The Bible in America: Thunderbolt, Part III: What Thunderbolt?

As we’ve discussed here lately, some fundamentalists harp on the Schempp and Engel Supreme Court decisions of 1962 and 1963 as the time God was kicked out of public schools.

Some of the reasons for this go beyond the obvious.  First of all, although the 1963 case took the name of Abington Township School District v. Schempp, it was actually a joinder decision with a case brought by the prominent atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair.  The Schempp family were religious Unitarians.  Murray (later Murray O’Hair) was an outspoken and aggressive atheist.  Partly as a result, the Schempp case took on overtones of a fight of religion vs. atheism.  It took on overtones, in Fundamentalist America, of a last-ditch defense of God.

Such perceived high stakes led to a perception of a profound loss for Fundamentalist America.  As we’ve argued here recently, conservative evangelical Protestants reacted with profound dismay and disillusionment to the court’s 1963 decision.  A Moody Monthly poll in 1964 ranked the decision as the most important social or political event of the year, more important than the church bombings in Birmingham, Alabama.  Presbyterian fundamentalist leader Carl McIntire asked, after more than a decade of struggle to pass a Constitutional prayer amendment, “Why aren’t Christians standing where it counts and saying, ‘I’m for America and I’m for the Bible?’”

But what did the 1962 and 1963 decisions actually do?  What effects did they have in America’s public schools?

In the aftermath of the Schempp decision, a pair of political scientists—Kenneth Dolbeare and Phillipp Hammond—studied the effects.  They first consulted survey data.  Not surprisingly, they discovered that the Schempp and Engel decisions had led to a precipitous drop in the amount of school-sponsored religious activity that went on in public schools.  More precisely, they found that the decisions had led public school leaders to report a sharp drop.  About two-thirds of school districts reported that they stopped school-sponsored devotions.  Teachers reported a sharp decline.  Sixty percent reported that they had lead classroom prayers before the decisions, while only 28% admitted they still led such prayers.

Of course, even these large declines meant that many teachers and school districts continued to lead prayers and Bible readings.  But even that stubborn minority was isolated.  Most of such holdouts were in the South.  Reports from the West—where such in-school religious practice had often already been banned—and from the Plains and Northeast gave a much different picture.  In those regions, survey responses indicated nearly full compliance with the Supreme Court decisions.

We must remember that the South at this time was roiling with anti-Brown sentiment.  The white power structure had nearly unanimously agreed to resist school desegregation in spite of the 1954 Supreme Court ruling.  Many agreed with Alabama Governor George Wallace, who had declared in 1963, “I don’t care what they say in Washington.  We are going to keep right on beating the Bible in the public schools of Alabama.  I wouldn’t be surprised if they sent troops into the classrooms and arrested little boys and girls who read the Bible and pray.”

In such a climate, school leaders in the former Confederacy had a much easier time publicly renouncing the Supreme Court’s ban on school-sponsored prayer.  Indeed, it may have been political suicide for many of them to publicly support the Court.

Outside the South, however, most survey respondents claimed they had stopped teacher-led prayers and Bible readings.  But when Hammond and Dolbeare examined those schools and classrooms more closely, they found that even outside the South, teacher-led prayer and Bible reading went on just as they had before the decisions.  In other words, teachers and school administrators outside the South told surveyors that they had stopped leading religious devotions in their public schools.  They knew that such practices had been prohibited.  But when the classroom doors were closed, they continued to pray and read from the Bible with their students.

Most remarkable, in Dolbeare and Hammond’s opinion, was the fact that throughout the communities they studied in the Midwest, everyone knew what was going on and no one complained.  As long as state-level school administrators could claim that they did not know of any teacher-led devotions, the devotions themselves went on undisturbed.  Teachers led prayers in their classrooms.  School building principals led prayers at school ceremonies.  Bible verses adorned graduation speeches and school hallways.  According to Hammond and Dolbeare, most of the people involved were aware of the Supreme Court’s ruling.  Yet they continued to engage in exactly the sorts of practice the Court had ruled against.

Fast forward to the twenty-first century, and we see a much different picture.  Regional variations in racial desegregation in schools have often flip-flopped, with the most segregated school districts now in places such as New York City, Detroit, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Similarly, in spite of a relatively recent New York Times article that assumed school-sponsored religious practices had been shunted to “some corners of the country, especially in the rural South,” even a casual observer of the news will see that battles over the proper role of religion in public schools continue all over the country.

For example, we noted recently a remarkable law passed recently in New Hampshire, hardly an outpost of the “rural South.”  This law mandated that parents could request alternate textbooks or curricular materials for any reason.  In theory, this could mean that strict vegetarian parents could object to books that portrayed meat-eating in a flattering light.  The intent of the law, however, was clearly to protect the faith of evangelical Protestant children.  The push for the law began when one family objected to the Jesus-bashing of author Barbara Ehrenreich.

Or the continuing case of Bradley Johnson.  Johnson insisted on putting religion-friendly placards on his classroom wall.  His stubborn activism can only be called “Southern” if we include “Southern” California.  And while San Diego is technically one corner of the country, it is hardly an isolated outpost of ‘hillbilly’ culture.

Just as it was for Dolbeare and Hammond in the 1960s, it is nearly impossible for us to know what really goes on in most public-school classrooms.  Cases like Johnson’s don’t tell us much about what most teachers are doing.  As Dolbeare and Hammond concluded, one of the main reasons for the continuing practices of teacher-led prayers and Bible readings was that everyone involved hoped to avoid any controversy.  Parents did not want to stand out as anti-prayer.  Teachers did not want to appear to denigrate religion.  School administrators did not want to crack down on what many perceived to be wholesome traditional American practices.

These days, it is difficult to predict just what practices might pass for non-controversial in America’s public schools.  Local traditions—even down to the level of individual schools and neighborhoods—trump Supreme Court decisions or New York Times reporters’ assumptions.

For conservatives, this means that traditional practices such as prayer or Bible reading might continue in public schools, as long as there has never been a local complaint against the practice.  It also means that conservative activists such as Bradley Johnson might mount a counter-revolution in any part of the country.

For many such activists, public schools have taken on an aura of secular fortresses.  In the rhetoric of many conservatives, public schools are the headquarters of Jesus-bashing, evolution-teaching, sex-teaching, drug-selling liberals.  A more careful look, like what Dolbeare and Hammond did forty years ago, would likely present a much more traditional, religion-friendly picture of life inside those public-school walls.

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2 Comments

  1. Required Reading: Kicking God Out of Public Schools « I Love You but You're Going to Hell
  2. What Does School Look Like in Christian America? | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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