It seems that David van Biema of Time Magazine must read Feministe -- either that or Jill is tapped into the zeitgeist. In any case, his article advocating teaching the Bible in public schools echoes (although does not match precisely) what Jill was saying in this post.
Contrary to right-wing propaganda which holds that liberals want to remove all references to the Bible from public life, most liberals probably favor the teaching of Biblical literacy in public schools -- as long as it is done without preaching or denigrating the Bible. I disagree profoundly with much of what the Bible contains but the fact is that it is a foundational text for western culture. I certainly felt it important enough, notwithstanding my agnosticism/atheism, to take a number of courses in the Bible at my private high school and my private college (including a course called "The Hebrew Bible" taught by a teacher who happened to be a rabbi, a one year survey on Christian theology, a language class on New Testament Greek, and a seminar on New Testament Eschatology taught by a professor who happened to be an ordained Prebyterian minister). After all, teaching the facts is a cornerstone of liberalism. Love it or hate it, the Bible is a fact of life in western culture. Even if we are not ourselves Christian, we should understand the religious beliefs that are motivating the majority of our fellow citizens. If we are Christian, we should understand what our key religious text says.
According to Van Biema, polls show that 2/3 of Americans believe that the Bible contains the answers to "all or most of life's basic questions" but 1/2 of Americans cannot even name one Gospel. Only 44% of Evangelical teens could identify a particular quote as coming from the Sermon on the Mount. Van Biema observes that such ignorance may hobble many Americans' understanding of their own religion, and also prevents those of us who are neither Jewish nor Christian from fully understanding our own secular literature, western art and music, and American political ideas such as John Winthrop's "shining city on a hill" not to mention the current political influence and ideas of the Religious Right.
So can we teach the Bible without causing a whole cascade of problems? The problem is that there will be abuses. Undoubtedly, teaching the Bible in many places will include all sorts of constitutionally impermissible conduct such as praying or proselytizing. There will be some places where non-Christian students are made to feel profoundly uncomfortable in their own public schools. There will be efforts to privilege Christianity above other religions.
But how I would love to see American students given the tools to not be so painfully ignorant without teachers seeming to endorse or put down Christianity. Certainly, that ideal was met in the classes I took in liberal secular institutions. It is possible for students of all religious beliefs to study the Bible and ask hard questions (as in my New Testamant Eschatology seminar) like, "What did Jesus say about the end of the world? What did he mean? What do the parables tell us about Jesus' view of the Kingdom? Also, what did theologians and scholars conclude about Jesus's beliefs? Based on your reading of the Bible, do you agree with so-and-so's conclusions about what Jesus meant? If so, what implications might that have for Christian belief? How does Christian eschatology differ from Jewish eschatology?" And on and on. You don't need to be a believer to grapple with those questions. And in all the classes I took, often side by side with students studying for the ministry, I never once felt that anyone was trying to convert me or that our differing perspectives prevented us from discussing the Bible's meaning and influence together. Am I too optimistic in my faith that this can happen in public schools across America, even in places like Texas or South Carolina? Van Biema gives an example of just such a class taught by a conservative Protestant Christian.
Of course, I also wish that public schools would teach other world religions, the understanding of which help to illuminate our own religious beliefs and which may help us to understand millions of non-Christian people around the world with whom we have political, business and other types of relations as the "global village" gets smaller and smaller. Am I too pessimistic when I assume that many conservative Christians would object to that?