For years, Christians have asserted that the removal of the study of the Bible from public school curricula has had a negative moral and spiritual impact on American youth. In 2010, I conducted a meta-analysis that indicates a major educational cost of removing the Bible from our schools. These results were supported by two further studies. The data reinforce the recognition, which has grown over the last twelve to fourteen years, that in order for American high school students to be considered educated, they must have knowledge of the Bible.
A meta-analysis statistically combines all relevant existing studies on a given subject, in order to determine those studies’ aggregated results. The meta-analysis I conducted indicates that students with high Bible literacy earn a grade point average that is about one point higher than that of students with low Bible literacy. Moreover, all eleven studies included in the meta-analysis show that pupils with high Bible literacy perform better academically than do those with lower Bible literacy.
These results opened the eyes of many skeptics. I received invitations to share the results with various government departments under President Obama, as well as former members of the Clinton administration. Wherever this information is presented, from Arizona and California all the way to the East Coast, legislators understand that high Bible literacy helps young people comprehend literature and history. Shakespeare cites the Bible 1,300 times. Many other classic authors—Dickens, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky, to name three—assume the reader’s knowledge of the Bible. A familiarity with the Bible helps students fathom such books as The Grapes of Wrath, Jane Eyre, and Lord of the Rings. One cannot understand the fight against slavery, the women’s suffrage movement, or the Civil Rights movement without knowledge of the Bible.
In 1962 and 1963, when the U.S. Supreme Court removed Bible reading from American public schools, social conservatives were overwhelmingly concerned about the moral effects. To be sure, in the aftermath of these decisions, public schools became more reluctant to teach about character. For example, if instructors spoke about the importance of love, “the golden rule,” or forgiveness, all it took was one parent claiming “Christianity is being taught in public schools” to cause a furor. Amid the uproar about youth morality, the effect on academic achievement was overlooked.
Students with moderate Bible literacy likewise achieved at considerably higher levels scholastically than did those with low Bible literacy. Students with moderate Bible literacy averaged about 0.4 GPA units (on a four-point scale) lower than did students with high Bible literacy. They averaged 0.6 GPA units higher than did students with low Bible literacy. It is noteworthy that the academic average of students with moderate Bible literacy is closer to that of students with high Bible literacy than to that of students with low Bible literacy. This suggests that even a moderate degree of Bible literacy aids in raising academic outcomes.
The findings for African-American and Latino students are as striking as the findings for the general student population. The GPAs of African-American and Hispanic students with high Bible literacy were about one grade point above those of students with low Bible literacy.
These findings are consistent with other meta-analyses I have conducted, which indicate that African-American and Hispanic youth benefit academically from attending Christian schools. Meta-analyses also indicate that young people of low socioeconomic status benefit more from attending these schools than do students from the middle and upper classes. According to my interpretation of data from meta-analyses and a nationwide data set, both racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps are 25 percent narrower in Christian schools than in public schools. Just how much Bible literacy contributes to narrowing that gap is uncertain, but it is likely that the Christian school edge is at least partially due to the fact that students in Christian schools have higher levels of Bible literacy than do students in public schools.
It is also likely that Bible literacy has a spiritual and moral influence on young people that conduces to their doing better in school. To the degree that the Bible encourages people to have a sense of purpose, to be disciplined morally and otherwise, and to feel loved and valued by God, one would expect that when a person reads and applies the Bible, academic improvement will follow. The reasons for the association of Bible literacy with higher academic outcomes are many, but the data remind us that America’s schools cannot claim that their graduates are well educated unless they have knowledge of the Bible.
William Jeynes is a senior fellow at the Witherspoon Institute and professor of the history of education at California State University in Long Beach.