The Magazine

Bible Illiteracy in America

From the May 23, 2005 issue: A report just issued by the Bible Literacy Project suggests that young Americans know very little about the Bible. The report is important, but first things first: A fair number of Americans don't see why teenagers should know anything at all about the Bible.

May 23, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 34 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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"No greater moral change ever passed over a nation than passed over England during the years which parted the middle of the reign of Elizabeth," writes the historian John Richard Green in a famous passage (1874). "England became the people of a book, and that book was the Bible." Religious reformers, inspired by continental Protestants as well as the Bible itself, became dissatisfied with the Church of England--which was closely associated with the monarchy. They found it too popish, too fancy-shmancy, insufficiently "purified"; too removed from the Bible. They wanted a biblical Christianity.

People called the reformers Puritans. Most were Congregationalist or Presbyterian but some were Baptist, Quaker, or something else; some never left the Church of England. (Denominations weren't as sharply defined as they are today. Nor did they stand for the same theological positions. Early Quakers, for example, weren't necessarily pacifist.)

Elizabeth tolerated the Puritans. But things changed when the Virgin Queen died and the Stuarts came to power. On succeeding Elizabeth, James I announced that he would make the Puritans "conform themselves or I will harry them out of the land." He meant it. Persecuted Puritans set sail in rising numbers for the New World.

THE GENEVA BIBLE became and remained the Puritans' favorite. It had marginal notes that Puritans liked--but King James and the Church of England deemed them obnoxious. The notes were anti-monarchy and pro-republic--"untrue, seditious, and savouring too much of dangerous and traitorous conceits," the king said. Under his sponsorship a new Bible was prepared (without interpretive notes) by 47 of the best scholars in the land. The King James version appeared in 1611--intended merely as a modest improvement over previous translations. But it happened to be a literary masterpiece of stupendous proportions. Purely on artistic grounds it ranks with Homer, Dante, Shakespeare--Western literature's greatest achievements. In terms of influence and importance, it flattens the other three.

"The Bible was central to [Britain's] intellectual as well as moral life in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries," writes Christopher Hill (1993). "The effect of the continual domestic study" of the Bible, according to the eminent historian G.M. Trevelyan (1926), "was greater than that of any literary movement in our annals"--in fact was greater (he adds) than that of any religious movement since the arrival of Christianity in Britain. "The Bible in English history," he writes, "may be regarded as a 'Renaissance' of Hebrew literature far more widespread and more potent than even the Classical Renaissance."

We aren't discussing a merely "popular" or "influential" book. We are talking revolution. In 16th and 17th-century Britain, the English Bible was capable of affecting the first thoughts people had on waking, their last thoughts before sleeping, their dreams, and their nightmares. British homes were decorated biblically--with Bible quotations or pictures painted or papered on the walls or printed on cloth wall-hangings. British life grew and flourished on a biblical trellis. Centuries later, Quiller-Couch wrote of the Bible in Britain that "it is in everything we see, hear, feel, because it is in us, in our blood."

ARCHBISHOP LAUD, high church and bitterly anti-Puritan, made life even harder for the Puritans under Charles I, who followed James. James and Charles had picked a fight that would continue in one form or another almost till the end of the 17th century--a period that includes the English Civil War, the execution of Charles I, the Puritan Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell as "Lord Protector," the restoration of the Stuart kings, and their final booting-out in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. When the smoke cleared, Britain was transformed: Parliament's power had been established forever; absolute monarchy had been permanently rejected.

Friction between Puritans and the Church of England was a major cause of the Civil War (1642-51)--which in turn was a major shaping event of the modern world. Parliament and the Puritans (to strip things down to essentials) rebelled against King Charles I and the Church of England. The Bible figured heavily on both sides, especially among the Puritans. The Puritan army was famous for chanting psalms. Oliver Cromwell once halted his army during a hot pursuit so they could all chant psalm 117 together. (He was a fine general; 117 is a short psalm.) The biblical passage in which Samuel warns the Israelites of the nightmare dangers of kingship was a natural Puritan favorite. The idea of a "Covenant with God," the whole population swearing loyalty to the Lord, was important too. (But the Bible was crucial across the theological and political spectrum. "Although the Puritans were great Psalm-singers, they were not as prominent in the writing of literary Meditations based on the Psalms as were the moderate Anglicans," for example--thus the critic and historian Harold Fisch, 1964.)

In 2002, Fania Oz-Salzberger published a major paper documenting the Hebrew Bible's influence on such seminal British political thinkers of the period as John Selden, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke. They all agreed, writes Oz-Salzberger, that "the people of Israel had a republic, a nearly perfect republic, from the time of the Exodus until at least the coronation of Saul. . . . And precisely because of its transcendent origin, it was an exemplary state of law and a society dedicated to social justice and republican liberty."

John Locke is often described as the most important philosophical influence on the American revolution. Locke believed in a "social contract" in which citizens swap some freedom for a civilized life: Everyone's freedom is curtailed, and everyone benefits. The results are civil society and the state. Locke relied heavily on the Bible. For Locke, writes Richard Ashcraft (1987), "the Bible was the primary source for any endeavor to supply a 'historical' account of man's existence."

After the 1600s, the Bible declined as a political hot topic in Britain, but all sorts of evidence attests to the nation's continuing tendency to see itself as ancient Israel reborn--with an exalted destiny and special relationship to the Almighty. In 1719, for example, Isaac Watts published a bestselling translation of the Psalms--in which references to "Israel" were replaced by the words "Great Britain." When Georg Friedrich Händel settled in London, he determined (naturally) to do things British-style. Thus a long series of oratorios--Esther, Deborah, Judas Maccabeus, Joshua, Susannah, Jephtha, Israel in Egypt--all presupposing that Britain was the new Israel.

The Bible's influence on British literature was profound. The work of John Milton, peerless semi-Puritan poet and political agitator, would have been inconceivable without the Bible--"that book within whose sacred context all wisdom is enfolded," he wrote in 1642. Wordsworth said of Milton's poetry, "However imbued the surface might be with classical literature, he was a Hebrew in soul; all things tended in him towards the sublime." (The first-century Greek who is now called "Pseudo-Longinus"--real name uncertain--got this ball rolling when he famously associated "sublimity" with the Hebrew bible, especially the start of Genesis.)

The Bible continued as a vital influence on English literature through William Blake and the romantics and (of course) even farther, down to our own day. In the literature of ancient Greece, Samuel Taylor Coleridge announced, "all natural objects were dead, mere hollow statues," whereas "in the Hebrew poets each thing has a life of its own." In the Bible "I have found," he wrote, "words for my inmost thoughts, songs for my joy, utterances for my hidden griefs. . . . " In certain of Lord Byron's Hebrew Melodies (poems to be sung to Hebrew tunes), the poet captures not only the mood but the subject matter of the biblical Song of Songs--"She walks in beauty, like the night / Of cloudless climes and starry skies; / And all that's best of dark and bright / Meet in her aspect and her eyes. . . . " Examples of the Bible's centrality to English literature are countless.

MEANWHILE, ANGLICAN SETTLERS founded Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607; Pilgrims arriving on the Mayflower founded Plymouth in 1620. Boston and Salem, 1630. The goal of the early Puritan settlers, writes the historian Sidney Ahlstrom, was "a Holy Commonwealth standing in a national covenant with its Lord." Ahlstrom mentions also that "an 'Anglicanism' deeply colored by Puritan convictions would shape the early religious life of Virginia"; so it seems fair to describe the first stages of the invention of America as a basically Puritan affair. The early settlers founded a series of colleges to provide them with pastors and theologians, starting with Harvard in 1636. By 1700, a quarter of a million ex-Europeans and their descendants lived in the future United States.

America's earliest settlers came in search of religious freedom, to escape religious persecution--vitally important facts that Americans tend increasingly to forget. A new arrival who joined the Pilgrims at Plymouth in 1623 "blessed God for the opportunity of freedom and liberty to enjoy the ordinances of God in purity among His people." America was a haven for devoutly religious dissidents. It is a perfect reflection of the nation's origins that the very first freedom in the Bill of Rights--Article one, part one--should be religious freedom. "Separation of church and state" was a means to an end, not an end in itself. The idea that the Bill of Rights would one day be traduced into a broom to sweep religion out of the public square like so much dried mud off the boots of careless children would have left the Founders of this nation (my guess is) trembling in rage. We owe it to them in simple gratitude to see that the Bill of Rights is not--is never--used as a weapon against religion.

You cannot understand the literature and experience of 17th-century American Puritans unless you know the Bible. The Pilgrim father William Bradford reports in his famous journal, for example, that his people had no choice but to camp near their landing-place on the Massachusetts mainland. There was no reason to think they could do better elsewhere; after all they could not, "as it were, go up to the top of Pisgah to view from this wilderness a more goodly country."

Bradford saw no need to explain that he was referring to Moses gazing at the Promised Land from atop Mount Pisgah before his death (Deuteronomy 34:1). To 17th-century readers, the reference would have been obvious--and so too the implied message: These Pilgrims are like biblical Israelites. They are a chosen people who made a dangerous crossing from the house of (British) bondage to a Promised Land of freedom. Other Puritan settlers expressed themselves in similar terms. There is a fascinating resemblance between these Puritan writings and the Hebrew literary form called "melitzah," in which the author makes his point by stringing together Biblical and rabbinic passages. The Puritans' world, like traditional Jewish society, was permeated and obsessed with the Bible.

Bradford's comparison between Puritans and ancient Israel is central to the American revolution and the emergence of the new nation. Americans saw themselves as Israelites throwing off a tyrant's yoke. Most historians look to the British and Continental philosophers of the Enlightenment, Locke especially, as the major intellectual influence on America's Founding Fathers and revolutionary generation. To rely on Locke is to rely (indirectly) on the Bible. Yet the Bible itself, straight up, was the most important revolutionary text of all. Consider the seal of the United States designed by a committee of the Continental Congress consisting of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson. (They don't make congressional committees like they used to!) Their proposed seal shows Israel crossing the Red Sea, with the motto "Rebellion to kings is obedience to God." The pastor Abiel Abbot proclaimed in 1799, "It has been often remarked that the people of the United States come nearer to a parallel with Ancient Israel, than any other nation upon the globe. Hence Our American Israel is a term frequently used; and our common consent allows it apt and proper."

That Britain and America should both have been inclined to see themselves as chosen peoples made a subterranean connection between them that has sometimes--one suspects--been plainer to their enemies than their friends. Down to the war in Iraq, enemies of America and Britain have suspected an Anglo-Saxon conspiracy to rule the world. In part this is paranoia; but it might also have something to do with Britain's and America's Bible-centered cultural histories. The two nations speak of a "special relationship" with each other--besides which, each has a history of believing in its own "special relationship" with the Lord Himself.

THE BIBLE CONTINUED TO SHAPE AMERICAN HISTORY. Some Americans saw the great push westward as fulfilling the Lord's plan for the United States, modeled on Israel's settlement of the holy land. Meanwhile, many have noticed that the history of modern Israel resembles earlier American experience. Harassed Europeans arrive in a sparsely settled land in search of freedom. They build the place up and make it bloom. They struggle with the indigenous inhabitants, some of whom are friendly and some not. At first they collaborate with the British colonial authorities; each group winds up in a push for independence and a deadly fight with Britain.

But long before Israel resembled America, America resembled Israel. It's true that Manifest Destiny--the idea that America was predestined to push westwards towards the Pacific--was less a Bible-based than a "natural rights" approach to America's place in God's plans. You didn't have to consult the Bible to learn about America's Manifest Destiny; it was just obvious. But America was called back to her biblical faith by no less a man than Abraham Lincoln himself.

As the Civil War approached, both North and South saw their positions in biblical terms. Southern preachers sometimes accused abolitionists of being atheists in disguise. Lincoln rose above this kind of dispute. "In the present civil war it is quite possible," he wrote in 1862, "that God's purpose is something different from the purpose of either party."

Lincoln was America's most "biblical" president--"no president has ever had the detailed knowledge of the Bible that Lincoln had," writes the historian William Wolf. Lincoln turned to the Bible more and more frequently and fervently as the war progressed. His heterodox but profound Christianity showed him how to understand the war as a fight to redeem America's promise to mankind. Lincoln never joined a church, but said often that he would join one if "the Saviour's summary of the Gospel" were its only creed. He meant the passage in Mark and Luke where Jesus restates God's requirements in terms of two edicts from the Hebrew Bible: to love God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. Lincoln's religion was deeply biblical--and characteristically American.

In modern times the Bible was no less important as a shaper and molder of American destiny. Woodrow Wilson, another intensely biblical president, spoke in biblical terms when he took America into the First World War--on behalf of freedom and democracy for all mankind. Harry Truman's Bible-centered Christianity was important to his decisions to lead America into the Cold War, and make America the first nation to recognize the newborn state of Israel--to the vast disgust of the perpetually benighted State Department. Reagan's presidency revolved around Winthrop's Gospel-inspired image of the sacred city on a hill. George W. Bush's worldwide war on tyranny is the quintessence of a biblical project--one that sees America as an almost chosen people, with the heavy responsibilities that go with the job.

There is no agreement whether God created the world, but the Bible's awe-striking creative powers are undeniable. There is no agreement whether God "is not a man that He should lie" (Numbers 23:19), but the Hebrew Bible's uncanny honesty respecting Israel and its many sins is plain. The faithful ask, in the words of the 139th psalm, "Whither shall I go from Thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from Thy presence?" And answer, "If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; Even there shall Thy hand lead me, and Thy right hand shall hold me." Secularists don't see it that way; but the Bible's penetration into the farthest corners of the known world is simple fact. Most contemporary philosophers and culture critics are barely aware of these things, don't see the pattern behind them, can't tell us what the pattern means, and (for the most part) don't care.

* * *

THE BIBLE LITERACY REPORT: What Do American Teens Need to Know and What Do They Know? was commissioned by a nonprofit organization called the Bible Literacy Project; it was published April 26. Students in the Gallup-conducted survey were mostly in 7th through 9th grades; they were enrolled at 30 public and 4 private schools (one Catholic, one Protestant, and 2 non-sectarian). Forty-one teachers took part--"a diverse sample of high school English teachers in 10 states." All are reputedly "among the best teachers in their subject."

These teachers are convinced that students ought to know the Bible and don't. Forty of forty-one agreed that "Bible knowledge confers a distinct educational advantage." But the majority estimated that fewer than a quarter of their current students are "Bible literate."

Contrary to what a person might guess, the teachers don't necessarily believe that Bible literacy has declined in recent decades. They describe a complex picture; naturally, individuals differ. (One teacher said that "Pentecostal kids or religious Muslim kids" seem better-informed than the others.)

The teachers are strikingly confused about the legal status of Bible-teaching in public schools. The ACLU and kindred organizations are winning the fight to suppress religion in public--to ban it from the public square as religion has traditionally been banned under regimes that tolerate it only marginally; to force it indoors and under wraps, as minority religions have traditionally been treated by powerful majorities that threaten violence. The ACLU and friends are winning by court order and--more important--by confusion and intimidation. "It was not uncommon," says the report, "for educators to hold erroneous beliefs about the legality of using the Bible and Bible literature in public-school classrooms."

Another of the report's sobering aspects has to do with the Bible topics deemed by teachers to be important. Mostly these are people and stories, not ideas. The report lists 72 biblical "items" that the teachers consider essential. The list starts: "Ten Commandments, Cain and Abel, Christ, Genesis, Jesus, Adam and Eve, Bible, Moses, David and Goliath"--and so on. Not what you would call challenging stuff. From the special viewpoint of American history, it seems to me you would rate four biblical "items" essential: Exodus, Covenant, and the related ideas of Promised Land and Chosen People. Two of these appear on the teachers' list; Covenant and Chosen People don't make the cut. This is no criticism of the teachers or the report, merely a sad reflection of the collapse of our educational standards across the board. It used to be that young children learned Bible stories and Bible basics. They didn't need high school teachers to bring them up to speed on the Ten Commandments.

Now let's consider the actual results. What do high school students know?

The good news: If you ask questions that are so simple the average arthropod would find them patronizing, and cast them in multiple choice format to make things even easier . . . American high school students do okay. Almost three-quarters (72 percent) of students in the survey could answer correctly that Moses "led the Israelites out of bondage." Ninety percent could tell you that Adam and Eve were the first man and woman in Genesis. Sixty-nine percent figured out that "the Good Samaritan" was "someone who helps others." Break out the champagne!

On second thought . . . "Significant minorities of American students have not yet achieved even this rudimentary level of Bible knowledge." "Eight percent of American teens," for example, "believe that Moses is one of the twelve Apostles."

Go beyond rudimentary and you find that "very few American students" have the level of Bible knowledge that high-school English teachers regard as "basic to a good education." "Almost two-thirds of teens" couldn't pick the right answer out of four choices when they were asked to identify "a quotation from the Sermon on the Mount" ("Blessed are the poor in spirit"). Two-thirds didn't know that "the Road to Damascus is where St. Paul was blinded by a vision of Christ." Fewer than a third "could correctly identify which statement about David was not true (David tried to kill King Saul)." And so on.

WHAT TO DO? Every school that teaches American history must teach the Bible's central role. Easily said; but experience suggests that many of today's classes in English and U.S. history are stuck somewhere between useless and harmful. High school history and English curricula ought to be rebuilt from scratch right now, on an emergency basis. Those rebuilt curricula should (of course) teach students about the centrality of the Bible.

But students need to read the Bible, not just about the Bible. High school Bible-as-literature electives are rare and controversial. Not long ago Frankenmuth, Michigan, became (briefly) famous when its school board refused to allow such an elective.

There are good reasons to be wary of such courses. There is nothing wrong with them on constitutional grounds, and the Bible Literacy Project has reasonable, serious curricula of its own on offer. But these courses have to keep well clear of teaching the Bible as a sacred text, or promoting religious views of any kind. And it happens that nearly all of the smartest, deepest readers of the Bible through the ages have approached it from a religious direction. No doubt their views can be worked in somehow, but in how natural a way? And won't they be a lot easier just to skip?

And those in favor of such courses should be aware of their bleak history--specifically, the bleak history of Bible teaching that refuses to treat the Bible as sacred scripture. The German "higher critics," starting with Julius Wellhausen in the late 19th century, picked the Bible to pieces like vultures addressing a dead cow. They were always ready to invent a new "source," never quite able to see the point--to understand Scripture as loving readers do. Being in love with a book doesn't guarantee that you will succeed as a critic. But not being in love guarantees that you will fail. (One reason "deconstructionism" is the least successful critical approach in modern history.)

When I was a graduate student in Bible studies during the long-ago late 1970s, this particular fight was raging. (Fights are nearly always raging in Bible studies.) Scholars such as Brevard Childs of Yale were struggling to wrest the Bible from the palsied grip (which looked a lot like a choke-hold) of higher critics who could tell you nearly everything about the Bible, in academic German as charming and graceful as Blutwurst, except what the words actually meant. The new "canonical critics" (such as Childs himself) were struggling to put the Bible back into the religious context out of which it had been untimely ripped by profoundly irritating Germans.

So let's have Bible-as-literature electives in every public high school, by all means. But let's also face facts: These are hard courses to teach at best. Do we have teachers who are up to the job? (With laudable foresight, the Bible Literacy Project is already developing workshops for teachers.) And let's also keep in mind that, for most children, such courses can only be half-way houses. Children studying the Bible should learn their own religious traditions as precious truth, not as one alternative on a multicultural list.

Teaching precious religious truth is not what America's public schools are for. Ultimately there is only one solution to our Bible literacy crisis. Our churches, our synagogues, and all other institutions that revere the Bible must do better. How well are they doing? To judge by the new report, lousy. (Of course some are doing a lot better than others.)

It's impossible to find one global solution to the problem of Bible teaching in America. But it's easy to find one global hope. America is fertile ground for Great Awakenings--mass movements in which large chunks of the population return to their religious roots. We haven't had one for awhile; we are overdue. Great Awakenings are big, dramatic events that take off like rockets and burn out like rockets, after brief but spectacular careers. Even so, many people find in the aftermath that their life-trajectories have been changed forever.

The next Great Awakening will presumably be centered in the Protestant community--but will deal in friendship with America's other religious communities. To have a Great Awakening, you need a great talker. (To change people's ideas about religion and the Bible and God, you have to look them in the eye and speak to them from the heart.)

My guess is that our next Great Awakening will begin among college students. College students today are (spiritually speaking) the driest timber I have ever come across. Mostly they know little or nothing about religion; little or nothing about Americanism. Mostly no one ever speaks to them about truth and beauty, or nobility or honor or greatness. They are empty--spiritually bone dry--because no one has ever bothered to give them anything spiritual that is worth having. Platitudes about diversity and tolerance and multiculturalism are thin gruel for intellectually growing young people.

Let the right person speak to them, and they will turn back to the Bible with an excitement and exhilaration that will shake the country. In reading the Bible they will feel as if they are going home--which is just what they will be doing. Nothing would do America more good than a biblical homecoming.

What has the Bible been to this country? In 1630, John Winthrop repeated Moses' instructions: "Lett us choose life." How to do it? By reading and obeying the Bible, above all "the Counsell of Micah"--"to doe Justly, to love mercy, to walke humbly with our God." Americans (by and large) have done their best to follow Winthrop's instructions. If they haven't always succeeded--if America has managed at times to be a profoundly sinful nation (which is no less than the Bible expects of all nations)--they have also tried hard to be good. They have tried hard to choose life. And the Bible has been as good as its own word (Proverbs 3:18)--"It is a Tree of Life to them that lay hold of it."

David Gelernter is a senior fellow in Jewish Thought at the Shalem Center, Jerusalem, and a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.