Following Trump’s tweet on Monday, some legal scholars argued that teaching the Bible in any form in a public school would violate the First Amendment. But others, such as John Inazu, a law and religion professor at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving Through Deep Difference, believe that this would depend on the nature of the classes.
“The Court’s approach to the establishment clause is convoluted and unclear, so it is difficult to say whether a Bible literacy class is unconstitutional,” Inazu told me. “It’s a historical fact that the Bible has influenced Western civilization and U.S. history, so it’s plausible that you could teach a class like this if it is done in a way that promotes cultural literacy.”
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Inazu added that the courts would also consider the motive behind instituting such classes. If they determine that the motivation behind Bible-literacy bills is to privilege Christianity, the classes could be ruled unconstitutional. That’s bad news for those pushing these bills because, as USA Today reported, they are the product of “an initiative called Project Blitz coordinated by conservative Christian political groups” who seek to “advocate for preserving the country’s Judeo-Christian heritage.” (It’s telling that they aren’t also advocating teaching the Koran or the Bhagavad Gita as part of world-history education.) So even if these bills pass, the classes they’ll spawn will likely not last long.
But assume for a moment that no ulterior motive is behind these bills, and that the conservative Christian activists and lawmakers are merely deeply concerned that America’s schoolchildren receive a better cultural-historical education. And also assume that teaching a Bible class in a public school is not a violation of the establishment clause, as many legal scholars claim. As Inazu pointed out, for a Bible class in public school to have any hope of passing constitutional muster, it would need to be academic rather than devotional. Which is to say, it couldn’t actually impart biblical values to students, and it would need to draw from scholarly consensus. And this is where the whole enterprise would backfire.
Start at the beginning. Many conservative Christians believe that the opening of the book of Genesis teaches a literal seven-day creation of the world by God around 6,000 years ago. But most academic Bible scholars believe that this text should be read poetically, and not as history or science. They interpret these passages as making theological points from the perspective of its ancient writers, rather than commenting on the truthfulness of Darwinian evolution or any other modern debate. Additionally, most conservative Christians believe that when Genesis tells about Adam and Eve, it is referencing two historical figures who were the first humans who ever lived. But geneticists assert that modern humans descend from a population of people, not a single pair of individuals.