Teaching the Bible in Oklahoma

(RNS) — I’m guessing Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters has not been in the best of moods lately.

This week, Oklahoma’s Supreme Court declared his pride and joy — what would have been the nation’s first religious charter school — in violation of both the state and federal constitutions. And last week, Louisiana stole a march on the Sooner State and became the first state in the nation to mandate the posting of the Ten Commandments in every public school classroom.

Lest anyone think he was pulling in his horns, the man known as Oklahoma’s Culture-Warrior-in-Chief called a press conference Thursday to make an “important announcement … regarding the Bible and the 10 Commandments.” It went like this:

It is essential that our kids have an understanding of the Bible in its historical context. So we will be issuing a memo today that every school district will adhere to. Which is that every teacher, every classroom in the state, will have a Bible in the classroom, and will be teaching from the Bible in the classroom to ensure that this historical understanding is there for every student in the state of Oklahoma in accordance with our academic standards and state law.

Let me assure you, gentle readers and trolls, that I’m all for teaching about the importance of the Bible in its historical context. As in, that Martin Luther King Jr. relied on Isaiah in his “I Have a Dream” speech. And that Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” meme comes from the Sermon on the Mount. Also, of course, that white Southern preachers used the Bible to justify slavery and segregation.

To be sure, it’s not just in history and social studies classrooms that Walters is requiring “teaching from the Bible.” He wants all hands on scriptural deck.

Ergo, let’s suppose you’re teaching home economics. You could open to Deuteronomy 22:11 and discuss the historical context of the law against wearing clothes that mix linen and wool. Or the law against boiling a kid in its mother’s milk in Exodus 23:19. Health teachers could be called upon to discuss the historical context for why, according to Leviticus 12, a woman is unclean for seven days when she bears a son but for two weeks when she bears a daughter.

As for science teachers, there’s always the beginning of Genesis. In that contextual regard, they might choose to note that Oklahoma was the first state to ban the teaching of Darwinian evolution (in 1923, two years before Tennessee got into the act and precipitated the Scopes “monkey” trial). Which may help explain why 42% of Oklahomans believe that humans have always existed in our present form.

I’d say Walters would consider this a point of pride. He was raised in the anti-evolutionist Churches of Christ and, calling separation of church and state a “radical myth,” has pledged to bring God and prayer back into the public schools. He’s also a protege of Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Pentecostal who, after his reelection in 2022, claimed “every square inch” of Oklahoma for God “in the name of Jesus.”

Of course, science teachers may take a dimmer view of the role of the biblical account of creation in Oklahoma. Historical context is something that cuts in different ways.

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