Teaching Religion In The Public Schools

Dr. Ed Trimmer
Executive Director of the Cal Turner, Jr. Center for Church Leadership at Martin Methodist College

We can teach the Bible and World Religions in the PUBLIC High School and doing so permissible by the Supreme Court and its interpretation of the First Amendment.  This statement is true but most Americans think it is false.  The Pew Charitable Trust has been conducting surveys for years and just recently surveyed Americans about their general knowledge of the Bible and World Religions.  In the survey results, bound to hit headlines, those who describe themselves as atheists and/or agnostics had better knowledge of World Religions than any other group, with LDS (Mormons) and Jews close behind.  Unfortunately, evangelical Protestants did not fare well in the survey and Catholics were the worst in their knowledge.  However, Evangelical Protestants did better with the Bible questions than most other groups except the LDS.

I and many other Christians have thought that a basic class on the Bible as Literature and another on World Religions ought to be offered in public high schools.  The Supreme Court has consistently ALLOWED this type of class but this idea has not universally caught on in most school boards.  There are communities that have for years taught a class on the Bible as Literature within the English curriculum and World Religions with the “Social Studies” offerings of the local high school.  Are you ready to advocate for these two courses in your community with your school board?

Even in the United States, the third largest country in the world by population and the country with largest population of self-professing Christians, the religious diversity of our country continues to grow.  Diane Eck has called the United States the most religious diverse country in the history of humankind.  Yet, as this survey indicates, we are exceeding ignorant not only of the Bible BUT of other World Religions and their beliefs and customs.  We are seemingly ready to believe any “false witness” against other religions particularly Islam and Neo-paganism.  I know that I began my study of other World Religions because youth were consistently asking me questions about other religious beliefs that I had no factual knowledge of.  In my readiness to witness for the cause and case of Jesus Christ, I did not want to “slander” other religions by what was false.

Stephen Prothero, author of both Religious Literacy and God is Not One, and professor of Religion at Boston University (one of the over 100 colleges and universities still related to the United Methodist Church) has argued, quite convincingly I believe, that “even if religion does not make sense to you, you can’t make sense of the world without knowing something about the world’s religion.”  The subtitle of his book, God is Not One is the eight rival religions that run the world and why their differences matter.  While the author continues to struggle with his own religious identity, his book is a great start for trying to understand the significant differences between World Religions as well as putting an end to the idea that all of the world religions say essentially the same thing as William Blake claimed in 1795 and was popularized by Huston Smith in the late 1950’s.

Knowing something about the religious beliefs of our neighbors be they Christians, or otherwise, ought to be part of both our civil duty and even our religious duty, so that when we witness for Jesus Christ we are not doing so in a manner that slanders or bears false witness against our neighbors.

What do you think?  Ed Trimmer can be reached at etrimmer@martinmethodist.edu


*This article was originally published in the Tennessee Conference Review October 15, 2010.  Re-used by permission.


  1. I’m fully in favor of including a Bible as Literature course as an elective in High School, but only if it remains primarily a literature course rather than a theology course and only if either this class or others teach the same material using other of the world’s sacred texts besides the Bible. I took such a class as an undergrad, thoroughly enjoyed it and it opened my eyes to a new richness of the biblical text I had not known before. It was taught by an atheist. Such a class would be a fine addition to the high school curriculum and students would benefit. The problem, of course, perhaps especially here in middle Tennessee, is that conservative Christian parents, teachers, school boards and elected legislators will see such a course as an opportunity for evangelism rather than enriching a student’s educational experience through literature. The same can be said for a class in World or Comparative Religions (that would presumably also include Christianity). I remain skeptical every time I hear of such classes in public schools. I want to know who’s teaching it and how. Evangelism is my job as a Christian parent and a church member, not the public school’s.

    • After I retired from the United Methodist ministry, I became a public school teacher. As I went through the alternative certification process to become an English and reading teacher, Iearned that the state of Florida has Bible 1 and Bible 2 classes in the course guide, under the “Humanities” label. This is a fairly new designation. Until the late 1990’s Florida offered Bible courses under the social studies umbrella, “The Bible as History”.

      The story is rather interesting, I think. Some United Methodist Religion professors from Louisiana did a study on the way Bible was being taught in Florida, and came out with a disturbing report. It was usually being taught more like a Sunday School class than as an academic course. With this report in hand, an organization called, “The People of the American Way” challenged Florida’s approach in court. The state wisely backed off, temporarily suspended the Bible courses, and asked some religion professors at Florida State University to come up with a new, more appropriate curriculum. They did. Bible 1 and Bible 2 are now official course offerings in the state of Florida again.

      Frankly, instead of Bible as History, or Bible as Literature, I think the Humanities label is more fitting. As a Christian, and as an English teacher, I think it is a misrepresentation to label the Bible as “literature”. I would have difficulty with that narrow approach. The humanities label is a big improvement.

      In 2005 a text book entitled “The Bible and It’s Influence” was published. http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_0_20?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=the+bible+and+its+influence&sprefix=The+Bible+and+its+in Although it is a bit too simplistic, in my opinion and would need to have supplemental readings in a high school Bible class, it is a good text.

      One final point— in Florida, despite all this effort to reevaluate the course, The new course is rarely taught. In all of the controversy over this issue, the Bible has simply been discarded in the public schools. Administrators are reluctant to offer the new course. It will take political pressure from either the public or from students to introduce the revised course. And NO ONE SEEMS TO BE WILLING TO TAKE UP THIS CAUSE.

      I actually approached my district superintendent about this, and the pastor of the mega-church that I attend. Neither felt the church should deal with such an issue. Since United Methodists were responsible for the Bible’s removal from Florida public schools, this dismayed me greatly.

      The Bible such an important book in our culture, not only in history, but in today’s society, that it is a shame that public schools do not offer students the opportunity to study it. EVERY student should have the opportunity to choose such a course no matter what their faith background may be. The church should not be the only arena for students to study the Bible. I also believe that as touch as this subject is, the United Methodist church should promote and advocate for the academic study of the Bible in public schools.

  2. This article in the New York Times presents my case well. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/25/books/review/the-book-of-books-what-literature-owes-the-bible.html?pagewanted=all

    I would love to see the leaders in the UMC work to restore appropriate teaching of the Bible in the public schools. It will take political pressure to do so. Even as church members and leaders, we are still the “public” of “public” schools.

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