The Bible in America: Thunderbolt, Part II: Schempp

If we listen to the voices of Fundamentalist America, we might conclude that public schools in America are terrible places to be.  Twenty years ago, John Morris of the Institute for Creation Research warned that public schools had become “aggressively anti-Christian.”  The problems, Morris declared, went beyond the obvious:

Open drug sales and use, ethnic gang wars, and student/teacher violence are easily recognized problems, but how about the more subtle attempts at “values clarification,” or the encouragement of experimentation in “sex education” classes, or the inclusion of homosexuality as a legitimate lifestyle, or easy access to abortions through school clinics.

Other conservative Christian activists agree.  Thirty years ago, Jerry Combee wrote,

the public schools have grown into jungles where, of no surprise to Christian educators, the old Satanic nature ‘as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour’ (I Peter 5:8).  Students do well to stay alive, much less learn.

More recently, activists involved in the Exodus Mandate have warned that public schools “are no more reformable than Soviet collective farms. . . . Conservative school reformers are a lot like Civil War reenactors who specialize in Pickett’s Charge.  They never take the high ground; they never really win.”

This staggering decline in the quality of public schools began, many conservatives insist, when the US Supreme Court kicked God out of schools in 1962 and 1963.  In 1962, as we’ve seen, the court decreed that states could not impose a non-sectarian prayer in public schools.  More devastating to many conservative Christians, in 1963 the court ruled in the decision Abington Township School District v. Schempp that even Bible reading and the Lord’s Prayer had no legitimate place in those schools.

Despite what many outsiders might think, the world of conservative evangelical Protestantism in America is truly kaleidoscopic, to borrow the phrase of religious historian Timothy L. Smith.  Different schools of thought among Bible believers disagree vehemently on questions of politics, culture, and theology.  Ask twenty “fundamentalists” what the Bible means and you’ll get at least twenty different answers.  Yet when it came to the Schempp decision, a variety of voices from around this diverse world all agreed.  This decision meant not only that God had been kicked out of public schools, but that Christianity itself had been kicked out of American public life.

For instance, in the immediate aftermath of the Schempp decision, separatist Presbyterian fundamentalist Carl McIntire still hoped that concerted political action might overturn it.  McIntire helped organize “Project America” to press politicians to adopt a Constitutional amendment in favor of prayer and Bible reading in public schools.  At first, McIntire repeatedly stressed his feeling that huge majorities of Americans would support such an amendment.  After a bitter political fight, however, McIntire acknowledged that it was hopeless.  Writers in McIntire’s Christian Beacon began to emphasize the notion that their beliefs made them a beleaguered minority in American life.  In 1965 one writer warned that America was “moving farther and farther from its Christian heritage.”  Another predicted that soon mainstream Americans would resort to “repression, restriction, harassment, and then outright persecution . . . in secular opposition to Christian witness.”

Other evangelical voices made similar about-faces in the aftermath of Schempp.  Baptist fundamentalist publisher John R. Rice reflected that the relationship between evangelical faith and public schooling had changed drastically.  He recounted for his readers how things had been radically different in the not-too-distant past:

Once when I was engaged in revival services in the Second Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee, I was invited to speak in every high school in the city and in the principal grade schools, both white and colored, and was gladly received.  The only people offended were those involved in the few elementary schools where I could not come for lack of time. 

Such halcyon days, however, had been destroyed by the cowardly Supreme Court.  Worst of all, Rice concluded, the court seemed to have the support of “the public sentiment.”

This sense of a drastic and sudden shift in the relationship between evangelical belief and public life was widely shared among all different sorts of conservative evangelical Protestants in the aftermath of Schempp.  One writer in the Moody Bible Institute’s Moody Monthly, for example, concluded that evangelicals must retreat to play the role of God’s “witnesses and lights in a dark place” in mainstream American culture.

Similarly, the intellectuals at Christianity Today articulated their shock and dismay of the implications of Schempp. At first, the editors believed that America’s “devout masses” still supported school prayer.  As did other evangelicals, however, they concluded bitterly that “In the schools secularization has triumphed.”  Instead of relying on devout masses, the editors soon hoped only to energize the “believing remnant” in America to support Bible-reading and prayer in public schools.

As we’ll see in future posts, the Schempp decision might not have had the drastic impact many of these writers assumed at the time.  Nevertheless, the degree of unanimity among a wide variety of conservative evangelical Protestants is remarkable.  From separatist fundamentalists to more ecumenical neo-evangelicals, prominent voices all agreed that this momentous decision had done more than just kicked God out of public schools.  In their opinions, Schempp had forced a sudden recalculation of the role of Bible believers in all of American public life.

Coming soon: Thunderbolt, Part III: What thunderbolt?

Leave a comment


  1. Very interesting. Have you read David Berliner’s arguments that the deterioration of public schools in America is a myth perpetuated by conservatives? I haven’t. I’m hoping you’ll do the hard work for me!

    • @Jonny,
      I haven’t, but now I will. I think most political arguments from all parts of the political spectrum about the state of public schooling begin with the “deficit” hypothesis. Those on the Left assume schools are racist machines for reproducing social inequality. Those on the Right critique them as Godless, or at least as amoral. Some free-market voices focus on the sclerotic bureaucratism of big school systems. Those muddling through in the middle criticize schools as inefficient…or maybe just as imperfect. In all cases, I hear (tho maybe my ear is listening too hard for it) a strain of nostalgia about schooling from all voices. I think conservatives USED to have a monopoly on this kind of “uphill both ways” nostalgism, but with the rise of high-stakes testing and teacher evaluations in the US, I hear more and more about the “good old days” from educators on the left as well.

      • High-stakes testing seems to be a problem everywhere, even though it’s a known cause of students taking a surface-learning approach.
        It’s my perception that US education uses a great deal of multiple choice testing. Is that correct? Because I’m persuaded by the evidence that multiple choice testing is frequently meaningless, and a rubbish way to gauge learning.

      • I think there have been some efforts to improve the tests themselves. In history, for instance, tests such as the Advanced Placement series have included both multiple-choice sections and more interesting Documents-based-questions sections. As far as mass-market evaluations go, it isn’t horrible. But even with these tests, a large part of what they measure is student preparation. In classrooms and schools in which students have been taught how to take such a test, not surprisingly, students perform much better. What is being tested, in no small measure, is how well students have been prepared to do well on this particular kind of challenge. The promise of a one-size-fits-all test of knowledge is still very powerful culturally and politically. But educationally, there is no such thing. Tests tell us how well students do on tests. They do not tell us how much students know.

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