Public Education: A Christian Perspective

This article was originally published in the Winter 1990 issue of the National Forum of the Phi Kappa Phi honour fraternity.   It was considerably reduced for publication; below is the complete text of the article.

The subsequent history of the article is documented in a two-part series (Part I and Part II.)  Also of interest is this, which is a reply to James Alexander, who used the response to this article as an authority in his own work.

A great deal of space — and indeed, at one point an entire issue (Winter 1988) — in the National Forum has been devoted to the subject of the relationship between religion and government, especially as it pertains to education. Overall, both the viewpoints and those who hold them have been fairly broad-based, although one would like to see more actual protagonists of the Christian viewpoint represented.

Every now and then, though, advocates of the secular humanist viewpoint make statements that are both products of their perspective and factually and logically impossible. Such happened recently in an article by Franklin and Betty Parker1 concerning recent court cases dealing with textbooks in the public schools. They state without proof: “Evidence shows that textbook publishers have indeed become intimidated and have played into the hands of the fundamentalists. Wanting to sell textbooks and fearful of offending their critics, publishers have reduced the important role religion played in the origin and progress of the United States.”

This assertion cannot stand. To begin with, the reality of the situation is that the teaching of the religious history of the United States has befallen the same fate of school prayer and moral education (discussed by Pfeffer2 and O’Brien3 respectively). Simply put, this fate is that school administrators and boards and textbook manufacturers, either by simply following the example set down by Supreme Court decisions such as Engel vs. Vitale and its progeny, or under pressure by such groups as the ACLU following its “new agenda”, or a combination of the two, have set out to eradicate any mention of religion within the public schools. Since Christianity has figured so prominently in the history and development of the United States, this has fallen especially hard in the teaching of American history.

This leads to the next problem: Why would American Christians, the spiritual heirs of those who made Christianity important in American history, want to cut themselves out of the history books? Consider this: anyone involved in the political activities of the “religious right” knows that one of the main claims of legitimacy in the movement is that the Judeo-Christian tradition is inextricably bound with the development of the basic political and social institutions of the nation; therefore, those who still hold to these values are the most apt to perpetuate them in the governmental institutions of the nation. How can this claim be perpetuated without teaching about it in our history books?

This leads us to wonder how the secular humanists are arriving at their conclusions. In seventeenth century France, at Port-Royal Jansenist writers such as Antoine Arnauld and Pierre Nicole wrote books such as La Logique, ou L’art de Penser to show people, including their opponents, how to reason things out. Perhaps someone at an institution such as Regent University should do the same so their opponents can get it straight. Retirez-vous, péchés!

This point about American history raises a question that someday historians will have to deal with — just exactly how did we get into this situation? Why are so many people spending so much time on the issue of the place of religion — and specifically Christian religion — in our public life in general and our public schools in particular? The Parker article gave a secular humanist view of the situation; perhaps it is now time for a Christian viewpoint.

The deChristianization of Western culture — déconfessionnalisation, as they would say in Québec4 — is a well documented process, dating back to the Enlightenment and earlier, when Voltaire issued his cry of “Écrasez l’infame!”. It has been a long road since then. Part of it is written in blood; this would include the French Revolution, the revolutions of 1848, and last but certainly not least the rise of Marxism and the long string of upheavals they have sponsored starting in Petrograd in 1917. Some have been upheavals of thought, which include the rise of Modernism in both Protestant and Catholic communities. Given this legacy, if groups such as the People for the American Way believed in historical determinism, they would probably not put much effort into their work; they would assume that history was on their side and that Christianity, especially fundamental Christianity, would just fade away.

But these people are active; this is a result of two factors. The first, obviously, is that they are not the historical determinists they once might have been. We should take careful note of this because, as Ralph Martin5 pointed out, one of the ways that secular humanism has been sold within Christianity itself is by propagating the belief that “Our way is the way society is going; if you don’t go along, you’ll be left behind by yourselves.” Although they have proclaimed in the past that their way is the way society is going, now their hard work in law and politic against the public affirmation of Christian faith is a sign that they believe this time the Christians may have a chance to regain lost ground, perhaps a good deal of it. This is as backhanded a tribute to the vitality of Christianity as you could want, but a tribute it is.

The second factor is a product of the nature of the American Revolution. The Constitution of 1787 may have produced a secular state, but it did not produce a Godless one. The Founding Fathers recognized the positive role of Christianity in our society at all levels. When they first gathered to declare our independence from Great Britain, the inalienable rights they proclaimed were endowed by their Creator, and this type of thinking has permeated the very fabric of our national life since. (What kind of inalienable rights do evolved creatures have?)

To buttress their belief in the inevitable course of society, activists on the left spend quite a lot of time discussing the Scopes trial. Instead of breaking Christian people on a wide scale, the reality of the aftermath of this event and others like it in the 1920’s is that many fundamental Christians, encouraged by their pretribulational theology, went into retreat from public life, sticking to evangelistic and educational work to propagate the faith. This was largely true through the 1970’s, an era when dropping out of all kinds was popular in this country.

The impetus to change all of this, and the emergence of such groups as the Moral Majority and its approach to Christians in public life, came mostly from the secular realm. The Supreme Court decisions of the 1960’s and 1970’s concerning such issues as school prayer and abortion created a world where the legal system promoted values hostile to fundamental Christianity. Moreover, the ever expanding role of government made it possible for this legal and philosophical climate to be forcefully projected into Christian institutions through such vehicles as anti-discrimination statutes, education regulations, and just the sheer indoctrination of people in schools and other avenues of governmental dissemination.

The entry of large segments of fundamental Christianity into the public arena to challenge these trends was delayed by the basic reluctance of Christians to get involved in this way. Most of these churches had been successful — and many still are — in supporting the idea that Christians have no business getting involved in the dirty business of politics, that the separation of church and state — and thus the purity of the former — was somehow guaranteed by the non-involvement of Christians in the political process.

This is not to say the Christians were totally inactive. In education, for instance, many Christian schools were set up, in reaction to the eradication of the public affirmation of faith, the breakdown of basic discipline, and the mediocre academic quality in our public schools. This took a large segment of fundamental Christians out of the public schools.

This was not enough for some; during the Carter administration, regulations for these schools were proposed at the federal level. All the while, the situation for those Christians left in public schools became even more unfavourable. Trapped between expensive private school tuitions and taxes being spent to propagate thinking and policies diametrically opposed to theirs, in the early 1980’s Christians finally began to move towards a more activist response through such organizations as the Moral Majority. This has continued to the present time.

At this point, we should pause to make two digressions of relevance to this discussion: the nature of the conflict and the economic status of the Christians.

The usual response to Christians either objecting to what transpires in public schools or putting their children into Christian schools is “Children should be exposed to viewpoints other than their own.” Unfortunately, as things stand now, the debate has gone beyond broad exposure of children’s minds or even an eclectic value approach for the curriculum. Cases such as Mergens vs. Board of Education of the Westside Community Schools in Nebraska show that, to either comply with their own objectives or pacify secular humanist pressure groups, educators and administrators frequently strive to preclude even voluntary, non-curricular expressions of the Christian viewpoint, to say nothing of its inclusion in the regular course of study. Whether they realize it or not, those in charge of our schools who take a hard, anti-religious expression position are using an ideological standard as dogmatic as anything their fundamental opponents might devise. What we are looking at more and more is not a battle for pluralism in our school curricula; it is for control of these courses — and thus the minds of the children — by one group or another.

As for the economics of the matter, on the face of it the creation of Christian schools should have ended much of the problem for Christian parents. It did not; this is in part because many parents that would have liked to sent their children to Christian schools could not afford to do so. This points up an important fact about fundamental Christians, especially the Pentecostal and Charismatic ones such as those who provided Pat Robertson with the core group for his presidential bid: as a whole, this is not an economically privileged group. Public education was and is the only viable alternative for many of these people, thus the activism.

The Fundamentalists’ opponents are well aware of this situation. Part of the appeal of groups such as People for the American Way is an appeal to the intellectual and economic snobbery of their potential supporters. Projecting images of unwashed, fanatical hordes pouring out of the hinterland to take over our nation can be effective, especially for fund raising purposes. Such propaganda is also a lot of rubbish. The existence of many fundamental Christian institutions of higher learning, hard economics notwithstanding, should alone put the lie to this line — that is, if the news media cares to investigate the matter.

In any case, it is ironic that a nation that has passed so much legislation and dislocated so much of society to eliminate discrimination according to race, gender, and now even sexual preference has turned a blind eye on the bigotry that has so often set the world ablaze — class bigotry. The recent controversy over private clubs is instructive of the thinking at work in this country. The representatives of the disadvantaged group involved here — in this case women — were worried less about the inherently elitist and discriminatory nature of these institutions and more about their own exclusion. It is little wonder that the left has lost so much of its credibility in the last decade. This loss as much as anything has made the Christian counteroffensive viable.

Returning to education, to sum up what we as Christians should be able to find in our public schools — and, by extension, in our society at large — is a basic respect for our values, culture and way of life; the recognition of our place and contribution to the history, development, and present situation of our nation; and, in education especially, an effective preparation for the highly technological and competitive world we constantly advance into. This last, by the way, is not incompatible with the first, as many believe; people such as Blaise Pascal and Sir Isaac Newton would have never existed had it been so.

Finally, we should address this question: “If people such as the ACLU and People for the American Way succeed in eradicating Christian matter from our school curriculum, what will take its place?” The traditional answer to this has been materialism in one form or another. Popular in society and conveniently non-religious on the surface, the hypothesis that matter is all that exists has made a straightforward job for secular humanists: Teach that which is material is all that exists, and religion is not a problem.

Unfortunately, as Robert Morey6 points out, materialism as a world view is increasingly challenged from more sides than just Christianity. However, it is very unlikely that groups such as the ACLU will challenge the dissemination of such very spiritual practices in our schools as channelling, spirit guides, Satan worship, psychic healing, astrology, and reincarnation, to name a few.

On a recent visit to the USSR, my business associates and I got into a discussion with our Russian host about the contribution of various figures in Russian history such as Peter the Great, Stalin, and others. When the conversation got to Lenin, our host ended it quickly by making the statement, “Lenin is God for us.” Someday, our secular humanist opponents will learn that it is easier to say you are abandoning religion than to actually do it, but probably by then it will be too late.

Sources:

1 Franklin and Betty Parker, “Behind Textbook Censorship,” National Forum, Fall 1988, pp. 35-37.

2 Leo Pfeffer, “Prayer in Public Schools: The Court’s Decisions”, National Forum, Winter 1988, pp. 26-29.

3 Francis William O’Brien, “Neutrality in Teaching Moral Principles in Public Schools,” National Forum, Winter 1988, pp. 39-40.

4 Jean Hamelin and Jean Provencher, Brève Histoire du Québec (Montréal: Boréal Express, 1983), p.144.

5 Ralph Martin, A Crisis of Truth (Ann Arbor: Servant Books, 1982).

6 Robert Morey, Death and the Afterlife (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1984), pp. 185-198.

2 thoughts on “Public Education: A Christian Perspective”

Leave a Reply