Sobran Column -- The Bible and the Schools
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The Bible and the Schools

November 18, 1999

The principle of the separation of church and state has long been wrongly ascribed to the U.S. Constitution, which merely forbids Congress to make laws “respecting” an establishment of religion or prohibiting its free exercise. The wording of the First Amendment is so clear that one can only marvel that it has been so badly misunderstood. Reading comprehension is indeed in decline, especially among federal judges.

The courts look with special suspicion on any “intrusion,” as they call it, of religion in public schools. They have repeatedly ruled that even voluntary prayer, moments of silence, the posting of the Ten Commandments, and Bible reading violate the supposed “wall of separation” between church and state.

This misguided “separation of church and state” has sundered American children from their heritage. Nobody can be fully educated without knowing the Bible: the stories of creation, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the Great Flood, Moses and the Exodus, Samson and Delilah, King David, King Solomon, the sufferings of Job, Jonah, the great prophets, the fortunes of the Israelites, the life and teachings of Christ, the Apostles, and the epistles of Paul, not to mention the Psalms, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes.

Even William O. Douglas, one of the most liberal of U.S. Supreme Court justices, once wrote: “We are a religious people, whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.” We can’t truly know those institutions unless we know their Biblical foundations.

The same is true of history and literature. How can you understand the Reformation without knowing what Catholics and Protestants were fighting about? How can you understand the full significance of the French and Russian revolutions without knowing their religious background and their consequences for religious life?

Nearly all the great literature of the last millenium also presupposes a knowledge of the Bible. Dante’s Divine Comedy and Milton’s Paradise Lost are based in Bible stories and characters. The plays of Shakespeare are thick with references to the Bible.

Even Huckleberry Finn assumes that readers will recognize references to Scripture. Mark Twain himself was not a believer; but he would have been astonished at the idea that you could be literate without knowing the Bible. The same is true of irreligious writers like James Joyce, William Faulkner, and H.L. Mencken.

The great critic Northrop Frye, who died a few years ago, thought the Bible, with its archetypal stories, was essential to what he called “the educated imagination.” Western culture — music, painting, poetry, fiction, architecture, politics — is saturated with Biblical lore; English literature could hardly exist without phrases from the King James translation.

The Bible has shaped the way we think of ourselves. Until recent times, educated men saw themselves and their history in Biblical terms; they saw history as a great story of salvation. In politics they justified themselves with Scriptural arguments, as in supporting or opposing war, rebellion, and slavery.

You can’t understand Greek and Roman culture without reading the works of Homer and Virgil. It would be absurd to tell a Buddhist or a Hindu he could understand Western culture without reading the Bible; but that, in effect, is what we have been telling our own children!

The banning of the Bible in public schools has imposed a massive ignorance on those children. It makes them uncomprehending of nearly every other subject, including the sciences, which arose in both response and reaction to Biblical teachings. In other words, you have to read the Bible even to understand atheism!

The thinness and crassness of contemporary American culture — instantly visible in movies and television — is largely due to Scriptural ignorance. It’s true that Americans take little interest in history in any form; but their history, including their European ancestry, is inseparable from an ancient Christian culture, rooted in the Bible.

The problem is compounded by the fact that professional educators themselves know so little about Scripture that they no longer realize that anything essential is missing from their curricula. So they transmit their own ignorance without knowing it.

In the profound words of the nineteenth-century Anglican bishop Richard Whately: “He who is unaware of his ignorance will be only misled by his knowledge.” That is one of the harshest judgments on modern education: that it propagates not only its ignorance, but unawareness of its ignorance.

Joseph Sobran

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