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Miniblog #162: What do people mean when they say, “God isn’t allowed in schools”?

by Carson T. Clark on December 19, 2012

What do people mean when they say that God isn’t allowed in schools? A college friend who’s now a missionary asked the question this morning. He clarified, “Does it mean kids cannot pray in school? Or does it mean that they don’t start the school day off with a class prayer? That phrase is very vague.” Agreed. I’d like to take my best stab at it. My experience has been that evangelical Christians have little appreciation for the subtle.11.This comes out perhaps most evidently in their books and music. This is why, I would suggest, there’s no evangelical equivalent to a Dostoevsky or a Tolkien. Faith and its many themes must be addressed and proclaimed explicitly. Otherwise it basically doesn’t count. Moreover, their schema has been so imbued by the twin narratives of freedom and equality that they have a particular aversion to being or in any way feeling muzzled. So any sense of exterior restraint whatsoever feels like absolute shackles. They often feel any prohibitions placed on the government-sanctioned, or even government-tolerated, exercise of religion is no less than persecution. By God not being allowed in schools, then, I think it means two things. First, Christians who are public employees aren’t allowed to express their religious convictions overtly and without hindrance.22.Anything less immediately equates to an attack upon the Gospel via government tyranny. Second, Christians who are students are no longer having the faith transmitted where they spend the majority of their time. Both are seen as disconcerting and detrimental to the faith. Additionally, most aren’t concerned with the unintended consequences raised by such a position in our present-day, pluralistic context. Would, for example, they feel comfortable with a Muslim public school teacher leading their children in prayer to Allah? Almost certainly not. But if a Christian teacher is allowed to lead prayer in his classroom but a Muslim teacher isn’t allowed to leader prayer in her adjacent classroom, isn’t that the exact sort of religious constraints they’re so concerned about?33.Moreover, what’s the alternative? Establishing some sort of generic Christianity as the only government acceptable form of religious expression in public schools? Even most evangelicals would bristle at that one. Such things are obviously and, it seems to me, intentionally off their radar–evidencing philosophical inconsistently and psychological cognitive dissonance. In sum, what we have here is a longing for the way things used to be.

  • Charles Twombly

    The “way things used to be” in, say the mid-nineteenth century, wasn’t merely Christian but Protestant. One could even say (thinking of educationists like Horace Mann) that it even leaned a bit in the Unitarian direction. It’s interesting to me that, when we think of great American novels and poetry from say 1850 onwards, not one great writer is an “orthodox” Christian and many are even non/anti-religious. Make up your own list. Mine would include: Hawthorne, Melville, Emerson, Thoreau, Longfellow, Lowell, Holmes, Dickinson, Whitman, Twain, Howells, Crane, Norris, Dreiser, Frost, Stevens, WC Williams, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Steinbeck, and on and on. Curious that these great shapers of our culture (many of whom are read and praised in Christian schools and home-schooling) are not themselves shaped by traditional faith. You’d think there’d be at least one or two! (Actually there are as we move further into the 20th century: folks like Alan Tate, Flannery O’Connor, TS Eliot [if we can claim him], and Walker Percy–mostly Roman Catholics–all had strong faith interests and were openly believers. Not quite sure how to place Faulkner.)

    • Carson T. Clark

      All excellent thoughts. I wholeheartedly agree.

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