On Monday, January 28th, Donald Trump was up early blasting out messages on Twitter, otherwise known as one of his favorite hobbies. At 7:21 AM he sent out a message of support for the various states who have put forth legislation to teach Bible literacy classes in public schools...
Of course this stirred up a hornet's nest of controversy and hand-wringing on both sides of the aisle. The predictable accusations of not honoring the separation of church and state came from non-religious people as well as the uninformed claims that it's simply not legal to discuss religion in public schools. Others found no legal issue but consider the topic completely pointless and not worthy of class time. The response has been all over the board within both camps (the left and the right). Some Christians think it's great and others believe it is short-sighted and dangerous.
With this in mind, a little background context on the concepts of church and state throughout US history is in order. Many people today have a warped view of the meaning of the phrase "separation of church and state". The phrase itself is actually not in the constitution, but the concept definitely is constitutional. The man who founded Rhode Island in 1635, Roger Williams, used the phrase "wall of separation" as a metaphor to illustrate the importance of keeping religion and government distinct. His belief was that the church would become tainted if it were mired down in the controversies and scandals of politics.
Thomas Jefferson furthered the concept in a letter to Danbury Baptist Association in 1802 and included the now famous phrase "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" (follow link below for citation).
Now that we've established that the concept of separation is definitely Constitutional, what exactly does it mean? As one would expect, there is debate on the specific legal meaning among more conservative and liberal legal scholars. At a minimum it means that the government cannot establish an official religion and can't pass legislation that unduly benefits one particular religion at the expense of another. What it doesn't mean is that religion can't be discussed at all in the classroom or that any past events related to religion should be omitted from the history books. The article below from Cornell Legal Information Institute provides insight into the law and plenty of scholarly reference if you feel like jumping deep into the rabbit hole:
Establishment Clause - Cornell Law
From a legal perspective, Biblical literacy classes would be constitutional as long as they were being taught for literary and historic significance and not seeking to extol the merits of Christian theology itself compared to other religions. Providing an overview of Christianity, for historical purposes, and the bible, for understanding prehistoric mideastern literature, would be completely appropriate from a legal standpoint. In fact, teaching students the impact of the Bible on the history of the western world would not only be legal, it would seem invaluable in helping to provide a full understanding of history and the evolution of society. No single book has impacted the planet as much as the bible after all. The historical and literary importance shouldn't be understated just because there are religious claims that some people disbelieve or are uncomfortable with.
Because the bible is a large part of the history of western civilization, I would support these classes. As a Christian, however, I wouldn't want teachers trying to dig deep into theology or evangelizing. Firstly, if they haven't been through seminary, they would likely get it wrong and secondly, that would cross the wall of separation discussed above. We don't wan't to lose any of our history just because some people are uncomfortable with the Bible being discussed in school, but at the same time we don't want any overzealous teachers turning anyone off by preaching in the classroom. This also means we have to be comfortable giving equal time for students to learn about other religions and their place in history. As Christians, we should embrace truth and learning.
The New York Intelligencer reacted to Trump's tweet in the article below: