At schools across the United States this week, students will bring Bibles with them to class. Some will bring them to read devotionally. Others may have to bring them as part of their coursework—as they do for my classes at a private, secular university in Los Angeles. Bringing a Bible to school (public or private) is a legal, common, and regular practice in the U.S.
For some students, though, having a Bible in class is a more political endeavor. October 3 marks the fifth-annual “Bring Your Bible to School Day” (BYBSD), sponsored by the conservative Christian ministry Focus on the Family. Students and their parents, pastors, and schoolteachers are encouraged not only to bring their Bibles to school, but also to call attention to this act.
This year’s event has already stoked a minor controversy after an endorsement video featured Drew Brees, quarterback for the New Orleans Saints. Critics within the progressive and LGBTQ communities pushed back against Brees for aligning himself with Focus on the Family. They pointed to the socially conservative organization’s alleged support for “conversion therapy” and active resistance to anti-discrimination laws that would protect the LGBTQ community. Focus on the Family President Jim Daly responded to the controversy by warning of “growing intolerance” toward conservative Christians in “post-Christian America.”
The Brees incident highlights two intertwining features of the BYBSD campaign—that of protecting religious freedom and of evangelical fears of persecution. For those who wish to participate, Focus on the Family has produced a wide array of materials, including legal advice and pro bono advocacy from Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian legal group that works on issues relating to “religious freedom, the sanctity of life, and marriage and family.” These materials reflect the anxieties and grievances that animate the white evangelical movement in the U.S. Though these communities have found themselves politically powerful as a faction of the Republican Party, white evangelicals have nevertheless watched their cultural dominance dwindle in a rapidly changing nation. Paying attention to BYBSD’s attempt to politicize the common practice of bringing a Bible to school demonstrates how evangelical anxieties are constructed and stoked.
One of the stated goals of BYBSD is evangelistic in nature: intentionally bringing a Bible to school is envisaged as a way to spark conversations with fellow classmates. Promotional materials refer to this as sharing God’s hope. Video testimonials include stories of students who have been surprised by the interest their classmates have taken in their Bible reading.
While evangelism is stated as a goal of BYBSD, it is still second to protecting religious freedom on the organization’s list of five “reasons to get involved.” A third reason is to be an example because “a lot of adult, Christian leaders have come under fire for their beliefs lately.”
When it comes to the legal question of bringing a Bible to school, the U.S. Department of Education, following a series of rulings by the courts, has set very clear standards, largely following from interpretations of the First Amendment and the principle of equal access. The former allows students to express their religious views in school, so long as they do not disrupt class or other activities, while the latter allows Christians equal access to free speech on campus granted to any other students, groups, or clubs. As BYBSD’s website and its sponsors make quite clear to their readers, U.S. law has created very few barriers to bringing Bibles to school or to engaging in religious or evangelistic speech. And yet, promotional materials lean heavily on creating the feeling that this “religious freedom” is at risk.
In an article on the BYBSD site, Candi Cushman, Focus on the Family’s director of education issues and initiatives, discusses what students are allowed to do on campus by describing three incidents in which schools prohibited students from sharing Bible verses, praying, and reading the Bible, respectively. The incidents, two of which occurred in 2014 and one in 2016, all revolve around misunderstandings by school teachers or administrators on how to apply settled law around religious expression in public schools. Each incident was reported and the school districts involved issued apologies and clarified policy for district employees. And yet, these incidents are held up by Cushman as a pernicious and growing threat to Christian liberty: “Sadly, none of these scenarios are fiction. All of them were reported by parents or legal groups. Why is this happening? Religious freedom and free speech are historical rights and core components of the First Amendment. Schools should be celebrating these rights and educating students about them, not stifling them. Yet, we see more news headlines like these every year.” This narrative suggests that the right to bring a Bible to school is clearly enshrined in U.S. law, but it is a right that is under threat, making it a necessity for Christians to protect.
“Religious freedom” as a phrase has a long and ambivalent history in the U.S. In her recent book, Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal, Tisa Wenger, associate professor of American religious history at Yale Divinity School, argues that religious freedom discourse in the early twentieth century served two primary ends: “Americans who could assert the racial status of whiteness claimed this freedom as a racial possession and used it to define a superiority that they tied both to their religion (Protestant) and to the secular modernity that it grounded. For others … religious freedom talk could help secure a new racial status.” The latter strategy primarily applied to immigrants and minorities, such as Jews and Catholics, who used appeals to religious freedom as a way to make a place for themselves in U.S. “hierarchies of race, nation, and religion.”
The invocation of religious freedom still often works in favor of a white, Protestant, American identity. Modern evangelical discourse, especially in the Trump era, has been consumed with identifying the U.S. as a white, Christian nation, while also fearing for its demographic and cultural decline. This anxiety over the loss of cultural influence and demographic dominance has bred resentment among evangelicals, with many of them looking to the very non-evangelical Donald Trump as a protector.
BYBSD evokes both the nostalgia and hope for a renewed Christian nation, starting with the transformation of a younger generation of students, but it also incites fear over the possible erosion of constitutional protections for conservative Christians. Its literature leans into this fear of persecution by drawing on a longer tradition of Christian martyrdom. In her 2013 work, The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom, Candida Moss, professor of theology at the University of Birmingham, shows how the myth of widespread Christian persecution by the Roman Empire is both historically inaccurate and tied to a martyrdom discourse that continually resurfaces in Christian history. In an earlier study, Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making, Elizabeth Castelli, professor of religion at Barnard College, shows how Christian martyr stories came to dominate modern evangelical culture in the 1990s, such as in the remembrance of students who died in the Columbine massacre in 1999. Castelli’s work on martyrdom identifies several key themes that also emerge in the BYBSD literature: a practice of self-formation, public performance, spectacle, and a link between persecution and moral authority.
BYBSD materials encourage participants to prepare themselves to be witnesses in a hostile environment. Students are encouraged to see themselves as Daniel and Esther, biblical characters who faced persecution as members of a minority group: “despite their youth, [Daniel and Esther] had the courage to share God’s truth and love with an unbelieving culture.” Students are told how they should respond to challenges from fellow students, how to assert their rights to school officials, and are given pre-scripted materials (called “free speech tools”) for conversations with classmates.
These materials are designed to increase the visibility of Bible-carrying students on campus, and thus also the possibility for confrontation and conversion. The site includes stories of persecution, including a video about Gio, who claims he was told by his teacher that he was not allowed to read a Bible in class. His testimony links resistance to perceived persecution with moral authority, as in traditional martyr narratives. His story prepares students for the possibility that bringing their Bible to school might make them into a social martyr.
BYBSD is politicizing the Bible in schools by exacerbating fears that secular schools are actively working to erode evangelical religious freedom. The reality is American students can bring Bibles to schools. The federal government protects this right, unequivocally. Hindrances in the U.S. to the practice of Christian religious freedom are rare, usually stem from confusion around school policy, and are often quickly resolved. What makes BYBSD such a curious addition is the lack of a clear target for its activism. The U.S. court system has long upheld the right of students to bring religious texts to schools, even public ones, and to use them for devotional purposes on campus.
When I teach, my students are not only invited to bring Bibles to school but required to do so. I don’t persecute them; I educate them. The conversation should be less about whether a Bible can or should be brought to school and more about how the Bible is and should be subjected to critical inquiry—no matter one’s politics.
Cavan Concannon is associate professor of religion at the University of Southern California. He is the author of Assembling Early Christianity: Trade, Networks, and the Letters of Dionysios of Corinth; “When you were Gentiles”: Specters of Ethnicity in Roman Corinth and Paul’s Corinthian Correspondence; and co-editor, along with Jill Hicks-Keeton, of The Museum of the Bible: A Critical Introduction.