What Does School Look Like in Christian America?

Talking about education in general is like talking about sex in general. There are a few things that are usually true, but it’s only interesting once you get down to specific cases. A recent article in the Kokomo [Indiana] Tribune gives us a look at the way evangelical Christianity still dominates the public schools of Greenwood, Indiana. As tempting as it might be for pundits to say that the Supreme Court kicked God out of public schools in 1963, in reality God is still very much a fact of life in many American schools.

We need to remember, though, that this is not simply a time warp. A public school run by conservative evangelical Protestants today is profoundly different from the way that kind of school would have been fifty years ago, or a hundred years ago.

In Greenwood, it seems, the public schools are not just friendly to evangelical Protestantism. They are dominated by it. The Bible class, for example, is taught by the gregarious and popular Peter Heck. As the article notes, there is absolutely nothing wrong with teaching classes about the Bible in public schools. Constitutionally, the courses need to be taught about the Bible as an historical and literary document. They should not be taught devotionally, as a way for students to deepen their Christian faith.

What the Heck is going on here?

What the Heck is going on here?

Heck’s class seems to do the latter. On the day the reporter went in to observe, students were learning how to use the Book of Judges to consider ways that God could use anyone to accomplish His goals. The watchdog group Americans for the Separation of Church and State charged that Heck’s conservative religion influenced the message in his classroom. On his radio show, Heck blasted President Obama and articulated his support for the conservative group American Family Association.

If Heck allowed his conservative Christian activism to influence his teaching, he was not the only one. Karol Evenson told the Kokomo Tribune that she used the school’s Christmas pageant to help spread the Gospel. When she’s teaching about the birth of Christ, Evenson told the newspaper,

I just get real passionate about that when I’m teaching it, so it allows me to share things. A lot of times, I tell the kids, ‘I’m not asking you to believe, I’m hoping that you do and that you will, but I’m trying to get you to feel the music and what we’re singing about.’ A lot of the kids here do believe it, so when they are singing those pieces, it’s such a blessing for me.

At the highest levels, too, the district supports this sort of religious infusion in the classroom. Superintendent Tracy Caddell denied that the Greenwood schools taught any religious doctrine. But he admitted that he saw the teaching staff as

a community of Christians who also are teachers and educators, and I don’t think any of us leave our faith at the door because the bell rings. . . . Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior and that doesn’t stop just because the school bell rings. . . . As a leader, I’m hoping that we’re promoting what people would call Christian values. However, we’re not promoting or teaching Christian doctrine. There’s a big difference.

As Professor Mark Chancey found in his study of Bible classes in Texas, this sort of attitude is not uncommon in America’s public schools. Nor is this new. In the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision in Abington v. Schempp (1963), in which prayer and Bible reading had supposedly been ruled unconstitutional in American public schools, political scientists Kenneth Dolbeare and Phillip Hammond found that many schools simply continued with their traditional prayers.

Depending on where you go to school, it seems, you might just get a dose of religion as part of your public-school day. Yet things have changed in the past fifty years. Back in 1963, I doubt the teachers and superintendents in towns like Greenwood would bother to say that they did not teach Christian doctrine. Back then, it is likely that a school like Greenwood High would not think twice about teaching Christian values.

Does that matter? I think it does. Fifty years ago, in places like Greenwood, the Bible teacher would not have the same pugnacious spirit as Peter Heck has today. On his radio show, it seems, Heck not only speaks from the perspective of a conservative evangelical Protestant, but assumes that his values are under attack. In his first book, Heck argues that “Christians Can Save America.”

Similarly, Greenwood’s superintendent acknowledged that his district flouted some of the norms of today’s secular culture. “Over time,” Superintendent Caddell told the Kokomo reporter,

we’ve gotten so worried about political correctness in this country that people have not had the opportunity to feel comfortable being a Christian in a public school. I think that’s sad, because that’s who you are.

The conservative Christians running public schools in Greenwood, Indiana—like Christians who do similar things in other American schools—are not simply trapped in the past. As I argue in my new book, in order to understand American education, we need to understand the ways conservative attitudes have shifted over the generations.

In Greenwood, at least, conservative school leaders understand that they are doing something outside of the norms. They just disagree with those norms.

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