What Does School Look Like in Christian America?

Talking about education in general is like talking about sex in general. There are a few things that are usually true, but it’s only interesting once you get down to specific cases. A recent article in the Kokomo [Indiana] Tribune gives us a look at the way evangelical Christianity still dominates the public schools of Greenwood, Indiana. As tempting as it might be for pundits to say that the Supreme Court kicked God out of public schools in 1963, in reality God is still very much a fact of life in many American schools.

We need to remember, though, that this is not simply a time warp. A public school run by conservative evangelical Protestants today is profoundly different from the way that kind of school would have been fifty years ago, or a hundred years ago.

In Greenwood, it seems, the public schools are not just friendly to evangelical Protestantism. They are dominated by it. The Bible class, for example, is taught by the gregarious and popular Peter Heck. As the article notes, there is absolutely nothing wrong with teaching classes about the Bible in public schools. Constitutionally, the courses need to be taught about the Bible as an historical and literary document. They should not be taught devotionally, as a way for students to deepen their Christian faith.

What the Heck is going on here?

What the Heck is going on here?

Heck’s class seems to do the latter. On the day the reporter went in to observe, students were learning how to use the Book of Judges to consider ways that God could use anyone to accomplish His goals. The watchdog group Americans for the Separation of Church and State charged that Heck’s conservative religion influenced the message in his classroom. On his radio show, Heck blasted President Obama and articulated his support for the conservative group American Family Association.

If Heck allowed his conservative Christian activism to influence his teaching, he was not the only one. Karol Evenson told the Kokomo Tribune that she used the school’s Christmas pageant to help spread the Gospel. When she’s teaching about the birth of Christ, Evenson told the newspaper,

I just get real passionate about that when I’m teaching it, so it allows me to share things. A lot of times, I tell the kids, ‘I’m not asking you to believe, I’m hoping that you do and that you will, but I’m trying to get you to feel the music and what we’re singing about.’ A lot of the kids here do believe it, so when they are singing those pieces, it’s such a blessing for me.

At the highest levels, too, the district supports this sort of religious infusion in the classroom. Superintendent Tracy Caddell denied that the Greenwood schools taught any religious doctrine. But he admitted that he saw the teaching staff as

a community of Christians who also are teachers and educators, and I don’t think any of us leave our faith at the door because the bell rings. . . . Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior and that doesn’t stop just because the school bell rings. . . . As a leader, I’m hoping that we’re promoting what people would call Christian values. However, we’re not promoting or teaching Christian doctrine. There’s a big difference.

As Professor Mark Chancey found in his study of Bible classes in Texas, this sort of attitude is not uncommon in America’s public schools. Nor is this new. In the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision in Abington v. Schempp (1963), in which prayer and Bible reading had supposedly been ruled unconstitutional in American public schools, political scientists Kenneth Dolbeare and Phillip Hammond found that many schools simply continued with their traditional prayers.

Depending on where you go to school, it seems, you might just get a dose of religion as part of your public-school day. Yet things have changed in the past fifty years. Back in 1963, I doubt the teachers and superintendents in towns like Greenwood would bother to say that they did not teach Christian doctrine. Back then, it is likely that a school like Greenwood High would not think twice about teaching Christian values.

Does that matter? I think it does. Fifty years ago, in places like Greenwood, the Bible teacher would not have the same pugnacious spirit as Peter Heck has today. On his radio show, it seems, Heck not only speaks from the perspective of a conservative evangelical Protestant, but assumes that his values are under attack. In his first book, Heck argues that “Christians Can Save America.”

Similarly, Greenwood’s superintendent acknowledged that his district flouted some of the norms of today’s secular culture. “Over time,” Superintendent Caddell told the Kokomo reporter,

we’ve gotten so worried about political correctness in this country that people have not had the opportunity to feel comfortable being a Christian in a public school. I think that’s sad, because that’s who you are.

The conservative Christians running public schools in Greenwood, Indiana—like Christians who do similar things in other American schools—are not simply trapped in the past. As I argue in my new book, in order to understand American education, we need to understand the ways conservative attitudes have shifted over the generations.

In Greenwood, at least, conservative school leaders understand that they are doing something outside of the norms. They just disagree with those norms.

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  1. Da Mandell

     /  March 2, 2015

    I must admit I was astonished by the revelations in the Kokomo article. I was particularly struck by the self-consciously narrow definition of “Christian” held by the aggressively evangelical administrators, teachers, and students at the school. While almost certainly EVERYONE in the school is by Christian–otherwise there would certainly be friction about the obvious proselytizing– they feel that a noticeable proportion are NOT Christian. Is that change or continuity in evangelical/fundamentalist movement since the 1920s?

    • I think folks in towns like Greenwood, Indiana, would not have thought twice in the 1920s about infusing their public-school teaching with explicit evangelical Protestant religiosity. There was a politically insuperable notion in many such places that proper education required a moral backbone that could only be provided by Holy Scripture and teacher-led prayers. In that sense, things have changed enormously. The teachers in the KT article clearly felt they had to defend their religious teaching as somehow not tied to any doctrine. But it was also in the 1920s that these assumptions became successfully challenged. Some ideas that evangelicals had publicly opposed remained popular among scholars, evolution being the most obvious example. In the 1920s, the USA saw a split between proper visions of education. On the one hand, public education was supposed to protect the faith of religious students. On the other, it was supposed to expose students to the best modern knowledge, some of which might threaten that faith. In that sense, we are still slogging through the same culture-war trenches, in many ways.

      • Do you know something about Greenwood in the 1920s or are you just generalizing about the region, state or metro-Indianapolis area? In 1920 Greenwood had only 1,907 people, pretty much all Protestants with a foundational Presbyterian core. If they appreciated “The Fundamentals” that had been published in 1910, you might have some early Fundamentalists there, but I doubt religious expression in public schools would have gone beyond the rather generic and formulaic Protestant-inflected patriotism. Contemporary evangelicals might regard it as seeming rather ritualistic, dead, and reduced to “civil religion” even thought the same could be said of them today as well.

        There also may have been a huge influence from the Indiana KKK, which in the early 1920s was at its peak with maybe a quarter to nearly half of the male population in the state registered as members. The klan controlled Indianapolis politics and was mainly focused on stopping Catholic schools from forming, and on purging Catholic influences in public schools.

        The Lutherans and Catholics showed up in Greenwood in the 1940s-50s. The population exploded after that for a few decades. Religious tensions probably rose in the older population facing demographic change and the prospect of an Irish Catholic president. The pope is still officially identified with the anti-Christ in some Lutheran (and maybe other) denominations, not to mention the ever-popular Jack Chick tracts. Much of this would be unintelligible and disgusting to conservative Evangelicals today.

      • Dan, Good points all. I wasn’t speaking about Greenwood, Indiana in particular, but about small towns in general. Speaking of today’s evangelicals and civil religion, I’d love to hear your take on the recent GOP poll in which Huckabee backers almost unanimously supported making Christianity the official religion of the USA. To my non-evangelical ears, that sounds like a strange endorsement of the government by SBC fans. But maybe I just don’t have the ears to hear what it really means.

      • What is “SBC?” I think small town religion and theopolitics has always varied significantly by region but maybe more so in the past when (mostly white ethnic) immigration patterns determined what group was dominant and who their main rivals were.

        My take on the poll is that conservatives are in high reaction and panic mode probably due to a lot of things whose common underlying feature is a sense of loss. This feeling of loss is articulated by many as loss of control to secular and/or anti-Christian forces — a deeply entrenched, historical ethos in Protestant America that came to be embraced by Protestant and Catholic conservatives alike in the political coalitions they formed in the 1970s-1980s.

        As the boomers and builders age out of the workforce and life itself (always a difficult process for anyone), many do not recognize their country anymore and have been saying something like that since they were young adults. Since they have invested heavily in a counter-counter-culture reaction and identity for going on 50 years now, they are focused on propagating their views and values to the next generations. According to the poll you mention, they have succeeded in doing that with their kids who have not defected from the movement. Probably not included in this poll are the younger evangelicals and other moderates who came out strongly in support for Obama. They’re not calling themselves “conservative” anymore and probably overlap in religious communities with those who are felt to have “left the church.”

        It seems like there will have to be an inevitable resolution of some sort within the GOP and among religious conservatives that either results in an ultra-conservative hegemony of reactionary white men or a new tolerance for the actual diversity of their communities, churches and families. It is probably a choice between losing and winning on the national scene given our foreseeable demographic and economic future.

  2. Whoops, sorry! SBC = Southern Baptist Convention

    • That’s what I thought. How does the SBC come in? I thought this was a national poll administered by a NC-based policy center, not one that restricted its audience to the state or national SBC.

      • You’re right, but with Governor Huckabee’s background in the SBC, I thought it was likely that many of his supporters might share that SBC heritage. And, if so, double weird to me that Baptists would not recoil in horror from the notion of a “national religion.”

      • The SBC is the biggest protestant denomination in the US and very diverse. In a lot of ways, you can think of them as being more like US Catholics than most Protestant denominations.

        I don’t know what Huckabee’s approval rating is with southern baptists or what kind of SB’s. But the SBC itself has always maintained commitment to an explicit separation of church an state: http://www.sbc.net/bfm2000/bfmcomparison.asp

  3. Ann

     /  September 13, 2015

    One problem with this article, while there is a Greenwood, IN, this school is actually located in Greentown, IN.

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