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).