Charter Schools SHOULD Be Religious


Thanks to alert colleagues, I’ve been following the great series of articles in Slate about creationism and charter schools.  Most recently, we find a map of charter schools that seem to be teaching creationism.  According to this survey by Chris Kirk, plenty of tax-funded charter schools across the nation are teaching creationism.

But is there anything wrong with charter schools teaching creationism?

Don’t get me wrong: I think all students should learn the best science, even if they go to non-tax-funded schools or homeschools.  That should not be a legal requirement, but rather simply a goal for common education and citizenship.  In traditional public schools, we should demand a rigorously pluralist ethos.  No student from any religion or non-religion (or race, or gender identity, or etc.) should ever feel squeezed out due to his or her background.  And I don’t dispute Kirk’s accusation in this Slate piece that lots of charter schools are likely teaching creationism.  As Kirk puts it,

If you live in any of these states, there’s a good chance your tax money is helping to convince some hapless students that evolution (the basis of all modern biological science, supported by everything we know about geology, genetics, paleontology, and other fields) is some sort of highly contested scientific hypothesis as credible as “God did it.”

But let’s step back a moment and examine the real legal, educational, and constitutional issues here.  Let’s not forget that charter schools were created in order to offer more authentic diversity of educational models.  Should that diversity not include religious diversity?

According to a note in the Yale Law Journal a few years back, the proper line between religion and publicly funded charter schools is not as clear cut as journalists and policy-makers often assume.  In that 2008 piece, Benjamin Siracusa Hillman argues that charter schools ought to be allowed or even encouraged to include religious practices and beliefs.

Recent US Supreme Court decisions, Hillman argues (see esp. page 576), support a notion that school districts may legitimately include religious schools without violating the famous 1970 “Lemon Test.”  If a state or school district has a secular purpose in setting up schools—including even religious schools—those schools are more likely to pass constitutional muster.  The goal must not be to serve only one sort of religion.  Nor must school districts hope to exclude non-religious students, or students from other religious backgrounds.  Religious schools may fit into a broad charter school/voucher school network, the Court has suggested, as long as the first purpose is to improve education for all.

Hillman also analyzes the decision of a Michigan court in which parents sued a charter school for cramming religion into their publicly funded school.  The school, according to this federal court ruling, did no wrong in including religion, since it did not force students to engage in religious practice or adopt religious beliefs.

So can publicly funded charter schools teach creationism?  Or, even more provocatively, SHOULD charter school networks work to include schools that teach creationism?

The recent string of Slate articles implies that such practice ought to raise alarm bells.  But if we view creationism as an expression of a religious belief, it seems the rule is not quite so cut-and-dried.  Public school districts have much more leeway to include religious schools than many people seem to think.  Such ignorance can be politically useful.  For example, no one will mobilize to fight against teaching that might be perfectly legal and even desirable.  But some sections of our chattering classes might have better luck with breathless exposes of religion in publicly funded schools.




A Christian Teen Army in Public Schools

“High school Christian teens, Join Us!”

That is the call of a new video promoted by the evangelical Christian group Reach America.

In the video, teenagers ask a series of provocative questions, such as the following:

Why can’t I pray in school?  Why do I have to check my religion at the door?  Why can’t I write about God in my school papers?  Why do I have to tolerate people cursing my God, but I’m not allowed to talk about God and my faith? Why are they taking God out of my history books? Why do they teach every other theory in science besides creation?  Why am I called names because I believe in marriage the way God designed it?

Like many conservative evangelical educational activists, Gary Brown, founder of Reach America, believes that public schools have lost their way.  Beginning with the prayer and Bible SCOTUS decisions in 1962 and 1963, Brown insists, God has been systematically frozen out of schools.  Christian students have been targeted for bullying, indoctrination, and harassment.  Every part of public education is a threat, from pornographic sex education to mandatory dating.

Brown’s answer has been a call for youth engagement.  In the recent video, Reach America teens warn, “People who do not love our God have stolen our country. . . . We are an army.  Christ is our commander. . . . We are in a war for the hearts and souls of our generation.  And we know it.”

This culture-war army can be directed, Reach America promises, by programs such as its new Educational Partnership.  From its headquarters in northern Idaho, Reach America wants to organize a non-school school.  At this “partnership,” students will come to this non-school school every day, September through June.  In the mornings, they will work on academic work.  That work, though, will not come from the non-school, but rather from parent-directed online education or homeschool assignments.  In the afternoons, students will work on the “four Cs:” Christ-Centered Counter-Culture.

So how is this school not a school?  Parents pay tuition.  Students study there.  The program even offers “P.E. and electives.”  Do the Browns avoid calling this a school to avoid legal hassles?  It certainly looks that way.

How big is the program?  Not too big.  According to Brown, twenty-three students are enrolled for the current non-school year.  My guess is that Reach America will attract the attention of scribblers like me with the culture-war rhetoric of this video, but will soon encounter the difficulties that plague every Christian school, even non-school ones.

In any case, the message of the teens’ video is clear.  The way to prevent bullying is to fight back.  As they declare, “America will be one nation under God, again.”


You Might Be a Fundamentalist If…

What does it mean to be a “fundamentalist” in America? And what does “fundamentalism” mean for American education?

Theologian Roger E. Olson offers a great introduction to the intricate theological and cultural boundaries of American fundamentalism.

As with any theological tendency, the definition of “fundamentalism” has long been fraught with bitter disputation.  As I learned in my study of 1920s American fundamentalism, there will be exceptions to every rule and protestations of every boundary.

Olson offers outsiders like me a convenient double list.  First, he gives his carefully hedged list of theological determinants.  In the context of American Christianity, someone is likely a fundamentalist if he or she agrees with some or all of the following list:

  • Embrace of traditional conservative Christian doctrine, such as divinity of Christ, the trinity, inspiration of Scripture, salvation by grace through faith, and so on;
  • Refusal to fellowship with those who are not similarly theologically aligned;
  • Refusal to fellowship with those who fellowship with those who are not similarly theologically aligned;
  • Embrace of Biblical inerrancy—the notion that the original autographs of the Bible are without error;
  • Belief that the King James Version is the proper English translation;
  • Belief that young earth creationism and premillennial eschatology are central to true Christian faith;
  • Belief that America is “God’s Nation;”
  • An insistence that good education must be Bible-based;
  • Belief that Catholics are not real Christians.

Does Professor Olson insist on this list as the ultimate definition?  No.  As he warns, “These are not absolute litmus tests. It’s theoretically possible that a person might hold most of these beliefs and, for some unforeseen reason (a fluke) not be a fundamentalist.”

Most helpful of all, Professor Olson notes that the label “fundamentalist” is often used in looser ways.  The list above describes a certain tradition among American Protestantism.  But “fundamentalism,” as Olson argues, has long been used to describe other phenomena as well.

Olson gives us four of these other traditional uses of “fundamentalism.”

First, there’s a sense that “anyone considered religiously conservative and fanatical” is a fundamentalist.  Second, some people use “fundamentalism” to describe any sort of religiously motivated anti-modernism.  Third, some folks call anyone they don’t like a fundamentalist.  If you are conniving, or manipulative in your dealings with other church folk, even if you are theologically liberal, you might be called a fundamentalist.  Finally, Olson offers his “historical-theological meaning:” “militant defense of conservative Protestantism against liberal theology and higher biblical criticism.”

Many thanks to the good professor for offering this nuanced public definition.  My summary here doesn’t do justice, and I suggest reading the article in its entirety.  Outsiders to the world of conservative American Christianity like me often have a very difficult time decoding the dense layers of meaning attached to such labels.  Yet for many within the porous boundaries of “fundamentalism,” many of the distinctions remain more inherited and implied than intellectually understood.

Olson relates one anecdote that reveals some of these implicit meanings, the sort of meanings that might often be lost on outsiders.

“About fifteen years ago I noticed that a seminary historically noted for being fundamentalist (in the historical-theological sense) had set up a table in the evangelical college where I then taught to recruit undergraduates. I approached the recruiter, a relatively young (early middle aged) employee of the seminary. I told him I would have difficulty recommending that any of my students attend his seminary. He asked why. I told him that the seminary had a reputation for being fundamentalist. He said ‘No, we’re changing. We’re evangelical now.’ So I asked him this question: ‘If Billy Graham volunteered to preach in your seminary’s chapel free of charge, no honorarium expected, would your president allow it?’ His slightly red-faced response was ‘We’re moving in that direction.’ Enough said.”

Before I started my academic research into American religion, I wouldn’t have made much sense of this encounter.  For insiders, though, it is just obvious, even humorous, that some seminaries just would not have Graham.  And some might claim to be “evangelical” while everyone knows they are still “fundamentalist.”

Before we move on, let’s consider some of the implications of this definition of fundamentalism for American education.  If, as Olson argues, his list includes broad and widely shared tendencies among conservative Protestants, we can see why such folks have long been so keenly interested in educational issues.  Some of the connections are obvious.  Professor Olson suggests that young-earth creationism is considered a “crucial Christian belief…” among many fundamentalists.  Supporters of creationist school policies, then, would have ardent supporters from the fundamentalist community.  Second, Olson’s fundamentalists often believe “the Bible ought to be the basis of an entire educational curriculum, including studies of science, philosophy, psychology, etc.”  Again, the educational implications are obvious.

But beyond creationism and Bible, elements of Olson’s definition offer insights into the intersection between American fundamentalism and American education.  For instance, the notion of “secondary separation” should deflate some of the ever-present suspicion of a vast fundamentalist educational conspiracy.  As Olson describes, many fundamentalist types refuse to work with those with whom they disagree.  More than that, fundamentalists often refuse to associate with those who fellowship with those with whom they disagree.  That is, a fundamentalist must be very careful to associate only with those who are free of any connection to any organization or church that has any sort of suspect connection.

In educational politics, this sort of rigid separationism can have important consequences.  Many fundamentalists might sternly oppose policies, for instance, that promote teaching intelligent design in public schools.  Or fundamentalists might (and have) fought against prayers in public schools, when those prayers become broad and ecumenical.

Finally, the rigid separationist tradition has led to a long history of separate educational institutions.  From Bob Jones University and Dallas Theological Seminary in the 1920s, through a host of new colleges and schools throughout the twentieth century, fundamentalists have often been keen to found their own schools.  After all, if education must be based on the Bible, and young people must be taught to avoid the dangers of less-strict separationism, then many fundamentalists would insist on their own schools, their own textbooks, their own teachers, and so on.

As with any theological or cultural definition, Professor Olson’s attempt to give a brief and readable account can be disputed endlessly.  But for those of us outsiders trying to understand the complicated landscape of conservatism in American education, Olson’s article is a good place to begin.