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The Old Culture War Over Bible Reading in Public Schools is Starting Again

It was among the first social issues to split American Protestants into liberal and conservative camps.
Officials in six states, including populous ones such as Virginia and Florida, are considering bills permitting the study of the Bible in classrooms. Proponents of these bills insist that the Bible would be treated as a historical and literary source, not as a means of religious guidance.

Last week, President Trump tweeted his support for these laws, writing, “Numerous states introducing Bible Literacy classes. … Starting to make a turn back? Great!”

As a historian who has studied how American Protestants have engaged with the culture at large, I worry these bills threaten to reignite one of the oldest church-state controversies in U.S. politics. While Trump and his evangelical base support the bills, critics oppose them for fear their real intent is to teach Christianity in public schools.

This is an old debate. Bible reading in schools was among the first social issues to split American Protestants into competing liberal and conservative camps.

Educating moral citizens

In the early 19th century, as many states created public school systems, children’s moral development was viewed as a crucial component of education. Advocates for public schools came from some of the established Protestant denominations such as Congregationalismand growing liberal traditions like Unitarianism.

Since these public school proponents had diverse religious beliefs, they agreed public schools should not teach particular doctrines. But they advocated Bible study to cultivate morals based in what they thought were generally held Christian principles.

Opposition to Bible reading came from Roman Catholics, a growing segment of the population due to immigration. Many schools used the Protestant King James version of the Bible, which differed from the translation familiar to Catholics. Moreover, Bible reading apart from the study of Church teaching, was by nature a distinctly Protestant practice.

Yet even Protestant agreement on Bible reading in public schools did not survive for long.
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