Conservatives: Keep Religion Out of Public Schools

Do American religious conservatives want more Jesus in public schools?  That’s usually the assumption, from Kountze, Texas to San Diego, California.

Recently in the pages of The American Conservative, Leah Libresco argued the conservative case against more religion in public schools.  When religion is used by the state, she points out, it puts religion in the service of the state, not vice versa.

One commenter pointed out the paucity of this sort of sentiment among religious conservatives in the past thirty years.  Fair enough.  But let’s not forget how common such notions were among religious conservatives, especially for those from the Baptist tradition, throughout American history.

For example, as historian Jon Zimmerman argued in his 2002 book Whose America, the battle over weekday religious education in public schools pitted conservative Christians against liberal Christians.  Both sides wanted more good religion in public schools, but they disagreed bitterly over the content of that religious education.  Conservatives and self-identified “fundamentalists” often made the case that no religion was better than false religion for public school students.

Similarly, we need to remember the response among conservative evangelicals to the Supreme Court’s anti-prayer ruling in Engel v. Vitale.  In that important 1962 decision, SCOTUS ruled that public schools could not lead students in even the blandest, most ecumenical prayer.  As I argued in a recent article in the Journal of Religious History, many conservative evangelical intellectuals were well pleased.

The National Association of Evangelicals approved of Engel.  So did Presbyterian fundamentalist Carl McIntire.  As William Culbertson of the Moody Bible Institute put it, “The public as a whole and Christians who sense the necessity for safeguarding freedom of worship in the future are always indebted to the Court for protection in this important area.”

For Culbertson as for the other conservative Protestants who agreed with him, it would be better for public-school students not to pray at all in school rather than for them to chant the pablum imposed by the New York Regents.  That Regents prayer, after all, offered only the thinnest gruel of religion; it crushed any orthodoxy in its well-meaning goal of ecumenicalism.  “Almighty God,” students prayed, “we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and beg Thy blessings upon us, our teachers, and our country.”

As Leah Libresco argues in her recent conservative indictment of public-school prayer, that sort of religiosity does not teach young people the religion of their families.  It only teaches them a confusing lesson about the vague existence of a higher power.  For religious conservatives, the words of a prayer matter.  Better by far to ban meaningless prayers from public schools than to embrace a state-directed vision of the Almighty.

 

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2 Comments

  1. This is so true. A man that I respected, who attended a conservative Protestant church, told me himself that he’d rather have no prayer at all than any prayer from other religions.

    Reply
  2. Another illustration of why I think government-run schools are not necessarily a good idea. If everyone could go to the school of his choice we would not have to quibble about things like this.

    Reply

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