On Friday, the Washington Post reported that the conservative think tank Council for National Policy had released a document recommending that new Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos promote “Judeo-Christian principles” in American public schools. This includes posting the 10 Commandments in K-12 schools, encouraging K-12 schools to recognize Easter and Christmas as Judeo-Christian holidays, implementing Bible reading classes, such as those designed by the Biblical Literacy Project, and teaching US and world history “from the Judeo-Christian perspective” for middle school and high school history and civics courses.
As someone who received more than a decade’s worth of instruction in the field of religious studies, I’m a bit flabbergasted by these directives, which look nothing like the actual study of religions. Indeed, the directions themselves reveal a startling confusion about the history of religions. For example, I’m sure Jewish leaders would be confused at best to hear Easter and Christmas described as “Judeo.” These are not Jewish holidays (and the document gives no suggestion that Jewish students should be excused for actual Jewish holidays). I’m also at a loss for how we should teach world history from a “Judeo-Christian perspective.” Although it could be interesting to discuss, for example, the long history of Assyrian Christianity in India, or of Jewish missionaries in Central Asia, there’s going to be a tremendous amount of material not covered if world history courses confine themselves to only those topics that involve either Christians or Jews.
More perplexing for me is the idea that any conservative Christian group, particularly one with an evangelical history like CNP, would support teaching the Bible in schools. It makes sense that they would specify a program like the Biblical Literacy Project because this is a project that provides textbooks for a Biblical reading course ― that is, a class where students read the Bible and discuss the various literary characteristics of its writing style. There is also such a thing as Biblical analysis, a field first developed in the late 19th century, and also sometimes called Biblical criticism, which attempts to understand the authorship of the Bible itself, arguing that different books, and even different sections within books and chapters, were authored by different people, often (in the case of the Old Testament) generations apart, and assembled at a later date.
I’m surprised to hear a conservative evangelical think tank support Biblical studies, however, because rejection of Biblical analysis was one of the catalysts for the creation of the modern evangelical movement. Indeed, even the conservative Christian rejection of Darwin and the theory of evolution arguably owes more to Biblical analysis, as the first works of Biblical criticism arrived in the US at nearly the same time as The Origin of the Species. Many early American theorists on Biblical criticism saw the works as working in parallel ― Darwin’s work as reaffirming that the story of creation in the Old Testament should be interpreted as allegory, and Biblical criticism demonstrating that there are, in fact, three or four separate creation accounts, spread across Genesis and Psalms, each dating from a different period of composition (or “thread” as Biblical authorship lines are called). Conservative Christians rejected these lines of study as violating the doctrine of “inerrancy,” that all truth must stem from the Bible, including about its own composition. This conservative offshoot would come to call themselves the Fundamentalists (after a series of pamphlets called “the Fundamentals of our Faith”), and later in the 20th century, a subset of that community would come to identify as Evangelicals.
Given the role that religion continues to play in our society and in our legislatures, I actually would welcome additional education on religions in our schools, but again, actual instruction in religious studies would look very different than what the CNP is recommending. It would include Biblical analysis, as well as studies in the contemporary history of Africa and the Middle East (since, after all, Christianity is a Middle Eastern religion). It would stop hobbling Jewish tradition to be of interest only when it coincides with Christian belief, and teach instead the important role that Jewish communities played in shaping scholarship and trade in the Late Antique world, and the depressing realities of how Christian leaders since Constantine have worked to undermine Jewish communities (including the devastating effects of the US government’s decision to refuse Jewish refugees during the Holocaust). It would teach students about Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jainists, and Shintoists, and the vibrant cultures these communities helped create, to give them a broader context for the claims shouted down their television sets and across the internet. It would discuss the complicated relationship between religion and imperialism, the subjugation of native religions in the Americas, and the cultural appropriation visible in feng shui interior designers, yoga studios, and color runs.
The fact is, it is important for Americans to have a basic understanding of religious traditions so that they can make informed decisions about public policy, just as it’s important for them to have a basic understanding of scientific principles so that they can make informed decisions about climate change and carbon emissions. The way to go about that, however, is not simply to plaster a 10 Commandments poster on a classroom wall ― it’s to create real and challenging coursework about world traditions and their lasting effect on our society.