U.S. District Court Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich here in Tampa ruled in January that it is all right to teach the Old Testament but not the New Testament in public high schools. Concerned that the state not sponsor religion, Judge Kovachevich permits “the history of the Bible” but not “the Bible as history.”
So far so good—the wall between church and state stands unscathed if we read the history of the Bible, whatever that is—but how does that permit her to distinguish one Testament from the other? Well, she finds it difficult to conceive how accounts of miracles and resurrection could be taught as history. So she strains at the gnat and swallows the camel, for how are we to teach the Old Testament without such miracles as God telling an old man to leave home and go elsewhere, where, at 100, he will produce a son, whom he then is to kill; God splitting the sea for his people, then sewing it back up over their enemies; walls falling to trumpet noise; the sun standing still, and on and on—not to mention, after all, creation in seven days? Why no to resurrection, but yes to creation?
If you wonder why the New Testament cannot be taught because it is full of miracles but the Old Testament can because it is not (even though it is), well, then, try this: the New Testament is perceived as Christianity’s part of the Scriptures, while the Old Testament is not, so the former is unclean and forbidden, while the latter is kosher.
If the only issue is truth or falsehood, right or wrong, then the judge has asked the right question (even though her answer strikes me as odd, since I can’t say what difference her distinction makes). But the study of religion sets forth another set of questions altogether, academic questions of description, analysis, and interpretation of humanity and its aspirations, viewed in the framework of this world and its culture. Then the question to ask about resurrection is not whether it is so, but what it has meant and continues to mean today in the religious world of Christianity—and this is a question with an objective, descriptive answer. This is what the academy does when it studies religion.
In fact, the judge’s decision misses what is at stake in the study of religion in the public schools, which the Supreme Court (from the 1963 Regents case onward) has explicitly approved. The state may not sponsor pro- or anti-religious instruction. But the state may and ought to sponsor courses about religion, teaching about religion as a component of human civilization in much of the world, certainly in the West and in the United States. The Court paved the way for the religious studies departments that later appeared on campuses all over the country. As recently as two years ago. President Clinton went over this ground and delivered the same message: publicly sponsored study is all right, but religious practice is for the private sector.
The Court made clear that not only history courses (such as those approved by Judge Kovachevich) but academic religious studies courses are permitted. The Supreme Court explicitly allows the religious study of religion, not only the historical study of religion, and there is a difference. Each discipline frames matters in its own terms. A history department offers a course in the history of ancient Israel that may or may not intersect with the Hebrew Scriptures (the “Old Testament”) or with the history of late antiquity, encompassing the beginning of Christianity. A religion department offers the religion of ancient Israel and an account of the authorized history that conveys the theology of that religion in narrative form from Genesis through Kings.
Along these same lines, a religion department portrays the formation of Christianity in the first seven centuries A.D. or the history of Judaism in that same period—without close attention to the affairs of the Roman or Iranian empires at that time, which would preoccupy a counterpart history course. So there are real differences between historical and religious studies of the same period and even the same writings.
What the judges, the state, the ACLU, and most people (who, like myself, do not want state sponsorship of religion or of atheism) oppose is the presentation of the Bible (or the Koran or the Talmud) in the framework of religious belief: state-sponsored advocacy of anybody’s holy scripture as Cod’s word. What many—including the Supreme Court, even President Clinton—do favor is state-fostered literacy in the principal documents of Western civilization, of which the Bible certainly is primary. Nothing in Judge Kovachevich’s argument suggests an opposition to the academic (if sympathetic) presentation of religion and various religions as important components of human civilization.
Students in public schools should not be taught either to believe or not to believe. They should understand what religion is and what its role in culture and history has been and is today. Otherwise, they are not going to understand the world in which they live—down to the numerous buildings that bear religious Symbols and provide the locus for praying and other religious activities, buildings that grace every other street corner in St. Petersburg and Tampa. Who are these people, what do they believe, where do they come from, why do they matter—these are the questions of the social study of religion that judges, the state, and most people deem critical to education.
But on that basis, the Old Testament and the New Testament are essential to the study of Western civilization. Without knowing what is in the Gospels, how are people to understand the art and music and architecture and politics and literature and poetry of the West throughout most of its history—or to make sense of Christianity, a principal part of Western civilization both then and now? Rather than grudgingly (and under strict ACLU supervision) admitting the Old Testament into the classroom, why not reconsider the entire matter?
Specifically, I propose (alongside courses on the religion of ancient Israel and on the history of Christianity in biblical times) high school courses on the religions that are practiced in the United States, with heavy emphasis upon Catholic and Protestant and Orthodox Christianity but appropriate attention also to Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, new religions of America (such as Mormonism and Scientology), and other religions represented in our country. Moreover, African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans have framed a distinctive, idiomatic Christianity, which deserves attention in its own terms, so that black and Hispanic young people will not be left out of the classroom.
A course on the world religions practiced in America would answer three questions: Where does this religion originate and what is its history? Where and how is it practiced in the United States? How has the encounter with America changed this religion? In a course such as this, the curriculum would not advocate belief or practice of religion but attention to religion as a fact of everyday life. Such a course could cultivate a sympathetic understanding of the actualities of religious life—and respect, too, for those who do not participate in religion.
A retired gentleman hereabouts attends all public conferences and fashions himself a vigilante for the ACLU. He wants to be sure that no illegal advocacy of religion takes place on public property or with public money. That is in line with the ACLU’s demand, which Judge Kovachevich accepted, for videotapes of high school classes in “the history of the Bible/Old Testament.” To date, the Inspector General charged with monitoring the compliance of the University of South Florida’s Religious Studies Department has made no complaints of which I am aware, and I take it we have not given offense. But we also have not offended the vast constituency of evangelicals and Catholics, not to mention Muslims and practicing Jews.
So an academic approach to religion is possible and can work. Our department at the University of South Florida encompasses religious believers and non-believers, people who teach about a religion they practice and people who do not practice the religion they teach, and people who treat religion as a matter of theory alone. We all share the strong conviction that religion constitutes a powerful component of the public life of humanity and that it is something that ought to be studied and understood. And we all love our subject—believing humanity.