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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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).