In the News: Public Schools and Public Christianity

Yesterday’s New York Times ran an article “exposing” the strong role played in some public schools by Biblical Christianity.

The article describes the evangelistic activities condoned and even promoted by several public schools.  At one school, a performer/evangelist bragged that hundreds of middle-schoolers had embraced the Gospel at an in-school rally.  You can still find his promo video of the event on Youtube.  At another school, a teacher preached the Gospel through a bullhorn as students arrived for school.  In another school district, teachers and administrators led a prayer service before a high-stakes standardized test.

It’s worth reading the article, especially for those who share the perspective of the article’s author that these questions of public Christianity in public schools had been settled since the mid-1960s.  Of course, more careful students of the culture wars will be able to point out a few problems with the article’s interpretation.

For one thing, the notion that these issues had somehow been settled with a couple of high-profile US Supreme Court cases is far too simple.  Those cases–Engel v. Vitale in 1962 and Abington School District v. Schempp in 1963–insisted that public schools could not mandate a prayer, have students read the Bible, nor have teachers lead students in the Lord’s Prayer, even if students could be excused.

As Kenneth M. Dolbeare and Phillip E. Hammond demostrated convincingly in 1971, those decisions often had neglible effect on actual policy and practice in real public schools.  These two political scientists studied five towns in the pseudonymous midwestern state of “Midway,” and they found that school practice after the Engel and Schempp decisions continued largely as before.  In schools where teachers and students had been praying and reading the Bible, they kept on doing it.  More surprising for the authors of the study, this utter evasion of the Court’s intent raised absolutely no controversy in any of the towns.

More careful students of the history of the struggle over the role of conservative Biblical Christianity in the public square will also likely wince at the author’s use of geographic stereotypes.  The author reports that these demonstrations of public Christianity remained powerful “in some corners of the country, especially in the rural South.”  This has long been the oversimplistic cultural geographic stereotype of fundamentalism.  In this case, it is puzzling that a careful journalist would still fall into this misleading stereotype.  After all, the article itself describes one of its cases from Baltimore, Maryland.  It defies even the simplest common sense to lump this major metropolitan area in with others as being some kind of backward corner of the country.

The notion that these “corners of the country” are the strongholds of Biblical Christianity largely results, in my opinion, from the idea that only those areas in which Biblical Christianity remains utterly dominant in the public sphere are important to this discussion.  Evidence piles up, though, that such conflicts over the role of conservative Christianity in public schools map much more completely over the rest of the country, including the North, the West, and in large cities.  Allow me to use a couple of examples.  In one of my first teaching jobs, in St. Louis, I worked briefly in a pretty rough public high school.  The student body was mostly from low-income families.  Students, faculty, and administration were all almost entirely African American.  I was surprised to find out that most of the teachers began their classes with a Bible verse and prayer.  It did not seem to be a controversial thing.  Students and faculty took it as the norm.   Beyond just my personal experience, more careful surveys of traditional religiosity in public schools have found that the stereotypical imagined geography of schools in the rural South as being the most congenial homes of public Christianity don’t hold up.  R.B. Dierenfeld, for instance, conducted surveys of public school religious practice, and found Bible reading the most prevalent in public schools in large cities.  It was equally strong in the Northeast and Southeast, and faded away in the West.

One final point: the tone of  the article’s author tended toward the incredulous.  The author seemed surprised that people “still” prayed in public schools.  The evangelists, on the other hand, seemed fully aware that they were evangelizing on hostile terrain.  Christian Chapman, along with one school’s principal, specifically hoped to reach students in purportedly “Godless” public schools, even if it meant the end of the principal’s career.  As Chapman suggested in the NYT article, students in public schools heard the hostile message of “evolution” every day.  Why shouldn’t they hear from the other side?
These days, this kind of discrepancy seems common.  Secular and pluralistic types often assume that religion has been banished from the public square.  Those battling to get more Jesus into public schools seem fully conscious that their mission has become subversive.

FURTHER READING: Kenneth M. Dolbeare and Phillip E. Hammond, The School Prayer Decisions: From Court Policy to Local Practice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971); R. B. Dierenfield, Religion in American Public Schools (Washington: Public Affairs Press, 1962).

Leave a comment


  1. Christian Chapman

     /  December 30, 2011

    Great writing skills but some of your content is false. Maybe you find out facts before you start slinging someones name around in a negative way. If you would like to find out what really happened instead of taking info off a left wing liberal NY Times author then email me and I will help with what really happened. Peace

    • Christian,
      Apologies for any unintended negative implications in my post. We’d love to hear your side of what happened. Is it much different from the NYT version?

      • Christian Chapman

         /  December 31, 2011

        First, the video released about the event you said was mine is not. At the time I never knew any video was being shot nor did I know it would be posted on Youtube. The video was shot and posted by the rapper who performed at the school assembly and from my understanding he post videos from all his ministry events. I don’t believe he was trying to cause trouble or throw anything into anyone’s face. The NY Times article led their reader to believe he and I did this to brag when in fact he does it for every event and was only bragging on what God did and not himself. To say the video belonged to me and to say I was bragging misleads people into thinking I’m on an ego trip when I’m not. I’m not a “performer” as you called me like some TV Evangelist going around selling holy napkins that people have prayed over or special holy water some nut on TV said he found in his back yard blessed by angels. I’m an educated man with talents that could be making a six figure salary in the business world but made 19,700 last year with great sacrifices from my wife and three children because we truly love ALL people and desire to make a positive difference in the world. I’m not the redneck bible beating hell screaming monster the NY Times made me out to be. Not to be rude, but I would appreciate it if you wouldn’t continue to mislead others who read your article as the NY Times did.
        Second, I never felt I was evangelizing on hostile terrain as you wrote in your article. The students came on a voluntary basis and 100% of them agreed they wanted to be a part after they were told what the event was about. They told them all exactly what was going to happen and they all agreed to be a part as did the teachers. I never felt I was on hostile territory nor did I feel threatened in the least little bit. The only hostile threat has come from some ACLU group up North and the NY Times. I’m trying to figure out why they care when almost the entire community is behind the school and principle. In fact, since these accusations have come out this small town has pulled together and come out in force to show their support. True, they have a student and his father who has filed a law suit with the ACLU, and if all shows up to be true there is a legitimate complaint, but in my opinion there are things that should be questioned about his story. I’m from Charlotte NC and don’t know this student or the school that well but can say the principle and the teachers were some of the kindest and loving people I have ever met. The principle goes to the school early every morning and prayers over every locker before the students get there. He knows every student by name with 600 students at the school. He and many of the teachers have offered financial help from their small teacher’s salaries to help families out in need. Would the ACLU do that? Would Erik Eckholm from the NY Times? Would any other atheist group that is on their high horse now complaining? Does that sound like a principle that would throw a kid in a school suspension room and punish him for not going to an event in the gym? Once again this is my opinion only but I believe the ACLU is pulling the strings and this kid and his father are being used to fulfill their agenda and get some money in a law suit settlement. You might say I’m being judgmental about the ACLU but where were they not long ago when a professing homosexual was given permission to talk about the positive side of being gay to a public school assembly in Massachusetts? Or where were they when school children in Texas had pencils jerked out of their hand because they wrote God bless you to the soldiers in Iraq which was mentioned in the NY Times article? Yes, I question their integrity, their character, and their patriotism.
        A couple of other things need to be said outside of your article so you have a better understanding of my heart. I speak in public schools and colleges all over the country and only say what they give me permission to say. When I show up at an event I find out what the boundaries are and what can be said and what cant. I NEVER cross those boundaries which the NY Times article and yours led people to believe. I played four years of college baseball and one year over seas so many times I only speak about being a good role model if you are an athlete. I am a one time drug over dose victim so sometimes I will talk about the negative effects drugs can have in your life. My Father left me and my mom when I was a teenager so sometimes I speak about overcoming difficult times in your life. And then there are times where I can share my testimony and I will speak about that as well. That is what happened in this situation. No one forced anything on these teens and if you ask them and their parents if they enjoyed it and would want to have it again next year almost the entire school would say yes. With that kind of majority I have a hard time understating the ACLU’s position especially when they teach evolution 5 days a week 9 months out of a year. How unfair for our Christian children to be forced to hear they come from animals with no purpose in life or hope. How can evolution teach someone to love, forgive, have compassion, live in peace with your enemy, reach out to those in need or respect the law when it teaches we are nothing more than glorified animals? How sad it is that one day out of entire year the school shows the other side of the coin and such uproar happens. I have done the studying and have a friend who is in the Senate and a Constitutional expert and I believe without a shadow of a doubt this Country was founded with Christian biblical principles in mind. We have a beautiful history with great culture and it’s sad we have run from that because of people like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins who could care less if America fell into the ocean and disappeared.
        I hope this helps you have a better understanding of my heart and what happened. I love all people and do feel our public school students have a right to hear about evolution but I also have no problem with them hearing about how God created the heaven and the earth and loved them so much He sent His only Son Jesus to die on the cross for them. I will end by asking this question, how different would our public schools be in America if our students were taught to live by the fruits of the Spirit like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness and self control found in the book of Galatians 5:22? In my opinion our schools would be much better off than what evolution could teach them. Peace and once again you have a great site and talented writing abilities. Have a blessed New Year.

      • Christian,
        You’re right; I didn’t look closely enough at the original article or YouTube video to get a sense of who was responsible for which part of the production. Sorry about that. I certainly don’t want to support any prejudicial notions on anyone’s part.
        I also think you make a powerful point when you describe the mission of the school principal. As you say, this man spends his life doing what he can to help the students at his school. Not many people would take the time to pray every day before school at each locker. My hunch, though, is that the ACLU people involved also think they are going above and beyond to make the world a better place. Many of the lawyers who work at the ACLU, for example, do just as you do: they could make more money elsewhere but believe in the mission of the ACLU. From their perspective, no public school student should have to feel excluded for not being part of a majority culture.
        In a large degree, this kind of disagreement is exactly the reason for this blog’s existence. We have people on both sides here who are acting in heroic ways, but with different visions of the proper social moral scheme for American society. Maybe we won’t all be able to agree, but I would hope that we can at least UNDERSTAND one another’s reasons and respect the moral heroism that each side engages in.
        The two writers you cite, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, are and were prime examples of doing the opposite of that. They both made their careers as polemicists, attacking traditional religion and culture in entertaining ways. As we both know, there are also plenty of people on the conservative side who have used similar strategies. Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh are the first two that jump to mind.
        My question is this: do you think it is worthwhile to acknowledge the moral example of the ACLU in this case? What would that look like? Could that make your preaching more powerful? And, do you think they have respect for yours? If not, why not? Is it simply because they are prejudiced against Biblical Christianity? Or could there be other reasons?

  2. Christian Chapman

     /  December 31, 2011

    I thank you for your apology, very rare in this world indeed to see someone who actually has humiIity. I apologize as well if I came across too strong but have been dealing with a lot since this all happened an a little stressed. I’m not sure what there true intentions are and can only speculate but I must be honest when I say I feel they are one sided and make it very clear in who they defend what side they are on. I would have no problem with that they are doing in this case if you ever saw them standing up for everyone equally. They would have the right to only defend who they wanted if they didn’t adverstise they were an organization that stands up against all injustices. I’m not sure they sacrifice a lot financially though. I have heard from a reliable source the ACLU receives hundres of millions of dollars in donations from the left to keep everyone excited about persecuting the right. I guess things will probably never change but I can say this, I would stand up and have to defend anyone no matter what thier beliefs so they have the same rights as I do. Too many men and women have died for the cause of freedom on distant battle fields all over the world in the past 100 years to let anyone take someons rights away. Thats why I am fighting so hard in this case because I feel our public school teens who are Christian have the right for what they believe to be represented as well. Not sure about my preaching skills getting better, I’m not that good but feel God loves to use those who are weak. Once again have a blessed New Year and hit me up at my website anytime.

  3. Yasha Hartberg

     /  January 3, 2012

    Of course, the flip side to the stereotypes of religiosity in the rural south is the persistent notion of the “Godless” northeast. When I first moved to Upstate New York, I was stunned at the number, variety and density of churches. I passed far more churches, for instance, on my way into the office in Binghamton than I ever did living in Texas. And I’ve noticed that when I share my experiences of visiting religious congregations in Binghamton with friends and family in the south, they nod their heads in acknowledgment and then proceed to talk about how secularism is on the rise and religion on the decline in the northeast. Again, it’s refreshing to read your more reasoned take on the subject!

  4. @Yasha,
    Right on. And not just Upstate New York. I think lots of folks think of New York City as the most diverse and multicultural city in America, but part of that multiculturalism is a very strong and vibrant conservative religious element. This is true for conservative Protestants, but becomes even more striking when we mix in conservative Catholicism, with Tim Dolan as the new Archbishop. When you add in conservative and orthodox Judaism, you have very large group of “fundamentalist” New Yorkers.
    I think it’s an easy trap to think of Bible-based, “fundamentalist” Christianity as relegated to rural areas, North and South, since it tends to be dominant and highly visible in those areas. But just because it is not dominant or the ONLY public religiosity in major cities North and South doesn’t mean it is not even more powerful in those cities than it is in rural areas.


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