Jordan Peterson (pictured above right) has made a name for himself by addressing some of the most polarizing issues of our day with uncommon wit and wisdom.
The clinical psychologist and University of Toronto professor has become a prominent public intellectual by tackling hot-button issues like identity politics, political correctness and free speech.
Perhaps less appreciated — even by Peterson himself — is the important work he may be doing to change how the Bible is taught in public schools. His timing could not be better.
Many Americans are confused about how to teach the Bible in public schools. Ever since the Supreme Court’s decision in Abington Township v. Schempp in 1963, most advocates on both sides of the religion-in-schools debate agree that the Bible may be taught as literature. Many also agree, as the Supreme Court affirmed in Schempp, that the Bible may be taught for its “historic qualities” as part of a “secular program of education.”
Still, there are those who — either through nefarious intentions or simply from a place of ignorance and fear — claim that “the separation of church and state” bars what the Supreme Court has in fact approved.
Over the years, schools across the nation have asked me for advice regarding various Bible curricula or have asked for suggestions about particular Bible class programs. I often use the guidelines published by the First Amendment Center and others because those guidelines are endorsed by groups that do not normally agree on very much, such as People for the American Way, Christian Legal Society, and American Federation of Teachers, among others.
The guidelines are not perfect, but they best approximate the requirements set forth by our legal system. And, at the very least, given their endorsement by a variety of groups from across the political spectrum, they provide good advice to follow.
I believe in the rule of law and am therefore convinced that public schools should teach the Bible according to the principles the Supreme Court outlined and as these guidelines provide.
That’s what makes Peterson’s approach so important. His new perspective disrupts the literary and historic point of view most lawyers rely upon in advising our public schools.
His approach to biblical education — though I doubt he would use that phrase — is a radical departure from the expectations of most who think of biblical education. Viewing the biblical narratives from the perspective of psychology is singularly unique.
Peterson makes no truth claims about the Bible, whether it is divinely inspired or accurately conveys historic events. In fact, he explicitly states on his website that the Bible is neither history nor empirical science. Rather, he unpacks the Bible as a guide to understanding Western cultural thought.
For example, Peterson’s lecture about the Garden of Eden and Adam and Eve focuses not on whether such events occurred or their religious significance but rather on the story as a metaphor of the battle between chaos and order. Further, Peterson lectures extensively about the symbolic meaning of sacrifice in the Bible and its connection to the discovery of the future.
Peterson’s biblical lecture series would, I believe, pass the Supreme Court’s test as a constitutionally appropriate course of instruction in public high schools. His approach of the biblical narrative from a purely secular point of view does not encourage anyone to believe, or not, the stories as materially true.
“Peterson explicitly states on his website that the Bible is neither history nor empirical science. Rather, he unpacks the Bible as a guide to understanding Western cultural thought.”
Instead, he appears to have the singular purpose of helping listeners to understand Western culture — the very laudable goal the Supreme Court outlined in Schempp.
As the Supreme Court said, “It might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship with the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities.”
To be sure, some may find his fleeting use of profanity off-putting, but that can be solved with simple edits to conform to community standards. And the core message of Dr. Peterson’s biblical lecture series is both a captivating and, more importantly, lawful means of teaching the Bible to high school students across the United States.
Over a decade after the Supreme Court decided Schempp, a federal court in Wiley v. Franklin noted, “To ignore the role of the Bible in the vast area of [these] secular subjects . . . is to ignore a keystone in the building of an arch, at least insofar as Western history, values and culture are concerned.”
School administrators would do well to recall the words of these decisions, rejecting the naysayers who rely on discredited arguments to advance their agenda. Following the law is paramount. Thanks to Peterson, school officials can — and should — show his lectures on the Bible without fear of legal repercussions.
Hiram Sasser is general counsel for First Liberty Institute, the Plano, Texas-based law firm devoted to defending religious liberty for all Americans.