In School We Trust

Why do conservatives want to put “In God We Trust” banners in public schools? So far, six states have okayed the plan and Kentucky has just entertained a bill to join the list. Why? After all, conservative religious people have the MOST to lose if public schools ditch their fifty-year-old goal of secularism.

in god we trust

Why do conservatives want to trust salvation to the government?

The laws mandating or allowing the display of “In God We Trust” banners are the fruit of a push by the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation. The CPCF has offered a list of model bills for state lawmakers to consider, with “In God We Trust” school banners at the top of the list.

Why does the CPCF want to put up this banner in public schools? The CPCF insists that the United States must “protect religious liberties” and remain a religious nation. As their promotional video proclaims,

We need this kind of revival of people turning back to God . . . . “In God We Trust.”. . .  it’s an American thing. . . . let’s again write “In God We Trust” on our buildings, in our classrooms, to combat the anti-God dismantling of our nation.

I understand why certain religious conservatives want to see more proclamations of religious faith in public spaces. But I don’t understand why more conservative intellectuals don’t step up to explain the anti-religious implications of these governmental efforts.

After all, back in 1962 when the US Supreme Court ruled that public schools could not impose a vague prayer on schoolchildren, conservative evangelical intellectuals celebrated the decision. I’ve written more about this history in an academic article, but in brief, conservatives were delighted that the government would not be allowed to force children to pray a bad prayer.

In that SCOTUS case, New York schools had been leading children in this blah prayer:

Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence on Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our Country.

To conservative religious thinkers, the idea that a mere government entity could teach children that this was an acceptable prayer was horrific. William Culbertson of Chicago’s conservative Moody Bible Institute commented,

The public as a whole and Christians who sense the necessity for safeguarding freedom of worship in the future are always indebted to the Court for protection in this important area.

Where are today’s conservative Culbertsons? Where are the conservative leaders pleading with politicians to avoid stepping on their religious toes? To avoid replacing real, heartfelt, meaningful religious expression with state-friendly, patriotic, bland platitudes? After all, as Culbertson and his conservative colleagues recognized, it is people who care the most about religion who have the most to lose if public schools cram ANY religion down children’s throats.

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Time to Pray at School!

It’s that time of year again. Time for students to gather together in their public schools and pray. You heard that right: School prayer is alive and well. In this case, it’s almost the fourth Wednesday of September, which has been set aside as a day for evangelical students to meet at their schools’ flagpoles to pray. This tradition started in 1990, and a San-Diego-based group has promoted the practice nationwide. Is this sort of school prayer constitutional? Even more tricky, are conservative evangelicals consciously pushing the limits of constitutionality with this kind of prayer event?

Let’s take those questions one at a time. Is this sort of student-led prayer constitutional in public schools? Short answer: yes. In spite of a great deal of nervousness among evangelical Protestants and other religious groups, the US Supreme Court’s 1962 Engel decision and its 1963 Schempp decision never outlawed prayer in public schools. The first decision ruled that states could not impose a prayer on students, the second that schools and teachers could not lead students in devotional Bible-reading or prayers. But students still may pray all they want in public schools.

The issues get more complicated these days over the question of school sponsorship. Most recently, SCOTUS ruled against student-led prayer in Santa Fe v. John Doe (2000). In that case, though, the Court did not rule that students couldn’t pray. They only said that the type of student-led prayer at issue implied school sponsorship. Students in Santa Fe public schools would use the school’s PA system to lead prayers before football games. Those prayers were always of an evangelical Protestant faith. The court ruled that such prayers implied school sponsorship of one specific sectarian vision of religion.

As ILYBYGTH readers may recall, the issue of school sponsorship has also been at the center of recent cheerleader debates from Kountze, Texas. It can seem a little perplexing. Down in Kountze, the Christian cheerleaders insisted that they were a private, student-led club. But objectors insist that their presence at the school games implies school support for their religious banners.

Student-led?  Or school-sponsored?

Student-led? Or school-sponsored?

What about See You at the Pole? Does it pass the Santa Fe test? Most observers agree that it does. Watchdog groups such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State have noted that students are free to pray all they want, as long as teachers and school officials don’t encourage or discourage student participation.

To this observer, though, it looks as if the organizers of See You at the Pole are intentionally pushing the boundaries of constitutionality. This year’s theme, for example, is Ephesians 6:18a: “Never stop praying, especially for others.” And promotional materials this year show students vowing, “We’ll never stop.”

It might just be my yen for pluralism and inclusion in public schools, but it seems to me as if this language is consciously tweaking the nose of our school-prayer tradition. As I argued a few years back (behind a paywall, sorry), many conservative evangelicals interpreted the 1963 Schempp decision as a constitutional cataclysm. They viewed the decision as evidence that our society had turned its back on God.

When an evangelical group promises, then, that they’ll “never stop,” we can’t help hearing a sort of promise that they will never accept the notion of pluralist schools. When students insist that they will be praying for others, we can’t help hearing a sort of promise that they will turn their public schools into revival meetings.

After all, among some conservatives, there has long been a drive to re-assert evangelicalism as the implicit theology of public education. For example, evangelists Brad and Susanne Dacus published a handy-dandy guidebook to “Reclaim Your School.” Writing from the Pacific Justice Institute, the Dacuses promised to help readers “evangelizing in the public schools.”

It seems to me as if the SYATP project wants students to do more than simply pray at their schools. The implicit promise is that these students will commit to preaching to other students in their schools. As national organizer Doug Clark told the Christian Post, the event helps students “represent [God] to their schools.”

To my ears, that sounds like more than just protection for the religious rights of students. It sounds to me like a plan to insert evangelical pressure into public schools. It sounds to me as if students are being encouraged to foster an environment in their public schools that might make non-evangelical or non-religious students feel decidedly unwelcome.

Is that my secular paranoia? Or do these SYATP events really encompass a sort of covert promise to reclaim public schools for public Christianity?

Conservatives: Keep Religion Out of Public Schools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

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: The Thunderbolt, Part I: Engel v. Vitale

Lots of fundamentalists feel that America has foolishly kicked God out of its public schools.  Try a simple Google search of “God kicked out of public school,” and you will find an endless collection of news alerts, opinion pieces, and videos from fundamentalists decrying the de-theized state of public education.

Many of these fundamentalist pundits insist that the start of the breakdown of public religion and morality was the US Supreme Court’s decision in 1962’s Engel v. Vitale.  In this case, the court ruled that New York State had no Constitutional authority to impose a short, bland, state-written prayer in its public schools.  The prayer mushed along in a no-man’s-land of interdenominationalism: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country.”

Due to both the blandness of this prayer and its imposition by state authorities, though, most leading Protestant evangelicals at the time SUPPORTED the court’s decision.  As opposed to later conservatives who locate the start of America’s public decline at the precise moment of the 1962 anti-prayer decision, the majority of conservative evangelical Protestants in 1962 thought the court had made the right decision.  As I argue in an article appearing soon in the Journal of Religious History, leading evangelical and fundamentalist intellectuals in 1962 showed surprising unanimity in their approval of Engel v. Vitale.

For example, William Culbertson of Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute praised the decision.  “The public as a whole,” Culbertson argued,

“and Christians who sense the necessity for safeguarding freedom of worship in the future are always indebted to the Court for protection in this important area.  On the other hand, the case raised the ominous question of whether any kind of non-sectarian prayer or acknowledgement of dependence on God would be upheld by the Court.”

The editors of Christianity Today agreed that much conservative reaction to Engel had been “ill-informed and intemperate.”  Similarly, the National Association of Evangelicals commended the court’s decision.  Even the separatist fundamentalist Carl McIntire, who would soon become the pointman for conservative Protestant school activism, told a US House of Representatives committee in 1964 that he had originally supported the 1962 decision.

Not every conservative Protestant intellectual supported the Engel ruling.  Samuel Sutherland, president of Biola University, attacked Engel as pandering to a “very small, loud-mouthed minority.”  The decision was a sign, Sutherland believed, that the US was becoming “an atheistic nation, no whit better than God-denying, God-defying Russia herself.”

These days, with the benefit of hindsight, most prominent fundamentalist voices agree with Sutherland.  But at the time, conservative Protestants of many different backgrounds thought the court had done the right thing.

Coming soon: Thunderbolt, Part II: Schempp and the de-theization of America’s public schools.

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).