A recent story noted that president of the Hobby Lobby company, the company that took its religious objections to the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) all the way to the Supreme Court, is a leader in a campaign to put Bibles and Bible classes into American public schools. As you would expect, this move is getting push back from groups like the ACLU.
The latest controversy is yet one more episode in a long-, long-running series of conflicts over the Bible’s proper role, if any, in American public schools. The most ferocious such episode was probably the Philadelphia Bible Riots of 1844. As part of rolling battles in American cities between Protestant nativists and Catholic immigrants, this one was sparked by Catholic objections to requiring reading the King James Bible in the public schools. In the backlash, several people were killed and Catholic churches were burned. Typically, conflicts over bible-reading were less physical and more political.
We misunderstand today’s debates on the issue if we imagine that Bible reading was once a universal practice in American schools only recently banished by the courts. And we misunderstand if we think about the controversies simply as disputes over whether to have religion – or which religion to have – in the schools. Historians have shown that the Bible played a complex role in American schools. (My major sources are here, here, and here.) In the end, many ministers decided they would just as soon have no Bible-reading in the public schools than the Bible-reading they were getting.
In the early nineteenth century, before public schools were common and going to school required, the Bible served not only as an inspirational text, but also (along with the almanac) as a basic reading text. Whether in the first schools – and, in many places, the first schools were Sunday Schools – or at home, children often learned to read by using the Bible as their primer. Protestantism, the faith to which the vast majority of Americans then at least nominally adhered, promoted literacy. Individuals were supposed to read the Bible on their own as part of their personal connection to God. Religion promoted reading and reading promoted religion.
It was taken for granted in the early nineteenth century that reading the Bible and devotional instruction went hand in hand, the flavor of Protestantism being taught determined by whatever was the major denomination in the local district. Objections arose, however. Catholics, rapidly growing in number, objected to use of the King James Bible and to the Protestant messages conveyed by the teachers. In many places upstart Protestant sects, Baptists for example, also objected to the establishment flavor. As a result, many districts and states separated the reading the Bible as primer, literature, and moral instruction, from classroom prayer or specifically devotional homilies (e.g., “the story of Jesus and the money changers teaches us that….”). Many districts stipulated that the Bible-reading not be accompanied any commentary or instruction so as to prevent it from being seen as sectarian – that is, as preferring any denomination within Christianity.
This distinction created a problem for many ministers. Biblical passages stripped of any religious explanation and read alongside Shakespeare or modern literature seemed archaic, difficult, and perplexing to students. This sort of treatment also seemed to turn Bible reading into exercises in comparative religion, hardly what faith-promoting advocates wanted. At the same time, students easily ignored the brief devotional moments, such as prayers to open the school day. (Even in the early 1960s, my public high school’s first periods started with “The Lord’s Prayer.”)
As a result of all this, some ministers decided that both the Bible and religion were getting disrespected by the students in the classroom and it would be better to just drop the whole thing. Many legislators and school administrators also found the hassle of balancing pressures from different constituencies too great. By the twentieth century, despite the waves of religious enthusiasm that had led many states to require some exposure to the Bible, at most about half of schools, according to one estimate, had Bible content. And versions of Bible reading varied greatly from state to state, town to town, and school to school.
Generations later, in 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public schools could no longer promote explicit devotional sessions or Bible-reading for religious inculcation. Proponents described in the Hobby Lobby news story claim that they intend the Bible study to be non-sectarian, though critics are skeptical. If such courses were indeed non-sectarian, might they end up as disappointing to the proponents as classroom Bible reading of the nineteenth century?
(Cross-posted on The Berkeley Blog on May 14, 2014.)