By Eric Buehrer
There is a common misconception that, while teaching about various world religions may be acceptable for cultural awareness, teaching about the Bible and Christianity is not allowed in public school classrooms because of concerns over the establishment of religion. However, quite to the contrary of popular perception, state academic standards across the nation provide ample opportunity for educators to teach about the Bible, Christian beliefs, and Christians who were influential in history.
At Gateways to Better Education, we studied every state’s academic standards and compiled a report, The Bible in State Academic Standards, to help educators and the public understand that teaching about the Bible and Christianity has not been banned from public education. In fact, teaching about these topics is expected in more instances than most people might believe. The Christian community in every state needs to bring these standards to light and help educators gain confidence to exercise their academic freedom to teach to the full extent of their state’s standards.
Some states provide educators with detailed standards for what students should learn about the Bible and Christianity. For example, in California, sixth-grade students are expected to: “Note the origins of Christianity in the Jewish Messianic prophecies, the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth as described in the New Testament, and the contribution of St. Paul the Apostle to the definition and spread of Christian beliefs (e.g., belief in the Trinity, resurrection, salvation).” (2005)
In Massachusetts, seventh-grade students are expected to: “Describe the origins of Christianity and its central features. A. Monotheism; B. the belief in Jesus as the Messiah and God’s son who redeemed humans from sin; C. the concept of salvation; D. belief in the Old and New Testament; E. the lives and teachings of Jesus and Saint Paul.” (2003)
In Virginia, high school students are expected to: “Demonstrate knowledge of … the civilizations of the Hebrews … explaining the development of religious traditions; [and] describing the origins, beliefs, traditions, customs, and spread of Judaism. Essential Questions: What were the essential beliefs of Judaism? How did Judaism influence Western civilization? Essential Knowledge: Ten Commandments, which state moral and religious conduct.”
However, even though a state’s academic standard provides educators with specific guidelines for teaching these topics, educators are too often uninformed about the specific standard (opting to teach only what is in the textbook) or are afraid to give the topic much time or attention for fear of being accused of endorsing a particular religious belief.
Some states include Christianity and Judaism in a list of major world religions students should study. For example, Maryland expects students to: “Describe the social, political, and economic impacts of various world religions on a global society, such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Taoism, and Buddhism.”
Unfortunately, due to a mixture of multicultural fervor and fear of mixing church and state, some educators only feel comfortable teaching about religions other than Christianity. Consequently, in the multicultural mix, the Bible and Christianity are given a disproportionately small amount of class time.
Some states include generalized references such as “beliefs,” “culture,” or “social institutions.” In these cases, it would be very appropriate to teach about specific beliefs of Christianity in order to fulfill the standards adequately.
For example, Illinois Middle/Junior High School standards expect students to: “Explain how social institutions contribute to the development and transmission of culture.”
The Christian church is arguably one of the most influential “social institutions” that has contributed to—and continues to contribute to—“the development and transmission of culture.”
In New Jersey, eighth-grade students are expected to: “Determine the impact of religious and social movements on the development of American culture, literature, and art” [and] “Evaluate the role of religion on cultural and social mores, public opinion, and political decisions.”
Certainly understanding the beliefs that motivated Christians in American history and culture is important to adequately fulfill these standards. A New Hampshire standard for high school students adds examples of the influence of religion on American history and culture: “Analyze how religious ideas of morality have impacted social change, e.g., the Abolitionist Movement or the debate over legalized abortion.”
“Religious ideas” in the context of this standard means Christian ideas and educators need not be hesitant to teach about them. To fulfill a standard like this, educators should teach—as the standard requires—the religious ideas of Christians involved in these social movements.
Christians in History
State academic standards across the country also expect students to learn about people in history who were motivated by their Christian faith. For example, Indiana expects high school students to: “Read Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr’s, ‘I Have a Dream’ speech (1963) and ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ (1963) and summarize the main ideas in each.”
King quoted Isaiah 40 when he declared: “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain will be made low. The rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”
In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, he defended himself by recalling the civil disobedience of the three Hebrew youth in defying Nebuchadnezzar’s order to bow to him. He also referred to the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross as his inspiration. And, he stated, “A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God.”
To properly understand King’s motivation and reasoning, students need to understand how his Christian faith shaped his ideas and actions.
In another example of learning about Christians who were motivated by their faith, California high school students studying World War II are expected to “discuss the moral courage of Christians such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Raoul Wallenberg, who risked their lives to save Jews.”
Pennsylvania’s academic standard for sixth grade expects students to: “Identify and explain how individuals and groups made significant political and cultural contributions to world history.” And includes as examples: “Pope Leo X, John Calvin, John Wesley, Martin Luther, Ignatius of Loyola.”
Patriotic and Civics Lessons
State standards commonly include expectations that students will learn what the Pledge of Allegiance means. Many educators do not do this. However, doing so would provide students with a solid civics lesson on key aspects of American culture and values.
Teachers can easily help students understand the phrase “one nation under God” as a reflection of one of America’s core values, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence—that our rights ultimately come from God and not the government.
Other aspects of American culture include patriotic songs that reference God. For example, the District of Columbia expects students to: “Recite the Pledge of Allegiance and national songs (e.g., ‘America the Beautiful,’ ‘My Country, ’Tis of Thee,’ ‘God Bless America,’ ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,’ and ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’) and explain the general ideas expressed in the lyrics.”
States also expect students to learn civics lessons that include references to America’s Judeo-Christian roots. For example, Florida expects fifth-grade students to: “Explain the definition and origin of rights. Examples are John Locke’s ‘state of nature’ philosophy, natural rights: rights to life, liberty, property…”
As an example of John Locke’s biblical thinking, in the late 17th century he wrote: “The state of Nature has a law of Nature to govern it, which obliges everyone, and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions; for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker; all the servants of one sovereign Master, sent into the world by His order and about His business; they are His property, whose workmanship they are made to last during His, not one another’s pleasure.”
Common Core Standards
Setting aside the debate about whether the Common Core Standards are good or bad for American education, its English/Language Arts standards recognize the importance of Bible literacy. The standards reference the Bible four times, and we have indicated those for each state.
It is referenced in writing standards and reading standards for eighth, ninth, and tenth grades: “Analyze how a modern work of fiction draws on themes, patterns of events, or character types from myths, traditional stories, or religious works such as the Bible, including describing how the material is rendered new.”
“Analyze how an author draws on and transforms source material in a specific work (e.g., how Shakespeare treats a theme or topic from Ovid or the Bible or how a later author draws on a play by Shakespeare).”
To date, Common Core has not addressed Social Studies standards. It is yet to be seen how much the Bible, Christianity, and the Judeo-Christian heritage will be included in Common Core Social Studies standards.
State academic standards provide ample opportunity to teach about the influence of the Bible and Christianity. However, because of misinformation, lack of information or fear, educators in too many cases have engaged in self-censorship. Educators can be confident in teaching about the Bible and Christianity. It is academically expected, legally supported, and appropriate for helping students of all faiths and no faith understand the culture in which they live.
Eric Buehrer is a former public school teacher and now a licensed minister and founder/president of Gateways to Better Education. He writes and lectures extensively on the subject of religion and public education. His books and materials have been endorsed by Dr. D. James Kennedy, Rabbi Daniel Lapin, and Josh McDowell.
This article was adapted from The Bible in State Academic Standards published by Gateways to Better Education. To download the report visit GoGateways.com/report.
Volume 8 Issue 2 - The Renewanation Review