Are Public Schools “Churches of Atheism?”

Once again, I totally agree with radical creationist Ken Ham about something. Not that the earth was created only about 7,000 years ago. Not that a real worldwide flood wiped out everything except Noah’s Ark. But I agree with him 100% that public schools should not serve as churches of atheism. However, as I know, you know, and large majorities of Americans know, public schools aren’t churches of any sort. How can we tell? Americans LIKE their local schools. They don’t like church.ham tweet churches of atheism

Mr. Ham has not grasped that fact. He is fond of warning his followers that public schools are not community resources, controlled and paid for by the community based on democratic processes, but rather sinister institutions—“churches of atheism”—dedicated to stripping children of their faiths, to belittling any religious viewpoint, and to cramming sexual immorality down children’s throats.

gallup school a or b

People tend to give high grades to their children’s schools.

The problem is, that’s not what public schools do in real life. I know because I spend my days visiting public schools in my area. I don’t see the kinds of mind-control efforts Mr. Ham is so nervous about. I see hard-working teachers who help their students become the best versions of themselves.

It’s not just me. The most careful surveys of public-school science teaching don’t find huge majorities of teachers cramming atheism down students’ throats. As political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer found in their huge survey of high-school science teachers, the biggest determining factor for the way teachers teach is community sentiment. If the local community wants more mainstream science, teachers teach it. If they want it watered down with creationism, teachers tend to oblige.

Worst of all for Mr. Ham’s radical Chicken-Little-ism, most Americans understand that. Gallup pollsters have asked Americans what they think of their public schools. By and large, people LIKE the public-schools their kids attend. What don’t people like? Church.

gallup church attendance

Americans are voting against church–with their feet.

So if public schools were really “churches of atheism,” as Mr. Ham contends, you’d think more people would be dissatisfied. You’d think more people would stop going. That’s not what is happening. It’s good news for the rest of us, even if it is not good news for Ken Ham and his radical allies.

Gov’t Fights Anti-Christian Bias: Will Conservatives Celebrate?

Maybe you didn’t see this one, because no one seems to be talking about it. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has filed suit against a Pennsylvania company for bias against three Christian employees. On first blush, it seems like a story that culture-war conservatives would want to celebrate.

EEOC

Big Government fighting for persecuted Christians…

After all, this seems to be good news for conservative Christians. In this case, the EEOC alleges that three workers were insulted and treated badly. Their Pentecostal religion was demeaned as a “disgusting cult.” The suit points out that creation of a “hostile work environment and disparate treatment” due to the workers’ national origin and religion constitutes “unlawful practices.”

On its face, this diligent protection of conservative Christians might seem like good news for anxious religious conservatives. Very different types of conservative Christians have lamented the fact that mainstream society and government persecute traditional Christians.

From the crunchy side, for example, Rod Dreher warns,

the cultural left—which is to say, the American mainstream— has no intention of living in postwar peace. It is pressing forward with a harsh, relentless occupation, one that is aided by the cluelessness of Christians who don’t understand what’s happening.

And from the Kentucky creationism side, Ken Ham has insisted,

It’s not enough to just tell students, ‘Believe in Jesus!’ Faith that is not founded on fact will ultimately falter in the storm of secularism that our students face every day. . . . Our country has forsaken its Christian soul. We need to see that for what it is.

Rod Dreher and Ken Ham probably wouldn’t agree on much, but as Christian conservatives they agree that mainstream society has turned hopelessly anti-Christian. Yet I’m guessing they won’t take this story as good news. Why not?

First, it is simply bad strategy for them to notice. Like a lot of conservative cassandras, Dreher and Ham have both put all their chips on a persecution story. A more complicated version of that story won’t help them much.

If more thoughtful folks like Dreher DO comment on this story, they could explain it a couple of ways. First, they might claim that conservative religion was more of a free-rider in this case. The government was really interested in protecting these particular Christians because they were also insulted for their Puerto Rican heritage. Plus, intellectuals like Mr. Dreher might point out that this sort of legal protection is beside the point. Sure, the EEOC might fight against insults and harassment, but the EEOC will then turn around and persecute Christians who do not recognize LGBTQ rights. The actual beliefs of conservative Christians, Dreher might say, are nowhere protected.

So although these three plaintiffs might have the government on their side when they are mocked for being Puerto Rican Pentecostals, Mr. Dreher might retort, when they actually try to live their lives as demanded by their Christian faith, they become instead the target of the EEOC.

Or maybe conservative pundits just won’t say anything at all.

Badger Bound!

When conservative activists have won their battles about public education, how have they won? I’m excited to make my case next Monday at my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

bucky badger

Thanks, Bucky. It’s great to be back!

Thanks to an invitation from my grad-school mentor William J. Reese, I’ll be traveling to sunny Madison, Wisconsin this week to talk about the history of conservatism and American education. SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware that I explored this history in my second book, The Other School Reformers (Harvard University Press, 2015).

In that book, I wondered what it has meant to be conservative about education in these United States. It’s not as simple a question as it seems. Some conservatives want one thing, others want another. Most people–whether they consider themselves conservative or not–don’t have crystal-clear ideas about what they want out of schools.

In my talk next week, I’ll share some of that research, but I’ll also expand it to include my more recent findings. In short, I think that conservatives have won NOT by proving their case for conservative values and ideas, but rather by doing something else.

What’s the “something else?” Well, you’ll just have to come to Wisconsin on Monday to find out. Good seats still available: Monday, October 14, 12:00, Education Building room 245.

madison talk flyer

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Impeachment in classrooms, impeachment among evangelicals…and a few stories NOT about impeachment this week, too.

How can Smithsonian tour guides defuse anger about good science? At RNCSE.

most volunteers make a rookie mistake: they focus on what their response should be, rather than taking the time to understand the values and fears of the person they’re speaking with. Often, this takes the form of focusing on communicating the science. While effective and accurate communication of science is a crucial element, it is not enough to reach the most skeptical populations. By taking time to assign real human emotions to the visitors, volunteers can better empathize and use this newfound understanding to decide the best way to share their evidence.

Impeachment in the classroom:

Imagine, for example, a project in which students listen to the Nixon tapes and make the case for and against impeachment in that historical context. Students might research impeachment’s constitutional context as a congressional power and how the Founding Fathers saw this process as a safeguard for democracy.

Teachers might worry about taking on such a controversial political topic, either because they don’t have time for it in a packed regular curriculum, or because they worry about the discussion getting out of hand, possibly angering parents and administrators. But there are ways to treat this as a learning opportunity rather than a political smackdown, especially because many students may raise the news in class and look to teachers for clarification.

Historian Peggy Bendroth wonders why mainline Protestant women didn’t act angrier, at RA.

I am beginning to think the psychological issue isn’t actually mine at all—it’s those churchwomen I’m trying to write about, ladies with pillbox hats and big corsages, smiling gamely from the pages of denominational magazines. How can you tell a compelling human story with so much of its emotional valence buried out of sight?

I cannot believe that they were not angry—i.e., furious beyond measure at being belittled, patronized, and ignored, many years of education and prodigious talents wasted, while they watched feckless male bureaucrats rise through the ranks and then write books about their own accomplishments.

bendroth RAWill the impeachment investigation push some white conservative evangelicals closer to Trump? At AP.

“I do feel like we are, as Christians, the first line of defense for the president,” Christina Jones, 44, said before [Franklin] Graham took the stage. Trump is “supporting our Christian principles and trying to do his best,” she added, even as “everybody’s against him.” . . . In the crowd at Graham’s tour, which will stop in six more North Carolina cities over the next 10 days, believers had reserved their concern for Trump’s Democratic antagonists. “They’re just digging things up and making things up just to try to take him down, and I don’t think that’s fair,” said Mike Fitzgerald, 64.

Students know the rules about prayer in public schools, but many don’t care. At PRC.

Nationwide, roughly four-in-ten teens (including 68% of evangelical Protestant teens) who go to public school say they think it is “appropriate” for a teacher to lead a class in prayer. Some of the teens who express this view are unaware of the Supreme Court’s ruling. But most know what the law is; 82% of U.S. teens in public schools (and 79% of evangelical teens) correctly answer a factual question about the constitutionality of teacher-led prayer in public school classrooms.

Federal judge rules in favor (again) of campus Christian groups, at IHE.

When is “Bring Your Bible to School” Day? Every day, at R&P.

Bringing a Bible to school (public or private) is a legal, common, and regular practice in the U.S. . . . The federal government protects this right, unequivocally. Hindrances in the U.S. to the practice of Christian religious freedom are rare, usually stem from confusion around school policy, and are often quickly resolved.

It might take more than 6,000 to figure out all the financial connections. New Yorker story unpicks the connections between real-estate deals, Congressmen, dinosaur fossils, and sad homeschool “research” trips. HT: CS.

What is school reform like? Larry Cuban reviews the metaphors. Jalopy? Or old house?

Over the years I have used the image of a jalopy.

Incremental change means sanding and re-painting the old car. Getting a tune-up, new tires, and replacement car seats for the torn ones–you get the idea.

Fundamental (or transformational or radical) change, however, refers to giving up the car and getting a different kind of transportation–biking, bus or rapid transit, walking, car pooling, etc.

“Court evangelicals” and the culture of fear, at TWOILH.

John Wilson–you need to get out more. The fearful people I am writing about here do not read back issues of Books & Culture or attend the Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing.  They do not talk theology in the coffee shops of Wheaton, Illinois.  There is an entire world of evangelical Christians out there who you have not yet met. They are very afraid.  They seek comfort in strongmen of both the political and religious variety.  Donald Trump and the court evangelicals are exploiting their fears for political gain.

Ouch. Bad news for the Education Department. It was the second-least-favored federal department in a recent survey. Plus, more Republicans (55%) like the EPA than the Ed Dept. (48%). At PRC.

Pew fed agencies EPA or ED

Teachers: Do you buy it? American Enterprise Institute says the ‘underpaid-teacher’ thing is a myth.

predictions generated by the underpaid-teacher hypothesis — such as that teachers must have high quit rates, or that a large percentage of their income flows from second jobs — are not supported by the data. Teachers as a group are generally well compensated, and teacher pay and benefits have risen faster over time than compensation in private-sector jobs. Failure to recognize these facts can lead education reform down a blind alley.

Can universities accept philanthropy tainted by the Oxycontin scandal? Many have, at AP.

Oxford, the University of Glasgow in Scotland and Cornell each received $5 million to $6 million, tax records show. Columbia University followed with nearly $5 million, while Imperial College London and McGill University in Montreal each received more than $3 million.

It’s not only K-12 schools. Preschool programs are even more segregated by race, at Hechinger.

early learning programs are twice as likely to be nearly 100 percent black or Hispanic than kindergarten and first grade classrooms.

Why Are Some People so Uptight about School Prayer?

If you look at the rules, it’s a non-issue. As SCOTUS has made crystal clear, the rights of students in public schools to pray and read prayerfully from their Bibles have never been in question. Yet as Cavan Concannon pointed out recently, the issue still causes hi anxiety among some conservative evangelical activists. Why?SOTL

As Concannon points out, conservative groups such as Focus on the Family still ring alarm bells whenever there is a misunderstanding. As one FoF spokesperson warned recently,

How would you respond if one of these scenarios happened to your child, or to a student in your youth group? . . .

  • A father expresses concern after his daughter, a high school student, tells him an education official stopped her from bowing her head to silently pray before eating lunch.
  • A fifth-grade student brought his favorite book, the Bible, with him to class to read during a free reading period. But according to news reports, the teacher had him come up to her desk and, in front of the class, left a message for his parent explaining that she noticed he had a religious book and was not “permitted to read those books” in her classroom.

Sadly, none of these scenarios are fiction.

Not fiction, sure, but also not all that scary, once you read more about the stories. In one, the school district quickly apologized. In another the teacher said it didn’t happen. Still, there is no reason why students should have to even explain themselves. Their prayers should be un-challenged by their schools. The FoF folks are 100% right when they say, “schools should be celebrating these [prayer] rights and educating students about them, not stifling them.” Students have every right to pray and read the Bible in their public schools, as long as they don’t disrupt the day-to-day functioning of that school.

So what’s the problem?

That’s just it. In spite of the hi anxiety expressed by groups such as FoF, there isn’t really a problem. We do not see—contrary to FoF claims—“more news headlines like these every year.” We do not see—and I’ve been looking!—evidence that public-school districts are scheming to keep students from exercising their religious rights. We do not see, in short, any evidence that the “religious freedom” of conservative evangelical students is under attack.

So why do so many conservative activsts say that it is?

I’ve got a hunch. For the past century, America’s public schools have been moving in fits and starts toward a more secular dynamic. In the 1920s, as I argued in my first book, the so-called anti-evolution campaign was often actually an attempt to install frankly theocratic regime in public schools. One “anti-evolution” bill considered in Kentucky, for example, would actually have done a lot more than ban evolution. One amendment specified that Kentucky’s public libraries could not contain any books that

directly or indirectly attack or assail or seek to undermine or weaken or destroy the religious beliefs and convictions of the children of Kentucky.

That’s right. Back in 1922, conservative evangelical activists didn’t only want their religion included; they wanted it to utterly dominate.

By the 1960s, conservative evangelical activists had long abandoned any hope of taking sweeping control of public institutions. But many were still shocked when SCOTUS ruled in 1963 that teachers could not lead students in the Lord’s Prayer or devotional Bible reading. Consider—as just one example—the fiery sermon delivered by The Rev. Ray Chamberlin on September 8, 1963, at Faith Baptist Church, Cynthiana, Kentucky, as reported in John R. Rice’s Sword of the Lord newspaper.

The problem, Chamberlin preached, was that public schools in America were meant to be Christian. As he put it,

Since the earliest days of our educational system in one-room log cabins, the Bible has been read and prayer has been made to the God of the Bible.

The recent SCOTUS rulings, Chamberlin warned, had thrown that worthy system into the garbage.

What was the solution? Chamberlin liked Alabama Governor George Wallace’s aggressive approach. If public schools stopped reading the Bible, he promised to go to that school and read it himself. Let them send in the troops if they wanted to.

But that’s just it. No one sent in troops. No one is hunting down religious students—Left Behind style—and forcing them to give up their prayer groups. With a few exceptions such as the ones FoF described above, religious students of all backgrounds are praying in their public schools if they want to.

I think the real problem comes from the unique history of conservative evangelical religion in America’s public schools. For good reason, conservative activists feel that they have lost something. As they repeat so often, evangelical Christianity really did serve as the de facto religion in a lot of America’s public schools. When schools act in secular ways, conservative evangelicals feel like they have been usurped, abused, mistreated.

Unlike other religious groups, conservative evangelicals feel like they were kicked out of public schools unfairly. It’s not that they actually are denied many of their rights as citizens. No, it’s more that they sometimes are treated like every other kind of citizen. Namely, they are welcome to express their religion in public schools, but they can no longer expect those schools to give their religion a special place.

When School Prayer Gets Creepy

It’s not because we don’t like conservative Christians. It’s not because we think Christianity is inherently bigoted. It’s not because we misunderstand SCOTUS precedent. But the more we hear this evangelical school group talking, the more likely we are to hear creepy tones of Handmaid’s Tale takeover. I’m hoping there are plenty of evangelicals who agree.

SYATP phone

See You at the Pole, fine. But don’t “Claim My Campus” !

Here’s the latest: Today is See You at the Pole day. That means K-12 students nationwide are encouraged to meet at their schools’ flagpoles to share a prayer.

So far, so good. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with students praying in schools. Teachers, too, as long as they don’t try to impose their religious views on their students.

The problem only comes when the organizers keep talking. The organization in charge partnered with another group to spread the word. This associated group declares its goal to spread prayer groups to every single school in the USA.

Nothing wrong with that, either. The problem only peeks through when we see the name of the sponsoring organization. It’s not “Pray If You Want.” It’s not “We Pray, Okay?” No, the name of the organization is “Claim Your Campus.”

Do we need to spell it out? Non-evangelical people—and I’m guessing most evangelicals, too—don’t want prayer groups to claim our campus! We want them to participate, sure. We want them to feel at home, of course. But we wish that Claim Your Campus and other evangelical groups would realize that they don’t have a right to CLAIM anything.

When the Saints Come Backtracking In

Bibles in schools, yes. Anti-LGBTQ sentiment, no. That was the combo pleaded last week by NFL quarterback Drew Brees. To this reporter, the most important question is not about Bibles in schools or Brees’s personal attitudes, but rather about the status of anti-LGBTQ organizations among other conservative evangelicals. Can anti-LGBTQ groups claim much support at all?

Here’s the story: Brees recently recorded a promo video for “Bring Your Bible to School Day.” In the short little clip, Brees tells kids what his favorite Bible verse is, then says,

I want to encourage you to live out your faith on Bring Your Bible to School Day and share God’s love with friends.

So far, so good. But a few progressive New Orleanians tracked down the sponsor of Brees’s video and accused Brees of sharing the anti-LGBTQ animus of Focus on the Family. Reporters asked Brees if he really was as anti-LGBTQ as FoF and he backed up faster than a [insert football-related sports analogy here.]

As Brees put it,

[My school-Bible video] was not promoting any group, certainly not promoting any group that is associated with that type of [anti-LGBTQ]] behavior. I know that there are, unfortunately, Christian organizations out there that are involved in that kind of thing, and to me that is totally against what being Christian is all about. Being Christian is love. It’s forgiveness, it’s respecting all, it’s accepting all.

There are a lot of things we could talk about. First, is it cool for kids to bring their Bibles to their secular public schools, hoping to “share God’s love with friends”? Absolutely. Religious kids in public schools are totally free to be as religious as they want, as long as they aren’t disruptive of school procedures.

The only thing that is necessarily “secular” about public schools is the school’s administration itself. Teachers are no longer allowed to preach any religion, nor are they allowed to imply that some religions are better than others. Students, on the other hand, can do whatever they want—pray by the pole, preach during lunch, whatever. As long as the school doesn’t imply its support (like with the famous Kountze cheerleaders), religious kids can religion all they want in public schools. More power to em.

We could also wonder if Drew Brees were still as awesome as we thought. But then we’d remember the time on the Bear Grylls Show that Brees tackled an alligator.

Finally, we’d get down to the really important issue, from the ILYBYGTH point of view. Namely, this episode makes us wonder if Focus on the Family has really lost its base. If FoF no longer can claim the support even of conservative evangelical Christians like Drew Brees, whom can it appeal to? If evangelical celebrities like Brees won’t allow themselves to be associated with FoF, is there any hope for FoF?

If I were an anti-LGBTQ ministry like Focus or Answers In Genesis, I’d be doing some serious soul- (and Bible-) searching.

Christian America on the Ropes

You’ve heard about Project Blitz, the MAGA scheme to impose Christianity back on America. More polling evidence from the Harris folks this week shows how desperate such efforts are.

Harris bible classes

…people don’t really care about Christian America.

Here’s what we know: In a survey of just over 1,000 adults, Harris pollsters found that a mere 12% thought public schools should have kids read the Bible and not other religious books. By way of comparison, far more respondents (17%) didn’t have an opinion.

Historically speaking, those numbers are pretty astounding. It wasn’t that long ago that large numbers of public schools included devotional Bible reading as part of every school day. In 1960, just before SCOTUS ruled against devotional Bible-reading in public schools, 42% of public-school districts nationwide reported incorporating Bible-reading. The highest proportion was in the South (77%) and East (68%). In the Midwest (18%) and West (11%) the numbers were far lower.

So what? People like me might get anxious when we read the theocratic ambitions of regional politicians such as Indiana’s Dennis Kruse. We get nervous for our public institutions when we hear Kruse say things like,

I’m a Christian person and a religious person. . . . I think we need more Christianity and more religion in our society, in our state.

Trump bible tweetWe get even more skeeved when Trump tweets his support for school-Bible laws, as he did a few months back:

Numerous states introducing Bible Literacy classes, giving students the option of studying the Bible. Starting to make a turn back? Great!

In fact, though, the Blitzers, MAGists, and Trumpies who endorse such notions are not the vanguard of a vast right-wing army. Rather, they are the last snarls of a disappearing vision of the proper role of religion in America’s public square.

Buddhist Missionaries?

Is is just me? Or is this an unusual thing for everyone?

bible and buddha

A new thing? Or just another NYC quirk?

Here’s what  happened. I was minding my own business, getting ready for my Nerd Spring Break (NSB) at the New-York Historical Society (more about that later).

In my hotel room, in addition to the usual Gideon Bible, I found a copy of The Teaching of Buddha.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, the Gideon Bible has a long history, tightly intertwined with the history of American evangelicalism. As John Fea and other historians have described (including yours truly) Bible missionaries have long tried to get Bibles in people’s hands wherever possible.

Have Buddhists started doing the same thing? Is this a widespread missionary effort? Or is it just a NYC thing, like dogs in purses and grown men riding scooters?

What You Need to Know about: Yoga in Public Schools

The most recent case is enough to make anyone’s head spin. It involves a disgruntled former school administrator, yoga stretches, and community prayer rallies to help “Jesus to rid the school of Buddhism.” Sic.

yoga in sschools

Look out! Flying Buddhists!

Here’s what we know: This case has roots back to 2014, when Cobb County (Georgia) elementary principal Bonnie Cole introduced a yoga program into her school. Local parents protested. Cole was transferred and is now suing the district. She claims that pro-Christian religious influence unduly hurt her career.

Cole insisted that her use of yoga was not at all religious. She used it for purely secular reasons, to help students stay healthy and manage stress. The school already removed some religious elements of yoga practice. For instance, they didn’t allow students to say “Namaste” or press their hands to their hearts. Students were also not allowed to color mandalas.

In this case, though, the specific lawsuit isn’t about whether or not yoga is a religious practice. Rather, it is about whether or not Christian protesters exerted undue religious influence on the school to ban yoga. Principal Cole explains that parents would press their hands up against her office window to put prayer-pressure on her to stop teaching yoga. And in this case, that Christian influence is the legal issue, not the notion of yoga as a religion (or not).

Clear as mud!

In an effort to clear up some of the religion-in-school fog, we’ve dug through our ILYGYBTH archives for relevant background material. Here’s some earlier coverage you might find interesting:

wellness programs are likely the next theater of battle in our ongoing but evolving educational culture wars… in which the earnest claim of the Encinitas superintendent that “it is just physical activity” sounds ever more naïve.

  • In that Encinitas case, Professor Candy Gunther Brown of Indiana University thought the judge goofed. As we observed at the time, Prof. Brown thought that certain forms of yoga practices—and certain deep-pocketed devotees—insisted that yoga practice would “automatically” lead people to god, “whether they want it or not.”
  • The controversy over yoga as a religious practice in school is nothing new. As far back as the 1970s, religious conservatives—Christian ones—were protesting against such “religious indoctrination” in public schools.
  • Last but not least, evangelical Christians are divided over the religious implications of yoga. As we noted, some think the practice can be done in purely secular fashion, one acceptable for public schools. Others disagree.

Of course, none of this helps us sort out this most recent case from Georgia. Legally, after all, the religious nature (or not) of yoga is not in dispute. Bonnie Cole accuses the school district of succumbing unfairly to Christian pressure. Of course, underneath that complaint festers the unanswered question of yoga’s religious nature.

Under current rules, if yoga constitutes religious practice, it shouldn’t be taught by teachers in public schools. It could be taught about, of course, but yoga classes actually engage students in yoga practice. On the other hand, if yoga is done as a secular pursuit for purely secular reasons, it would be okay for public schools. However, in that case, religious devotees of yoga would likely complain—with good reason, IMHO—that the school districts were unfairly appropriating their religious practice and mutilating it into something it shouldn’t be.

Just another example of the ways nobody knows quite what to do about religion in public schools!