They Don't Know from Adam
Today's teenagers know little about the Bible, and have a correspondingly diminished understanding of American history.
“Bible Illiteracy in America” by David Gelernter, in The Weekly Standard (May 23, 2005), 1150 17th St., N.W., Ste. 505, Washington, D.C. 20036.
“Unless we read the Bible, American history is a closed book,” writes Gelernter, a Yale University professor of computer science who is currently a senior fellow in Jewish Thought at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. Yet a recent Gallup survey sponsored by the nonprofit Bible Literacy Project indicates that American high school students are ignorant of significant events in the Bible such as the Sermon on the Mount, and of concepts such as Covenant and the Chosen People. Eight percent of them thought Moses was one of the Twelve Apostles, and more than a quarter could not identify David as a king of the Jews.
The rhetoric of the Bible runs as an unbroken thread through American history. “Wee are entered into Covenant with him for this worke,” said John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. “Wee shall finde that the God of Israell is among us.” Three and a half centuries later, a sermon of Winthrop’s would be drawn upon, famously, in President Ronald Reagan’s evocation of a “shining city on a hill.” Historian William Wolt, contemplating Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address—“With malice toward none; with charity for all: with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right”—says that it “reads like a supplement to the Bible.”
Such examples suggest something much deeper than mere rhetoric, Gelernter says. These “settlers and colonists, the Founding Fathers, and all the generations that intervened before America emerged as a world power in the 20th century” viewed the Bible, particularly the example of the Israelites as the Chosen People, as their story. As John Adams put it, “I always consider the settlement of America with reverence and wonder, as the opening of a grand scene and design in Providence.”
According to historian Fania Oz-Salzberger, the British political thinkers who influenced early America, such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, saw in the example of Israel “a nearly perfect republic, from the time of the Exodus until at least the coronation of Saul. . . an exemplary state of law and a society dedicated to social justice and republican liberty.”
Understanding these influences on American thought and society are crucial, says Gelernter. Woodrow Wilson “spoke in biblical terms when he took America into the First World War,” and other presidents have used biblical imagery to underscore their actions. In Gelernter’s view, however, most contemporary culture critics “are barely aware of these things, don’t see the pattern behind them, can’t tell us what the pattern means, and (for the most part) don’t care.”
It may not be easy to correct today’s biblical ignorance. Even well-meaning “Bible-as-literature” electives, crafted to circumvent the minefield separating church and state, may not be the answer. Severing the Bible from its religious roots robs the work of the power that made it such a seminal text for earlier Americans. And the churches and synagogues that might be expected to teach the Bible to new generations are not doing enough, Gelernter says.
His own guess is that America will eventually experience another Great Awakening that will send people back to the Bible. It will begin with the country’s “spiritually bone dry” college students. Mostly, Gelernter says, “no one ever speaks to them about truth and beauty, or nobility or honor or greatness.” But “let the right person speak to them, and they will turn back to the Bible with an excitement and exhilaration that will shake the country.”