislature to mandate the Virginia Board of Education adopt teaching standards for Old and New Testament classes. In its original iteration, the bill would have required the class be offered as an elective credit at every public high school in the state – at great cost to taxpayers and to the Bible itself.
The opposition of many Baptists in Virginia to SB1502 was not only surprising to many state legislators, it may have been surprising to some Baptists. Now is an opportune – even urgent – time for conversation about such legislation, I offer five questions to fellow Christians, and especially to my fellow Baptist Christians, knowing that similar bills are certain to be introduced in other state legislatures (just substitute your state for “Virginia”):
- What business does the government have determining what in the Bible should be taught, and what should be ignored, in curriculum design?
“A state that favors or props up one religion today is a state that favors or props up another religion in the future.”
The Virginia Department of Education has no ecclesial authority, no theological training. Exactly whose version of the Bible and its message gets approved for teaching? If the government is qualified to develop curricular guidelines for the Bible, how about the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita or the Vedas? A state that favors or props up one religion today is a state that favors or props up another religion in the future.
- Are we living out the Golden Rule – to “love our neighbors as we love ourselves” – if we Christians force our non-Christian neighbors to foot the bill for Bible teaching in public schools?
Would Christians who want the Bible taught in public schools be willing to pay money for the development of standards of learning for the sacred text of another faith, or to pay for textbooks or teacher salaries associated with such classes? Probably not. If Baptists truly believe in soul competency (that every soul is individually accountable to God and that every person is free to embrace or resist relationship with God) then why would we want state-sponsored religion as a mandatory requirement in public education funding?
- What would be the impact on Christian unity when believers in local communities begin arguing in school board meetings and before the Virginia Board of Education about what to include in a Bible class?
Enough disunity already exists over Bible teaching and Christian belief. Bible classes in public schools invited division in local communities among Christians, people of different faiths and those of no faith. We can hardly separate public statements about any issue from the political party of the one speaking. Will the Bible now be judged on a partisan basis in the public square (not that it isn’t already), and will we really drag our children into the middle of it? And we wonder, ironically, why young people are leaving the church.
- What happens to the standards of learning for Bible teaching when the legislature swings left or right?
In the 1980s Virginia’s legislature passed a bill mandating the Board of Education adopt standards of learning for “Family Life” classes. Since the original standards were approved, nearly 100 bills have been passed that change, add to or take away from the previously adopted learning standards. These classes involve sex education, family planning, bullying and sexual assault. Every time the legislature swings left or right, the teaching standards change to align with majority party’s values and understanding.
I would hope we think highly enough of the Bible as sacred and holy text that we would not subject it to the tyranny of political cycles. Has the holy word of God been reduced to a punching bag for partisan politics and a prop to win points with a political base? Those who support such “Bible bills” claim to love the Scripture, but (to use one more metaphor) I believe tossing the Bible into a partisan wrestling match betrays that claim.
- Is there such a thing as an “unbiased reading of Scripture,” and if thousands of Bible scholars, seminaries and publishing houses cannot give us one why would we ever judge the state as competent to present the Bible in an unbiased manner?
The bill offered in Virginia not only required the state to adopt teaching standards for Bible elective classes (the state of Virginia, by the way, doesn’t currently adopt learning standards for any elective), the bill required that “No such course shall endorse, favor, promote, disfavor, or show hostility toward any particular religion or nonreligious perspective.” Bible teaching under SB1502 would have proven watered down and anemic. A secular and non-biased teaching of the Bible is a biased teaching of the Bible, because the Bible is an intrinsically sacred text that makes bold claims about God and places bold claims and convictions upon every reader. Would we water down the word of God just to get the Bible, or some state approved version of it, in public schools? This is the danger of civil religion – giving lip service to an anemic, nameless god who places no particular claim on our lives and who claims no particular truth be told.
“I would hope we think highly enough of the Bible as sacred and holy text that we would not subject it to the tyranny of political cycles.”
You may have noticed I haven’t mentioned all the ways this proposed legislation violates the United States Constitution, the Virginia State Constitution and even Virginia statutory laws forbidding the teaching of religion at the expense of the taxpayer. We found in Virginia that constitutional and statutory arguments do not work with many legislators because they are content to leave that decision to the courts – and because they want to be able to say to their constituents that they voted for the “Bible bill” only to have the “godless courts” struck it down.
If a so-called “Bible bill” being promoted by Project Blitz comes to your state, I encourage you to voice your opposition and, further, to appeal to your Christian legislators’ high regard for the Bible to argue against such legislation. Baptists may not have consensus on the “inerrancy” of Scripture, but surely Baptists (from fundamentalists to progressives) can agree that that the Bible is a sacred and divinely inspired text and should be treated as such.
These “Bible bills” make a mockery out of the Bible’s sacred worth. They place biblical interpretation in the hands of the state instead of the local church, betray the Golden Rule, invite heightened disunity among believers, turn the Bible into a partisan punching bag and promote civil religion – all of which are a far cry from an authentic Christian faith and witness.