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et revelabitur quasi aqua iudicium et iustitia quasi torrens fortis



The Bible and Our Public Debate

By James R. Edwards Jr.
{Appeared in the May 23, 1999 edition of the Houston Chronicle and the May 21, 1999 edition of the Sacramento Bee; An abridged version appeared in the May 25, 1999 edition of the Baltimore Sun}


The shooting in a suburban Atlanta high school Thursday, leaving six students wounded, raised to nine the number of school shootings in just over a year and a half.

The Littleton, Colo., incident last month raised the death toll to nearly 30 students and teachers since the Oct. 1, 1997, shooting in Pearl, Miss. The unacceptably high human cost now stands at 27 dead, several-score wounded and the untold suffering of survivors and friends in that short period.

The phenomenon of school violence stems predictably from the moral vacuum wrought by the American Civil Liberties Union and other anti-religionists of the Madalyn Murray O'Hair variety. What did they expect to happen when they pushed America down the slippery slope of eradicating Judeo-Christian expression from the public square?

The Founding Fathers established a government that embraced liberty and law. At the center stood individual self-control. And clearly, the Founders understood that religion and the moral education of the Bible would be necessary to cultivate that self-control. Speaking of the Bible, Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, said, "For this divine book, above all others, favors that equality among mankind, that respect for just laws, and those sober and frugal virtues, which constitute the soul of republicanism."

A signer of the Constitution James McHenry warned, "In vain, without the Bible, we increase penal laws and draw entrenchments around our institutions. Bibles are strong entrenchments. Where they abound, men cannot pursue wicked courses, and at the same time enjoy quiet conscience."

The Constitution gave us a republic, with a limited national government. This meant individuals would enjoy broad liberty. The requisite individual self-government, that is, self-control, would restrain that liberty from turning into licentiousness.

On the other side, the Constitution gave us a government of laws, not of men. The rule of law would ensure stability and predictability in civil society. A code of law would protect the populace against the tyranny of individual rulers.

This, too, relied on a strong, virtuous citizenry. A licentious people cannot exercise the vigilance to hold the government accountable. Only a self-controlled, virtuous people can maintain both liberty and law. If we do not have self-government, we will have big government. If we cannot control ourselves, then we need a strong police force to control us.

Robert Winthrop, who served as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, set forth the choices: "Men, in a word, must necessarily be controlled either by a power within them or by a power without them; either by the Word of God or by the strong arm of man; either by the Bible or by the bayonet."

The anti-religionists have upset the balance. They have removed the fulcrum, throwing liberty to license. They did this in the name of "separation of church and state." Virulent anti-religionists ended the long-standing practice of prayer and Bible reading in public schools. Their victory was secured in the landmark Engel vs. Vitale and Abington Township vs. Schempp Supreme Court decisions.

They championed the eradication of the word "Christmas" from the public school lexicon and the singing of Christmas carols in school Christmas programs. They have created a hostile environment for students who wish to write a scholarly paper involving a religious topic, thus leading teachers to censor constitutionally protected speech.

But is it establishing religion merely to recognize the historical importance of the Bible, and to permit its presence in school? Is it establishing religion to teach that America was founded on many of the same principles found in the Ten Commandments? Is it establishing religion to quote the Founders themselves?

No teacher has to believe Jesus Christ is the Messiah or try to get students to accept it, either. That would be a breach of the Establishment Clause. But conveying historical fact, the significance of the Bible in our history, and the role the Founders perceived for derived virtue amounts to establishment only in the eyes of the most rabid anti-religionists.

In the wake of the trend of school shooting incidents, it baffles the mind how it would be harmful to inform students that the Bible teaches that human life has inherent worth because each individual is created in the image of God. Eradicating that previously common understanding has devalued society's view of the worth of human life.

And in light of the country's faltering cultural vital signs, it bears asking whether exposing schoolchildren to the commandment not to commit murder really risks injuring their psyches. Maybe it would be worth the "risk" of exposure to biblical influence in order to avert a few school shootings.

As Rep. James Traficant, D-Ohio, said in the wake of the Littleton massacre, "(T)he Constitution may separate church and state, but it was never intended to separate God and the American people." He's right.

To save America, we must restore sanity to the view of virtue in society. We must re-establish a proper understanding of the relation of biblical morality to government and of the proper, desirable role of religion in the public square.


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James R. Edwards, Jr., former legislative aide to a member of the House Judiciary Committee, is a Lincoln Fellow in constitutional government with The Claremont Institute.

All pages copyright © 1999 The Claremont Institute