Teaching the Bible, Texas Style

A new report from the Texas Freedom Network warns that some public schools in Texas are teaching religion.  Not all religions, but the Bible-loving, apocalypse-watching, evolution-denying type of conservative evangelical Protestantism.

How do these public schools justify it?  According to the TFN report, public schools fold these sectarian doctrines into their Bible courses.  Public-school courses about the Bible are explicitly constitutional.  US Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark made very clear in his majority opinion in Abington Township v. Schempp (1963) that public schools can teach the Bible, if they did so in a non-devotional way.  As Clark specified,

“Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.”

However, the TFN report argues that many of the Texas school districts are using Bible classes to teach religious doctrine, including the notion that the Bible demands a young earth.  The report’s author, Mark A. Chancey of Southern Methodist University, reports that the courses are generally poorly taught, with low academic rigor, by underprepared teachers.

Professor Chancey includes excerpts from some of the teaching materials.  In the Dalhart Independent School District, for example, one student information sheet included the following information:

“Since God is perfect and infallible, an inspired book is absolutely infallible and errorless in its facts and doctrines as presented in the original manuscript” (pg. 28).

In the Bible courses of Lazbuddie, Texas, students will read the following:

“We should have an understanding of what happened in Noah’s day if we are to know when the coming of our Lord is near.  What are the similarities between the days of Noah and the days preceding the coming of Jesus Christ (Matthew 24:37-39)?” (pg. 32)

In Dayton schools, students watch the Left Behind movie, fundamentalist author Tim LaHaye’s dramatization of the rapture and final days (pg. 19).

As Chancey points out, these doctrines are intensely sectarian.  They teach a specific interpretation of the Bible as eternally true.  Students in these public school classes would be told that the doctrines of conservative evangelical Protestantism are the correct and only interpretation of the Bible.

Are we shocked?

We shouldn’t be.

Here’s why not:

First of all, the numbers of schools and students involved is very small.  Professor Chancey found 57 districts plus three charter schools who taught Bible courses in 2011-2012, a small percentage of the 1037 districts in Texas.  Not all of these districts taught the Bible in such heavy-handed sectarian ways.  And of the districts that reported their student numbers, only three had more than fifty students enrolled in Bible class.  Six districts had fewer than five students in Bible (pg. 5).

Second, the practice of teaching sectarian religion in public-school Bible classes has a long and surprisingly uncontroversial history.  As I explored in my 1920s book, while public attention was focused on anti-evolution laws, between 1919 and 1931 eleven states quietly passed mandatory Bible-reading laws for public schools.

Finally, even after the anti-Bible SCOTUS ruling in 1963, many public schools simply continued the practice.  As political scientists Kenneth Dolbeare and Philip Hammond found in their survey of schools in a Midwestern state, the Supreme Court rulings against public-school Bible reading made absolutely no difference in school practice.  Where students had read the Bible before, they continued to do so, without raising any controversy.

So Professor Chancey’s findings that a few students in a few public schools in Texas learn a sectarian interpretation of the Bible should come as no surprise.  As Chancey notes, similar Bible classes go on in several other states as well (pg. v).  Moreover, as political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer have convincingly argued, public school teachers usually teach ideas that are locally uncontroversial.  In some places, that means teaching creationism as science.  In others, it means teaching the Bible as history.

 

 

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School Shootings and the “Crime of ‘62”

Governor Mike Huckabee is not alone.

As we’ve noted, the former governor of Arkansas and prominent conservative radio personality denounced the lack of prayer and Bible-reading in public schools.  Such a-religiosity, Huckabee declared, must be part of the reason for last week’s terrible school shootings in Connecticut.

More recently, Bryan Fischer, public face of the conservative American Family Association, echoed Huckabee’s sentiments.  In this video posted by the watchdog group RightWingWatch, Fischer intoned, “Back when we had prayer, the Bible, the Ten Commandments in school, we did not need guns.”  In a follow-up article on the AFA website, Fischer offered similar explanations:

“The truth may be that God was made unwelcome and left. God submits himself to the law of faith, and will not go where he is not wanted. He will not force us to put with him if we don’t want him around. It may be that his protective presence is being removed from our land and from our schools because he has been told repeatedly that his protective presence is not wanted.

“We have, as a culture, systematically booted God from our public schools for over five decades.. In 1962, the Supreme Court issued a diktat that American schools could no longer seek his help and protection. In 1963, the Supreme Court issued a second diktat prohibiting the reading of his Word in our public schools. And in 1980, the Supreme Court issued a third diktat prohibiting the display or teaching of the Ten Commandments, God’s abiding and transcendent moral standard for human conduct.

“So God is no longer prayed to, his counsel is no longer sought and his standards are no longer respected. Is it any wonder that he might not be around when we need him? If we have spent 50 years telling him to get lost, it should not come as a surprise that we eventually begin to feel the absence of his powerful presence.”

Fischer’s evocation of 1962 as a major turning point in American culture is one that resonates deeply among conservative evangelical Protestants in the United States.

Yet among the broader culture, the year does not have the same dramatic power.  This was noticed by conservative evangelicals at the time, as well.

First of all, for evangelicals at the time, it was not 1962, but 1963 that was the real watershed.  In 1963, after all, the US Supreme Court’s decision in Abington Township School District v. Schempp ruled that public schools may not lead devotional Bible readings or teacher-led classroom prayers.

The similar but distinct 1962 decision, Engel v. Vitale, was actually welcomed by many evangelical leaders.  In that decision, SCOTUS ruled that the state could not impose an ecumenical state-written prayer on public schools.

As I argue in my recent article in the Journal of Religious History, evangelical intellectuals at the time could not understand the widespread mainstream indifference to the US Supreme Court’s Schempp decision in 1963, especially when contrasted with the popular uproar that met 1962’s Engel decision.  The article is subscription-only, but here is a small snippet:

“A Moody Monthly poll of evangelical editors in early 1964 found that they considered the Schempp decision the most important event of 1963, outranking the year’s civil-rights activism and Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in importance to American culture and society.[i]  Yet compared to the popular outrage against the Engel decision, the Schempp decision caused less public protest.[ii]  As the editors of Christianity Today noted in the aftermath of the Schempp decision, ‘Why church leaders and the public at large took the broader 1963 decision more calmly deserves nomination for the mystery of the year.’”[iii]

It is difficult to know what to say in the wake of an event like the recent school shootings.  The public remarks of prominent conservative Christians such as Governor Huckabee and Bryan Fischer demonstrate the deeply held feelings among many Americans that the SCOTUS decisions of 1962 and 1963 put America on a woeful path.  Public schools, many feel, must embody the religious traditions of the nation.  Not only as history or literature, but as guideposts for morality and prayer life.

As Fischer’s comments illustrate, it is not the specifics of the SCOTUS decisions of 1962 and 1963 that matter to conservatives, but the notion that mainstream America has turned its back on God by kicking God out of public schools.


[i] “Report: The Month’s Worldwide News in brief,” Moody Monthly 64 (January 1964): 8.

[ii] Donald E. Boles, The Two Swords: Commentaries and Cases in Religion and Education (Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, 1967), 111-112.

 [iii]  “Compliance, Defiance, and Confusion,” Christianity Today 8 (11 October 1963): 34.

School Shooting? Blame the Supreme Court

Is the US Supreme Court responsible for the recent horrific shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut?

That is the implication made by Mike Huckabee, conservative radio personality, former Governor of Arkansas, and occasional presidential candidate.  Huckabee told Fox News that school violence could be prevented by letting God back into public schools.

Asked by reporter Neil Cavuto how God could allow such a tragedy, Huckabee responded,

“We ask why there’s violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage? Because we’ve made it a place where we don’t want to talk about eternity, life, what responsibility means, accountability. That we’re not just going to have to be accountable to the police if they catch us, but one day we stand before a holy God in judgment. If we don’t believe that, then we don’t fear that. . . . Maybe we ought to let (God) in on the front end and we wouldn’t have to call him to show up when it’s all said and done at the back end.”

As I argued recently in an article in the Journal of Religious History, this argument has been a standard theme among conservative evangelical Protestants since SCOTUS’ 1963 Schempp decision.  The journal is subscription-only, but the essence of my argument is as follows:

many religious Americans, far beyond the ranks of evangelical Protestants, concluded that the Court had kicked God out of public schools.  Unlike other religious Americans, however, evangelicals had long had special influence over public education.  These Court decisions had a unique impact on evangelical attitudes because evangelicals had harbored an implicit trust in their own unique role in public education.  When the Supreme Court ruled that evangelical staples such as recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and reading from the Bible could no longer be performed in public schools, it forced evangelicals to an unexpected grappling with their wider relationship to American society.  Not only did the Court decisions kick God out of public schools, in other words, but it effectively kicked evangelicals out of the American mainstream.  

            As a result, evangelicals shifted from feeling part of a politically invulnerable religious majority to feeling themselves part of a put-upon minority. This dramatic and relatively sudden change in evangelical sentiment had important results.  For decades, politicians and politically minded preachers attracted evangelical support by articulating these new minority sentiments.  Jerry Falwell, for example, organized the significantly named Moral Majority as an effort to represent the values of conservative Fundamentalists, whom Falwell called “the largest minority bloc in the United States.”[i]  Similarly, in a stump speech in early 1984, Ronald Reagan played to the sensibilities of evangelical voters when he condemned “God’s expulsion” from public schools.[ii] 

Could a more robust religious curriculum in America’s public schools have deterred the school shooter in this case?  That does not seem to fit the facts.  However, Governor Huckabee has articulated a notion that remains very common among some religious conservatives: Schools cannot teach without religion.


[i] George Vecsey, “Militant Television Preachers Try to Weld Fundamentalist Christians’ Political Power,” New York Times, January 21, 1980, A21.

[ii] Quoted in Catherine A. Lugg, For God and Country: Conservatism and American School Policy (New York: Peter Lang, 2000), 159.

CATCH-ing Up and Opting Out

ILYBYGTH reported yesterday on a new pilot program in New York City high schools.  The program, Connecting Adolescents to Comprehensive Health, or CATCH, will expand the district’s condom-distribution program to include birth control pills and “morning-after” pills.

This morning, we read Catholic League President Bill Donohue’s denunciation of this “imperial edict” in an interview in the Christian Post.  “Whenever it comes to sensitive issues such as sexuality, the government must  always play an ancillary role to that of parents,” Donohue told the CP. “The provision  that parents can opt out smacks of governmental arrogance and must be resisted:  the government has no business eclipsing parental rights.”

Bill Donohue as the Wild-Eyed Pope on South Park’s “Fantastic Easter Special”

I am usually no fan of

Bill Donohue.  I find myself siding more often with the South Park send-up of his public-morality campaigns.  But in this case, I find his criticism of CATCH more compelling than the lame defense offered by Chanel Caraway of the NYC Board of Health.  Since only 1-2% of parents had opted out of the program, Caraway told ABC News, “this suggests that parents are OK with the service being available to their children.”

Again, please don’t misunderstand.  I support the CATCH program and its goals.  I would want my daughter to be able to get free condoms and contraceptives at school if she couldn’t get them elsewhere.

However, Caraway’s opt-out argument demonstrates a frightening ignorance of America’s educational history.  In prominent cases such as Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Abington Township School District v. Schempp (1963), the US Supreme Court specifically concluded that “opt-out” provisions do not adequately respect families’ and children’s rights to be free of religious coercion.

As Justice Clark argued in his majority decision in Schempp, “Nor are these required exercises mitigated by the fact that individual students may absent themselves upon parental request, for that fact furnishes no defense to a claim of unconstitutionality under the Establishment Clause.”

I understand that this is a very different case.  Clark referred to the unconstitutionality of school-sponsored prayer.  It did not matter whether or not parents could opt out if the program defied Constitutional freedoms.  However, issues of sexuality are intimately connected to religious values for many students and families.  Could not a Bill Donohue argue that such state-imposed sexuality–even with an opt-out provision–denied some students their Constitutional right to free exercise of religion?  To assume that an opt-out clause defuses any potential complaint from conservative religious families seems ignorant at best, and, as Donohue put it, “imperial” at worst.

Required Reading: Kicking God Out of Public Schools

We have looked recently at the effects on Fundamentalist America of the US Supreme Court’s rulings in 1962 and 1963.  These decisions ruled against the use of state-sponsored prayer and school-led religious devotions and Bible reading in public schools.  As any observer of Fundamentalist America is aware, many conservatives pinpoint these events as the date when God was “kicked out” of American public schoolsAs we’ve noted, the historical reality was much more complex.

Happily, those interested in these questions now have a promising new book to help them muddle through the mishmash of Constitutional, cultural, educational, and devotional questions raised by this thorny issue.  At Religion & Politics, Michael Waggoner has offered a thoughtful review of Steven Green’s newish The Bible, the School, and the Constitution: The Clash That Shaped Modern Church-State Doctrine (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

Waggoner, a scholar of higher education at the University of Northern Iowa and editor of the academic journal Religion and Education, concludes that the most significant contribution of Green’s book is that it moves the discussion away from the 1960s and back to their proper arena: the 1860s.  As Waggoner notes,

“while many Americans believed in 1962—and continue to believe today—that the crisis over the proper relationship between religion and public education arose full blown in the chambers of the Supreme Court, in fact these changes were a century in the making.”

In Green’s telling, the significant struggle over the role of religion and public education took place in the second half of the 19th century.  The linchpin, Green argues in his third chapter, was not only the US Supreme Court’s 1962’s Engel and 1963’s Schempp rulings, but the Ohio Supreme Court’s 1870 Board of Education of Cincinnati v. Minor.*  In that case, the culmination of Cincinnati’s angry “Bible Wars,” the school board successfully defended its decision to remove the reading of the King James Bible from public schools.  The first plaintiffs, John D. Minor and a group of concerned citizens, complained that such a removal was illegal, impractical, and immoral.  One of their reasons was that “large numbers [of city school children] receive no religious instruction or knowledge of the Holy Bible, except that communicated as aforesaid in said schools.”

As Green argues, this case and the cultural controversies that accompanied it nationwide laid the groundwork for the Court decisions of the 1960s.  The “culture wars” of the 1860s and 70s demonstrated the nation’s growing unease with traditional Protestant domination of public life.  Minor’s argument that children would not learn about the Bible if not in public schools did not win over the justices of the Ohio Supreme Court.  Not only that, as Green details, activists who sought to marshal the forces of traditionalism soon realized they faced a fundamentally different political and cultural environment.  A coalition of Protestant ministers first proposed a “Christian Amendment.”  They hoped to answer Cincinnati’s anti-Bible ordinance with a change to the US Constitution clarifying the government’s role in promoting religion.  More successful was the Blaine Amendment.  Largely a move to isolate Catholic schools, Congressman James Blaine proposed an amendment that would clarify: public funds must never support religious schools.

Green’s book will not likely satisfy the critics who insist that God was kicked out of public schools in the 1960s.  But for those of us hoping to understand the long cultural conversation about the changing role of religion in the public square, Green’s book is a great new resource.

* A nerdy detail: as with “Schempp” and “Engel,” this case is usually incorrectly described as Minor v. Board of Education.  That was indeed the name of the original 1869 Cincinnati case that sought to get the Bible back into Cincinatti schools.  However, the Ohio Supreme Court case in 1870 was actually an appeal by the Board of Education against John Minor, thus Board of Education of Cincinnati v. Minor.

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.

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?

In the News: Public Schools and Public Christianity

Yesterday’s New York Times ran an article “exposing” the strong role played in some public schools by Biblical Christianity.

The article describes the evangelistic activities condoned and even promoted by several public schools.  At one school, a performer/evangelist bragged that hundreds of middle-schoolers had embraced the Gospel at an in-school rally.  You can still find his promo video of the event on Youtube.  At another school, a teacher preached the Gospel through a bullhorn as students arrived for school.  In another school district, teachers and administrators led a prayer service before a high-stakes standardized test.

It’s worth reading the article, especially for those who share the perspective of the article’s author that these questions of public Christianity in public schools had been settled since the mid-1960s.  Of course, more careful students of the culture wars will be able to point out a few problems with the article’s interpretation.

For one thing, the notion that these issues had somehow been settled with a couple of high-profile US Supreme Court cases is far too simple.  Those cases–Engel v. Vitale in 1962 and Abington School District v. Schempp in 1963–insisted that public schools could not mandate a prayer, have students read the Bible, nor have teachers lead students in the Lord’s Prayer, even if students could be excused.

As Kenneth M. Dolbeare and Phillip E. Hammond demostrated convincingly in 1971, those decisions often had neglible effect on actual policy and practice in real public schools.  These two political scientists studied five towns in the pseudonymous midwestern state of “Midway,” and they found that school practice after the Engel and Schempp decisions continued largely as before.  In schools where teachers and students had been praying and reading the Bible, they kept on doing it.  More surprising for the authors of the study, this utter evasion of the Court’s intent raised absolutely no controversy in any of the towns.

More careful students of the history of the struggle over the role of conservative Biblical Christianity in the public square will also likely wince at the author’s use of geographic stereotypes.  The author reports that these demonstrations of public Christianity remained powerful “in some corners of the country, especially in the rural South.”  This has long been the oversimplistic cultural geographic stereotype of fundamentalism.  In this case, it is puzzling that a careful journalist would still fall into this misleading stereotype.  After all, the article itself describes one of its cases from Baltimore, Maryland.  It defies even the simplest common sense to lump this major metropolitan area in with others as being some kind of backward corner of the country.

The notion that these “corners of the country” are the strongholds of Biblical Christianity largely results, in my opinion, from the idea that only those areas in which Biblical Christianity remains utterly dominant in the public sphere are important to this discussion.  Evidence piles up, though, that such conflicts over the role of conservative Christianity in public schools map much more completely over the rest of the country, including the North, the West, and in large cities.  Allow me to use a couple of examples.  In one of my first teaching jobs, in St. Louis, I worked briefly in a pretty rough public high school.  The student body was mostly from low-income families.  Students, faculty, and administration were all almost entirely African American.  I was surprised to find out that most of the teachers began their classes with a Bible verse and prayer.  It did not seem to be a controversial thing.  Students and faculty took it as the norm.   Beyond just my personal experience, more careful surveys of traditional religiosity in public schools have found that the stereotypical imagined geography of schools in the rural South as being the most congenial homes of public Christianity don’t hold up.  R.B. Dierenfeld, for instance, conducted surveys of public school religious practice, and found Bible reading the most prevalent in public schools in large cities.  It was equally strong in the Northeast and Southeast, and faded away in the West.

One final point: the tone of  the article’s author tended toward the incredulous.  The author seemed surprised that people “still” prayed in public schools.  The evangelists, on the other hand, seemed fully aware that they were evangelizing on hostile terrain.  Christian Chapman, along with one school’s principal, specifically hoped to reach students in purportedly “Godless” public schools, even if it meant the end of the principal’s career.  As Chapman suggested in the NYT article, students in public schools heard the hostile message of “evolution” every day.  Why shouldn’t they hear from the other side?
These days, this kind of discrepancy seems common.  Secular and pluralistic types often assume that religion has been banished from the public square.  Those battling to get more Jesus into public schools seem fully conscious that their mission has become subversive.

FURTHER READING: Kenneth M. Dolbeare and Phillip E. Hammond, The School Prayer Decisions: From Court Policy to Local Practice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971); R. B. Dierenfield, Religion in American Public Schools (Washington: Public Affairs Press, 1962).