The Abington School District v. Schempp (1963) case is not usually remembered as a case of teenage rebellion or creationist science. But as the man at the center of the case recalled recently in the pages of Church & State, we can’t separate out such issues from the Bible, school prayer, or “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.”
As I’ve written in these pages and in the pages of the Journal of Religious History, it is difficult to overestimate the importance of this case for American schooling, religion, and culture. In its decision, the US Supreme Court decided that public schools must not mandate the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer or the reading of the Bible. Among many religious conservatives, this decision has taken on enormous symbolic significance as the moment that the United States “kicked God out of the public schools.” In reality, the decision specified that religion still belonged in public schools. It was only teacher-led devotional religion to which the Court objected.
Ellery Schempp, who went on to a highly successful career as a physicist, remembered his teenage decision to contact the American Civil Liberties Union to protest his treatment in his Pennsylvania public high school.
As Schempp recalled, his protest came partly from principle, and partly from “teen rebellion.” The sixteen-year-old Ellery resented being squeezed into a conformist mold. Schempp recalled his lightbulb moment:
“It was one day when some kid read Genesis in 10th grade,” Schempp continued. “I thought, ‘This is nonsense; this does not fit with the science that I know.’ I began to pay more attention.
For those like me who hope to understand the meanings of conservatism and conservative religion in American education, Schempp’s memories offer two important reminders.
First, we must keep in mind that we cannot easily separate out issues such as Bible reading, prayer, evolution, sex ed, or progressive pedagogy. For activists and pundits on both sides of these culture-war divides, there is no bright line dividing them. In this case, we see that the young Schempp was offended both by the Christian heavy-handedness of his school’s policy and by the anti-science of Biblical creationism.
Second, we must never forget the hidden vector of school issues: youth. In most cases, protagonists such as the young Schempp are not only activists, they are young activists. In his memories, at any rate, Schempp protested against the implied coercion to become another cog in the soulless wheel of American corporate governance. As Schempp recalled, “There was enormous pressure to conform as the greatest goal in life – to be ‘The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.’” Fighting against this conformist compulsion was just as important a motivator as any civil-liberties principle.
Of course, folks like me sometimes assume that all teen rebellion must push against revealed religion and social traditions. But we must remember that teenage pushback often pushes back in a variety of directions. As we’ve noted before, in some cases conservative young Christians rebel by embracing a much more radical young-earth creationism than do their moderate Christian parents.
In whatever direction young people rebel, the youthfulness of that protest must be part of our analysis. We can’t forget that schools are full of a specific type of people—young people. As such, they may have very different attitudes and perspectives than the rest of their families. They may be more likely to protest against traditional religion, OR more likely to fight for more traditional religion.