Banning the Bible in Utah
School district’s policy shows the problem with mere proceduralism
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The Bible is now “under review” in the Davis School District in Utah. Davis represents the state’s second biggest public system. Specifically, the school district’s leadership designated the Bible as too “violent” and “vulgar” for elementary and middle school students—high schoolers are deemed sufficiently mature to peruse the Bible’s contents. In the lower grades, the Good Book—the King James version, in particular—will be unavailable in campus libraries.
The legislative hook for such a move is the Sensitive Materials in Schools Act of 2022 (SMS), originally passed to regulate “pornographic or indecent” materials in public schools.
The accusation is admittedly overused, but the Davis School District policy is simply un-American. If this kind of thing had been proposed in, say, 1840s Philadelphia, riots would have ensued.
Perhaps more importantly, the new policy is morally confused, feigning principled legal consistency but exhibiting only a lackluster capacity for informed, ethical—dare I say, theological—discretion. Anything can be designated immoral, obscene, or indecent. Justice Potter Stewart’s “I know it when I see it” quip regarding obscenity has to be conditioned by an overarching morality as to what is good and what is bad according to societal mores informed by a recognized higher law. This dynamic exists in every society, whether it is formally recognized or not.
The objectionable and obscene, if they are to be actionable, are not abstract categories. In one possible universe—one in which we are apparently now living—the Bible can be declared obscene or vulgar even as America’s pastime, baseball, celebrates anti-Christian blasphemy and homoerotic behavior as laudatory.
These are all matters of moral judgment. In other words, there is nothing inconsistent about banning books that feature pornographic imagery or entice adolescents to sexual experimentation from grade school curriculum or libraries while retaining the Bible. Likewise, there is nothing morally underhanded or procedurally dubious about prohibiting Drag Queen Story Hour in local libraries but permitting Scripture readings in the same public forum. Progressive activists understand this dynamic but weaponize “neutrality” for their gain.
We must not allow a commitment to proceduralism to convince us that some algorithmic, morally neutral political nirvana is out there waiting for us. No computer is going to figure this out for us. If we are unwilling or unable to make moral arguments, no formula is going to save us. There is no neutrality.
What about the American tradition? Shockingly, Rep. Ken Ivory, the Republican sponsor of the SMS bill, affirmed the school district’s action, suggesting that the traditional practice in America was for Bible teaching and access to be relegated to private homes.
Ivory is grossly mistaken about “traditional” American practices. The true American tradition recognized the indispensability of Bible teaching—certainly access—in public schools.
Of course, by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Abington Township v. Schempp (1963), mandatory Bible readings in public schools were eliminated. Now mere access is limited in this Utah district. Both actions are violent departures from American tradition.
Noah Webster maintained that the “history and morality of the Bible” was to be “read in schools to great advantage.” Indeed, in America, Webster observed that the reading of the Bible in schools was “as common as a newspaper.” (The ubiquity of the Bible in the colonial American consciousness is well attested to by historians.)
Webster advocated the employment of the Bible as “a system of religion and morality” in public curriculum. In a republic, Webster insisted, education of the populace was paramount, specifically such moral instruction as the Bible offered—an ostensibly virtuous citizenry required it and could be sustained by no less. Webster wrote a brief commentary on the Bible for this very purpose, and famously produced his own minor grammatical revision of the King James Bible.
Similarly, Benjamin Rush penned a lengthy defense of “the use of the Bible as a school book,” the unquestioned premise of which, according to Rush, was that “Christianity is the only true and perfect religion,” and that insofar as men adopted its precepts they would be “wise, and happy.” Since the Bible was the means of knowing the true religion, it should be read by all men. And “when not read in schools, [it] is seldom read in any subsequent period of life.”
To invoke one more forgotten founder, Gouverneur Morris surmised that since the Christian religion was the only “solid base of morals” necessary for free governments, education should teach “the precepts of religion and the duties of man towards God.”
Apparently, some school districts don’t even want the Authorized Version on their shelves. It is no coincidence that the removal of the Bible from public educational life has coincided with its disparagement and a concomitant decline in public morals. As St. Augustine rightly said, “what is unknown cannot be loved.”
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