The Missionary Imposition in Our Public Schools

They’re out there. In spite of decades of talk about “Godless” public schools, there are plenty of Christian teachers who see their work as a missionary endeavor. That ain’t right, but conservative Christians aren’t the only ones to use public schools to spread religious ideas.

As a new cartoon from young-earth creationism ministry Answers In Genesis makes clear, lots of conservative Christians like the idea that public-school teachers will do their best to preach the Gospel as part of their jobs.

Heroic missionaries in our public schools?

Heroic missionaries in our public schools?

The creationists at AIG are certainly not alone in their celebration of public-school missionary work. At the conservative Christian Pacific Justice Institute, for example, Brad and Susanne Dacus encourage teachers to evangelize on the job. As Marc Fey of Focus on the Family writes about their work, it will help teachers spread the Gospel in “one of the greatest mission fields in our country today, our public schools.”

This sort of missionary vision for America’s public schools has a long history. Going back to the 1940s, groups such as Youth For Christ worked to get old-time religion into modern public schools. Beginning in 1945, as the idea of the “teenager” took on new cultural clout, YFC founder Torrey Johnson hoped to make YFC a group that would speak in the language of the new teen culture. As he explained to YFC missionaries, young people in the 1940s were

sick and tired of all this ‘boogie-woogie’ that has been going on, and all this ‘jitterbugging’—they want something that is REAL!

As early as 1949, YFC leaders such as Bob Cook argued that “high school Bible club work [was] the next great gospel frontier.” As he put it, YFC must aggressively evangelize among secular public high school students, since “atomic warfare will most certainly finish off millions of these youngsters before routine evangelism gets around to them.” By 1960, YFC claimed to have formed 3,600 school-based Bible clubs in the United States and Canada.

By 1962, these ad-hoc Bible clubs had been organized into a YFC program known as “Campus Life.” Campus Life included two main components, outreach to non-evangelical students and ministry to evangelical students.

In order to engage in this public school evangelism, national YFC leaders told local activists they must “invade the world where non-Christian kids are.” As an operations manual for Campus Life leaders warned its readers, their first entry into that hostile territory could be frightening. It described common feelings among YFC evangelists on their first approach to a public high school:

There it looms—a huge, humming, hostile high school. Hundreds, thousands of students, a professional corps of teachers and administrators, all busily turning the wheels of secular education.

To you, it’s a mission field. It has masses of kids who need spiritual help, even though most of them don’t know it. You and the Lord have decided to invade that field through the strategy called Campus Life.

This missionary attitude about public schools has also had a long and checkered history among creationists. Writing in 1991, for example, Henry Morris of the Institute for Creation Research called public schools “the most strategically important mission field in the world.”

As have other conservative Christians and creationists, the ICR repeatedly described public schools as unfairly biased against Christianity. As Henry Morris’s son and intellectual heir John D. Morris put it, “today’s public high schools and state universities are confrontational to the creationist student.” Aggressively secular teachers, John Morris warned, “take it upon themselves to ridicule Christianity and belittle and intimidate creationist students.”

Throughout the 1980s, ICR writers described the double impact of their missionary work in public schools. First, it would protect creationist kids from secularist hostility. Second, it could bring the Gospel message of creationism to students who would not hear it elsewhere. Missionary teachers had a unique opportunity. In 1989, one ICR writer explained it this way: “As a teacher,” he wrote, “you are a unique minister of ‘light.’ Your work will ‘salt’ the education process.” Similarly, in 1990 John Morris argued that the greatest hope for a decrepit and dangerous public school system lay with “Christian teachers who consider their jobs a mission field and a Christian calling.”

Every once in a while, you’ll hear young-earth creationist activists insist that they do not want to push creationism into public schools. But they certainly do want to make room for creationism. They hope to use public schools as a “mission field” to spread their Gospel.

They shouldn’t. But before we get too angry about it, we need to reflect on what this really means for our creation/evolution debates.

To folks like me, the most important value of public education is that it is welcoming to all students and families. It should not push religious values upon its students. It should not even imply that one sort of belief is proper and others are not.

As my co-author Harvey Siegel and I argue in our upcoming book (available in February!), the goal of science education must not be to indoctrinate children into any sort of belief about human origins.

Modern evolutionary science is currently our best scientific explanation of the history of human life. Therefore, we need to teach it in science class, unadulterated with creationist notions of design or supernatural intervention.

But too often, the implied goal is to free students from the shackles of their outdated religious ideas. Too often, the goal of evolution education is to change student belief about natural and supernatural phenomena. Progressive teachers like me sometimes slide into an aggressive ambition to help students see the world as it really is.

We shouldn’t. Not if students have religious reasons for believing otherwise. As I’ve argued at more length in the pages of Reports of the National Center for Science Education, too often evolution educators make the same mistaken “Missionary Supposition” that has tarnished conservative Christianity.

Are creationists in the wrong when they use public schools as a “mission field?” Definitely.

But they are not wrong because their religion is wrong.

They are wrong because public schools by definition must remain aggressively pluralist. They must welcome people of all religious faiths, and of none. In order for evolution education to move forward, we must all remember that public schools can’t promote any particular idea about religion, even the religious idea that young-earth creationism is silly.

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Teachers, Tests, and Gay Marriage

Quick: What do high-stakes tests have to do with gay marriage? Michael Petrilli argues that teachers who discourage students from taking the tests are like government officials who refuse to issue same-sex marriage certificates. Whether you like his argument or not, Petrilli is drawing on a long but ambivalent American tradition.

By now you’ve heard of Kim Davis. She is the county clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky. She has attracted national attention with her refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Heroically flouting the Constitution?

Heroically flouting the Constitution?

Petrilli, in many ways the leading public voice of market conservatism in education, implies that progressives might not want to be so quick to condemn Davis’s pugnacious policy. After all, Petrilli writes, many progressive teachers these days encourage parents to opt-out of high-stakes tests. Are those teachers similar to Davis? Petrilli asks,

Here the question isn’t whether parents have a right to excuse their children from taking the state assessment. (They almost certainly do.) The issue is whether educators can face sanctions for encouraging parents to engage in an act of civil disobedience. Is that akin to refusing to give the test (which surely is reason for dismissal)? What if they merely inform parents of their rights?

As I argued in my recent book, this argument about the role of teachers has long roots. When it comes to educational culture wars, the winds have blown both ways. When conservatives felt that school law enforced their side, they insisted teachers must obey. When they felt otherwise, they lauded brave teachers who resisted.

Back in the 1920s, for example, William Jennings Bryan knew he had popular opinion on his side. He refused to allow teachers to teach evolution against the wishes of their local communities. As Jennings famously argued back then, “The hand that writes the paycheck rules the school.”

Similarly, when left-leaning teachers from the 1930s through the 1950s were thought to be too friendly to communism, conservative activists insisted on teacher obedience. In 1950s Pasadena, for instance, conservative leader Louise Padelford blasted progressive teachers who sought to drill suggestible students in the need for “social change,” rather than simply teaching “reading, writing, spelling, grammar, arithmetic, history, etc.”

When the shoe is on the other foot, of course, conservatives have praised teachers for bravely resisting the dictates of educational higher-ups. Writing from the Pacific Justice Institute, for instance, Brad and Susanne Dacus have offered teachers a handy guide for safely and legally evangelizing in public schools. Too many teachers, the Dacuses warn, cower before the seemingly invincible might of secularism. “Would you be willing,” they ask,

to take a stand for the sake of the young, innocent children who are bombarded by a pro-homosexual agenda? As a parent, would you be willing to stand up for your child’s right to express his religious views? Many are timid about standing by the Word of God when it has the potential to create a ruckus. Reading through the Gospels reminds us that Christ was not afraid to make a ruckus in the name of truth. The New Testament, especially the book of Acts, focuses on the apostles’ goal to take a stand for the Gospel, regardless of the circumstances. We are not alone in this challenge. Be reminded of the verse in Joshua, which says,

“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you, wherever you go.”

To be fair, Petrilli will have none of this argument. He specifically notes, for instance, that public-school science teachers have a responsibility to teach evolution—and only evolution—as science. If they don’t like it, they can resign.

Petrilli’s argument, like those of other conservative activists going back a hundred years, relies on the fact that we Americans aren’t quite sure of what we want teachers to do.

Do we expect teachers to be brave rule-flouters, a la Dead Poets Society?

Or instead to we insist that teachers embody “the rules,” a la Principal Skinner?

The correct answer, of course, is “Yes.” We Americans expect the impossible of our teachers. We count on them to be both daring iconoclasts and sober rule-followers. We depend on them to encourage students to wonder and to inhibit students from wiggling.

So is Michael Petrilli right? Are dissenting teachers like dissenting county clerks? Only half. In the American tradition, teachers do indeed have to embody the rules and respect for the rules. But teachers also have to embody the right moral decisions, even when those decisions go against the rules.

Firing Creationist Scientists

HT: AT

Can a scientist be fired for simply being a creationist? Or for teaching what Glenn Branch has called “zombie science?” In contrast to what sharp-tongued activists on both sides may say, the answer is not at all clear. The case of Mark Armitage in the California State University system brings these questions back to the fore.

Armitage, a microscopist formerly at Cal State Northridge, is suing his former employer for wrongful termination. Armitage had discovered some soft-tissue residue in a fossil from a Triceratops horn. Like many young-earth creationists, he took this as proof that the fossil layer was thousands of years old, not millions.

Though he left his creationist conclusions out of his peer-reviewed publications about the fossil, he did not leave those conclusions out of conversations with students. And, though Nature magazine could not get a satisfying answer from Cal State Northridge, it seems those conversations were the problem. Armitage was not accused of doing a bad job as a microscopist. That’s why he’s suing.

Armitage complains that he was fired for his religious beliefs. According to Armitage, he had always been open and forthcoming with his colleagues about his religious beliefs. He had always been praised for his work in the microscope labs. But he had also been open and forthright in sharing his views with students. And that seems to have been the problem. After one such conversation, Armitage claims that the department chair of biology “stormed” into Armitage’s microscope lab and roared, “We are not going to tolerate your religion in this department!!”

Does Armitage have a case? Can a public university fire a scientist for being a creationist? Or for teaching students creationism?

It seems as if it would be easier to decide these issues at the K-12 level, but the case of John Freshwater demonstrates how complicated it can be even there. Freshwater was an Ohio middle-school teacher fired for teaching creationism in a public-school science class. Freshwater hoped to appeal the case all the way to the Supreme Court. He didn’t make it, but the lower courts didn’t give us the satisfying precedent we might hope for. The Ohio Supreme Court avoided any decision about Freshwater’s constitutional right to his religious and academic views. Instead, the Ohio court decided against him due to his insubordination.

When it comes to teaching creationism in public higher ed, the case is even more fudgy. Consider the case of Emerson McMullen at Georgia Southern University. McMullen attracted negative attention from the Freedom From Religion Foundation for his blatant preaching of creationist religion in his history of science classes. The FFRF asked GSU to discipline McMullen, but the issue raises difficult questions of academic freedom. Even staunch anti-creationists such as PZ Myers and Larry Moran worry about this kind of college crackdown on creationists.

Even more confounding, the federal government does not seem to have any qualms about employing young-earth creationists as scientists. As we noted a while back, Douglas Bennett and Brent Carter worked for decades as geologists for the US Bureau of Reclamation, all the while actively promoting young-earth creationism.

Maybe the long government careers of Bennett and Carter provide the central clue. Maybe the government can employ creationists as scientists, but it can’t pay them to teach creationism as science. As far as I can tell, neither Bennett nor Carter taught anyone anything. And Armitage was fired, it seems, not for believing creationist ideas, but for teaching them as science.

Which returns us to our central question: Should public universities get rid of creationist scientists? Should they only get rid of them if the creationists in question actually teach creationism as science? Or should there be a more energetic inquiry into the scientific thinking of publicly funded scientists?

Are creationists the victims of religious persecution?  Jerry Bergman says yes...

Are creationists the victims of religious persecution? Jerry Bergman says yes…

For their part, creationists have long complained, like Mark Armitage, that they have been persecuted for their religious beliefs. Over thirty years ago, Jerry Bergman insisted that he had been fired from Bowling Green State University solely for his religion. As he argued in his 1984 book The Criterion,

Several universities state it was their ‘right’ to protect students from creationists and, in one case, from ‘fundamentalist Christians.’ . . . This is all plainly illegal, but it is extremely difficult to bring redress against these common, gross injustices. This is due to the verbal ‘smoke-screen’ thrown up around the issue. But, a similar case might be if a black were fired on the suspicion that he had ‘talked to students about being black,’ or a woman being fired for having ‘talked to students about women’s issues.’

Creationists today are just as positive that Armitage is the victim of both religious and scientific persecution. As the Pacific Justice Institute put it,

It has become apparent that ‘diversity’ and ‘intellectual curiosity,’ so often touted as hallmarks of a university education, do not apply to those with a religious point of view. This suit was filed, in part, to vindicate those ideals.

Similarly, the headline in the ferociously conservative World Net Daily screamed, “Scientist Fired for Making Dinosaur Discovery.”

As Armitage’s lawsuit wends its way through the courts, I have a hunch that even the most conservative creationists might privately acknowledge that Armitage was not fired for his discovery. Rather, Armitage seems to have been fired for teaching students that the earth is likely only several thousand years old.

As Nature magazine concluded in its recent story about the affair, employers can’t legally fire someone for his or her religious beliefs. But employers can fire employees for conduct that goes against the mission of the institution. If radically dissenting visions of science undermine the assumptions of secular mainstream science, can a creationist scientist be fired?

Burning Bibles at Public Schools

Can a public school have Christian books in its library? Are religious books coming under fire? The latest story comes from Temecula, California. But religious activists have worried for generations that public schools have become aggressive book-burners.

In the current case, the Pacific Justice Institute has accused Temecula’s River Springs Charter School—apparently one of three schools in the Springs Charter School network—of anti-Christian bias. A parent complained to PJI that the school library had purged any book with a Christian bent. According to a report in Christian News, the parent told PJI that the librarian had been told to get rid of religious books. As conservative commentator Todd Starnes tells the story, the school librarian was instructed to remove “all books with a Christian message, authored by Christians, or published by a Christian publishing company.”

As Starnes concluded darkly,

The way I see it – book banning is just one step away from book burning. And I don’t mean to pour gasoline on the fire, but we all know what regime did that.

When the conservative activist group complained, the superintendent, Kathleen Hermsmeyer, responded that the school did not permit “sectarian materials on our state-authorized lending shelves.”

This episode reminds me of an extraordinary rumor I stumbled across in my research for my upcoming book on conservatism in twentieth-century American education. Investigating the 1974 school blow-up in Kanawha County, West Virginia, I found one conservative activist who insisted that the school district had recently removed all the Bibles from the schools. Even more shocking, this conservative reported that the secularizing zealots in charge of the public schools had dumped the Bibles unceremoniously in a dumpster. When pressed, this activist could not provide details or evidence for his story. He said he had heard it from another conservative leader.

But most important, the story seemed true and likely to him. As a religious conservative, he thought it was believable that a public school leader would purge the school of Bibles. And other conservatives at the time agreed.

We could take it even further back. In the 1925 Scopes Trial, anti-evolution celebrity William Jennings Bryan argued that public schools must ban evolution, since they already banned the Bible. That kind of argument has a good amount of gut political appeal. But it has one glaring problem: It just wasn’t true. In fact, as I noted in my 1920s book, Tennessee had actually passed a mandatory Bible-reading law in 1915. But as far as I could tell, no defender of evolution ever called Bryan on his mistake. On both sides, school activists in the past have believed that religious books had been kicked out of public schools.

Today’s story from California is more credible. In this case, the school leader admitted that the policy had been put into effect. Nevertheless, to this observer, it seems the case from Temecula will be another tempest in a teapot. The Pacific Justice Institute likely sniffed an easy win, since of course public schools are not under any legal compulsion to remove all Christian reading materials from their libraries. Indeed, the US Supreme Court has been very clear that public schools can and should teach about religions.

As Justice Tom Clark wrote in the landmark 1963 Abington v. Schempp decision, “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.” Indeed, Clark had just specified that public schools must not exclude religion from public schools, “in the sense of affirmatively opposing or showing hostility to religion.”

So it seems to me that Superintendent Hermsmeyer has indeed blundered. In a publicly funded school, there is absolutely no constitutional mandate to remove sectarian reading materials. The school itself must not preach any religion, but the library can and should be a place where students may encounter religious ideas.

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?

How Much Sex Is Too Much for Kids?

What should teenagers be learning about sex?  It is a perennial question at the center of our educational culture wars.  A recent controversy from California’s Bay Area shows how this old battle has changed, and how it has stayed the same.  This time, parents in Fremont, California objected to a sex-ed textbook they found too racy.  After parent protests, the district pulled the book.

Too titillating?

Too titillating?

As I note in my upcoming book about educational conservatism in the twentieth century, the pattern seems familiar: A textbook includes explicit information about sex.  Parents object.  The administration buckles, allergic to any whiff of controversy.  Progressives lament the parents’ Victorian attitudes toward sex. Conservatives crow that their children are being pimped by an educational establishment that does not respect their values.

That script certainly seems to be playing out in Fremont, but there are some wrinkles.  The textbook, Your Health Today, contained a twenty-page section on sexual behavior.  As the parent petition protested, this section included information about more than just the mechanics of sex.  It told students about

sexual games, sexual fantasies, sexual bondage with handcuffs, ropes, and blindfolds, sexual toys and vibrator devices, and additional instruction that is extremely inappropriate for 13 and 14 year-old youth.

And, as in similar controversies in the past, the protesting parents quickly reached out to national conservative activist organizations for support.  In this case, Fremont parents contacted the conservative Christian Pacific Justice Institute for back-up.

But the “conservative” parents made clear that they did not oppose sex ed in general.  What they did not like was the inappropriate college-level sex ed this book contained.  Parent activist Asfia Ahmed told the Christian Post that the problem was not sex ed as such; the problem was that this book in particular “speaks to adults; it does not speak to teens and adolescents.”

Predictably, progressive commentators accused conservatives of being trapped in the past.  As one writer noted, “It’s frustrating that this is still controversial.” I personally agree. I’m a teacher and parent. I want my students and daughter to have frank, explicit information about sex. And I think that such information needs to include some sense of the wide variety of sexual behaviors that are common in our society. It needs to include the basic fact that sex should be pleasurable and should never be coerced.  Perhaps most tricky, I think that public schools have a duty to convey this information.  After all, with pregnancy and HIV on the line, these are literally life-and-death subjects.

But the notion of some anti-conservatives that these issues have been resolved in the past demonstrates the dunderheadedness of my fellow progressives. Some progressive commentators seem to think that these debates have already been settled. Whether the issue is sex ed, school prayer, or creationism, progressives often express surprise that these questions are “still” controversial. Such attitudes demonstrate the ignorance of progressives.

Conservative notions about sex ed in public schools have always had a decisive influence on the goings-on in those schools. In this case, for instance, we see how quickly the administration caved to parent protests. Here and elsewhere, the notion that there is some healthy connection between kids and sex is a very touchy one in our society. Conservatives need only say that a book goes too far to have that book quickly yanked by the district.

Perhaps the hard-hitting journalists of the Today Show made the most salient point about this story. They interviewed some of the young teenagers who would have read this textbook. As one told them, “Like ewwww. . . . I don’t really feel like I need to know about that right now.”