March 01, 2024


Our growing ignorance of even the most basic biblical references

We are facing an unfortunate reality that a shared lexicon is disappearing

Please fill in the blank: “Our Father who art in heaven ____ be thy name.”

This month, that question came up on the television gameshow “Jeopardy!” and none of the otherwise smart contestants could answer it.

The social media universe exploded with indignation. How could they not know the answer was “hallowed?” asked many folks on Twitter.

In many ways our society is becoming increasingly ignorant of matters of faith. And an unfortunate reality is a shared lexicon is disappearing.

After reading about this gameshow controversy, I contacted the only person I know who has competed on “Jeopardy!” His name is Dave Boyd and we were close friends at Galesburg High School.

When Boyd competed on “Jeopardy!” in 1988, he was an atheist. But today he says he is certain that back then he could have answered the “hallowed be thy name” riddle that stumped the trio of Jeopardy contestants.

“I would have had the answer because I would have heard it used in movies and books. It was part of our culture’s Judeo-Christian heritage,” he told me last week. A couple years after his game-show appearance Boyd converted to Catholicism and has become devout.

For centuries the Bible has been a common cultural reference point that bound our nation. When Abraham Lincoln gave his House Divided speech in Springfield, he was quoting from the book of Matthew.

Even non-believers knew what he was talking about.

Benjamin Franklin did not subscribe to any religion. But he sent the “olive branch petition” to King George III, which was a plea from colonists to avoid war with Great Britain. Even though Franklin rejected the authority of scripture, he used a Biblical reference. (A dove bearing an olive branch returned to Noah’s Ark and it has become a symbol of peace.)

That’s an example of a non-religious person using a shared cultural touchstone – the Bible – to make a point.

A few years ago, I interviewed Gwen Jordan, who was then an associate professor of legal studies at the University of Illinois-Springfield.

In a class Jordan was teaching at UIS, she discovered none of her students in the law and society class knew who Pontius Pilate was. (In case you need a reminder, he was a really bad governor – almost as bad as Rod Blagojevich and Bruce Rauner.)

Jordan was teaching from Rosco Pound’s tome “What is Law” where Pound ponders: “What is Truth?” That, of course, was the question Pilate asked Jesus of Nazareth shortly before he ordered his crucifixion.

In Illinois, towns such as Athens, Mt. Zion, Zion, Hebron, Salem, Rome, Mount Olive and Bethany all derive their names from biblical references. Basic knowledge of scripture helps us understand our own heritage.

What Jordan experienced in the classroom is what my college civil liberties professor, Donald Boles, warned of more than 35 years ago. Boles, an Iowa State University civil liberties professor, was one of the foremost experts on the intersection of religion and public schools.

He agreed with the 1963 Supreme Court decision, Abington Township v. Schempp, which prohibited mandatory recitation of Bible verses in public schools. But he feared school administrators would use the ruling as a legal pretext to eliminate classes dealing with religion.

But the high court said just the opposite in their landmark ruling:

“In addition, 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 to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.”

In other words, public schools should not be in the business of proselytizing. But it should be educating about religion.

Sadly, Professor Boles was prophetic. Schools have cut back on the religion courses during the past half century. And it has resulted in a growing ignorance of even the most basic biblical references.

Could an American leader use a biblical reference today and be understood by all?

Probably not. We are losing the common reference point the Bible has brought our culture. It seems we, too, are becoming a house divided.

Scott Reeder, a staff writer for Illinois Times, can be reached at

Scott Reeder

Scott Reeder

Scott Reeder, a staff writer for Illinois Times, can be reached at: