Public officials encouraging teaching the Bible in public schools should make us all nervous.

. The Senate passed

to allow school districts to offer elective social studies courses on the “Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament.” But as happens in legislatures as bills go from the Senate to the House, and vice versa, simple bills are combined with other bills to move them along and to gain political support. Teaching the Bible is now a one-page part of a 26-page bill (170.341.1 of what is called a “House Committee Substitute”) containing many different provisions affecting Missouri public schools, including prohibiting physically restraining students and establishing adult high schools. The larger bill, HCS SB 323, will likely be voted on in the Missouri House this week with, I expected, little attention paid to “teaching the Bible.” Regardless of your view of the Bible, this idea of teaching about it in public schools should not become law. My concern is shaped by a related experience I had at the Missouri Capitol about 20 years ago. At the beginning of 2000s, many state governments were dealing with the issue of posting the Ten Commandments in public buildings.

he had placed in the rotunda of the Alabama Judicial Building. In a photo of Moore holding “the Ten Commandments,” I noticed it was different than the version I recognized from my religious upbringing because they were arranged with the first four statements pertaining to God and the second six statements pertaining to your neighbor. I was familiar with the first three Commandments relating to God and the other seven relating to your neighbor. Recalling that a tablet of the Ten Commandments stood on the Missouri River side of the Missouri Capitol, I made a point of checking it out the next time I was at the Capitol. I discovered they are displayed in a single plaque of 10 statements, but there are the first four pertaining to God, and the second six pertaining to your neighbor. That’s the Protestant version, different than the version with which I was familiar. I went inside the Capitol and engaged with several student interns I was supervising, lobbyists and reporters who I knew, and a few state legislators asking what they knew about the two versions of the Ten Commandments. As I recall, none of them were aware that there are at least two different versions of the Ten Commandments. As a matter of fact, the only person I have met since who instantly recognized this issue was a Jesuit priest who said, “Of course, the text of the Ten Commandments appears twice in the Hebrew Bible at Exodus 20:2-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21 and he added, “while you are it, notice there are a lot more than 10 commandments in the Bible.” It turns out that Catholics and Lutherans recognize the 3-7 version and most mainstream Protestant denominations recognize the 4-6 format of the Ten Commandments. When we say “the Ten Commandments” we assume we all have the same version in mind. Most people never consider there are different “Ten Commandments” because we all naturally assume that our version is the only version. Even given our efforts to be neutral, our understanding of important things, like the Bible, is shaped by our experience. It is not universal — although we often think our views are. We like things our way because they are familiar. Teaching the Bible is inviting conflict in an already polarized society. Parents and educators who often disagree about how to teach reading and math are unlikely to agree on authorship of various books of the Bible. Most of us have met over-enthusiastic people who are ready to tell us about their favorite passage in the Bible or about what the Bible “really means.” Even among well trained clergy, there are honest disagreements about accurate and meaningful interpretations, and most importantly on the importance of the Bible in religious experience. Granting local school boards the authority to establish units or courses teaching the Bible threatens local school district harmony by providing the opportunity for citizens to campaign for particular courses, at particular school levels, with perhaps, even a particular teacher. It’s increasing school politics. Compared to other portions of the House Committee Substitute bill, section 170, dealing with teaching the Bible, is underdeveloped and vague in justification. Why should the Bible be taught in social studies rather than history or literature? Why doesn’t the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education have a responsibility for developing guidelines for such courses? Enabling school districts to establish an elective course on the Bible willy nilly underestimates what should be required of instructors who might teach such a course or unit. Public schools are already challenged in hiring and retaining quality faculty. A social studies teacher can’t just develop expertise in Biblical history and interpretation over the summer. “Teaching the Bible,” even with the protective language in the bill that students can select their own version of the Bible, is too narrow. Different religious traditions place different emphases on the Bible and other religious writings and dogmas. It is troubling that an amendment to replace “Bible” with ‘religious texts” was defeated in the Senate. Teaching explicitly about the Bible is more appropriately the responsibility of the family, of higher education, and of Sunday school rather than the public school. Public schools already have too much to do.

Public officials encouraging teaching the Bible in public schools should make us all nervous.

That’s what the Missouri General Assembly is set to do. The Senate passed SB 323 to allow school districts to offer elective social studies courses on the “Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament.”

But as happens in legislatures as bills go from the Senate to the House, and vice versa, simple bills are combined with other bills to move them along and to gain political support. Teaching the Bible is now a one-page part of a 26-page bill (170.341.1 of what is called a “House Committee Substitute”) containing many different provisions affecting Missouri public schools, including prohibiting physically restraining students and establishing adult high schools. The larger bill, HCS SB 323, will likely be voted on in the Missouri House this week with, I expect, little attention paid to “teaching the Bible.”

Regardless of your view of the Bible, this idea of teaching about it in public schools should not become law. My concern is shaped by a related experience I had at the Missouri Capitol about 20 years ago.

At the beginning of the 2000s, many state governments were dealing with the issue of posting the Ten Commandments in public buildings. Alabama Judge Roy Moore gained national attention in 2003 when he was removed from his position for refusing a federal court order to remove a marble monument of the Ten Commandments he had placed in the rotunda of the Alabama Judicial Building. In a photo of Moore holding “the Ten Commandments,” I noticed it was different than the version I recognized from my religious upbringing because they were arranged with the first four statements pertaining to God and the second six statements pertaining to your neighbor. I was familiar with the first three Commandments relating to God and the other seven relating to your neighbor.

Recalling that a tablet of the Ten Commandments stood on the Missouri River side of the Missouri Capitol, I made a point of checking it out the next time I was at the Capitol. I discovered they are displayed in a single plaque of ten statements, but there are the first four pertaining to God, and the second six pertaining to your neighbor. That’s the Protestant version, different from the version with which I was familiar. I went inside the Capitol and engaged with several student interns I was supervising, lobbyists and reporters who I knew, and a few state legislators, asking what they knew about the two versions of the Ten Commandments.

As I recall, none of them were aware that there are at least two different versions of the Ten Commandments. As a matter of fact, the only person I have met since who instantly recognized this issue was a Jesuit priest who said, “Of course, the text of the Ten Commandments appears twice in the Hebrew Bible at Exodus 20:2-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21,” and he added, “while you are at it, notice there are a lot more than ten commandments in the Bible.”

It turns out that Catholics and Lutherans recognize the 3-7 version and most mainstream Protestant denominations recognize the 4-6 format of the Ten Commandments.

When we say “the Ten Commandments” we assume we all have the same version in mind. Most people never consider there are different “Ten Commandments” because we all naturally assume that our version is the only version. Even given our efforts to be neutral, our understanding of important things, like the Bible, is shaped by our experience. It is not universal — although we often think our views are. We like things our way because they are familiar.

Teaching the Bible is inviting conflict in an already polarized society. Parents and educators who often disagree about how to teach reading and math are unlikely to agree on authorship of various books of the Bible. Most of us have met over-enthusiastic people who are ready to tell us about their favorite passage in the Bible or about what the Bible “really means.”

Even among well-trained clergy, there are honest disagreements about accurate and meaningful interpretations, and most importantly, on the importance of the Bible in religious experience.

Granting local school boards the authority to establish units or courses teaching the Bible threatens local school district harmony by providing the opportunity for citizens to campaign for particular courses, at particular school levels, with perhaps even a particular teacher. It’s increasing school politics.

Compared to other portions of the House Committee Substitute bill, Section 170, dealing with teaching the Bible, is underdeveloped and vague in justification. Why should the Bible be taught in social studies rather than history or literature? Why doesn’t the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education have a responsibility for developing guidelines for such courses? Enabling school districts to establish an elective course on the Bible willy-nilly underestimates what should be required of instructors who might teach such a course or unit. Public schools are already challenged in hiring and retaining quality faculty. A social studies teacher can’t just develop expertise in Biblical history and interpretation over the summer.

“Teaching the Bible,” even with the protective language in the bill that students can select their own version of the Bible, is too narrow. Different religious traditions place different emphases on the Bible and other religious writings and dogmas. It is troubling that an amendment to replace “Bible” with “religious texts” was defeated in the Senate.

Teaching explicitly about the Bible is more appropriately the responsibility of the family, of higher education, and of Sunday school rather than the public school. Public schools already have too much to do.


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