Why do we sacrifice for and invest in Christian education? How is teaching from a “Christian perspective” or “Christian worldview” any different?
There may not be a more controversial topic in the history of American public education than the role of religion. So, let’s start with a brief walk down memory lane and review some facts from your high school civics class.
In essence, the First Amendment, which institutes the free exercise of religion and disallows the establishment of religion, was written as a reaction to the relationship between the English Crown and the Anglican Church. But about fifty years after the founders penned the Bill of Rights, Massachusetts’ own Horace Mann came along with this crazy Prussian idea that the people of his state actually deserved a state-funded education. That model was soon adopted by the federal government and, come the turn of the 20th century, the U.S. government was in the education business. (On a side note, Horace Mann may be one of the most underrated innovators in the history of America, as the system that the founders designed only serves the masses if the masses are educated. Otherwise, this republic is nothing more than an aristocracy in democracy’s clothing).
But, an unforeseen side effect of the government becoming primarily responsible for the education of masses was the conflict between schools and religion.
Even if we combed The Federalist Papers (which I actually had to do once and can say that despite moments of utter brilliance that may have created a small but noticeable patriotic reaction, they are, on the whole, exceedingly boring) we cannot ascertain if the founders had any intention or premonition that the First Amendment would apply to a government-funded education program. Yet, because the First Amendment does address the establishment of religion, and schools are funded by the government, there was bound to be conflict. And, the second half of the 20th century was full of court decisions that began to slowly strip away religious influences from the public schools.
Here are a few examples:
1962 – Engel v. Vitale
The court declared that mandatory prayer to begin the school day is a violation of the Establishment Clause.
1963- Abington School District v. Schemp
The court declared that mandatory Bible reading to begin the school day is a violation of the Establishment Clause.
1971- Lemon v. Kurtzman
The Court ruled that states could not reimburse religious schools for teachers’ salaries or textbooks.
1980 – Stone v. Graham
The court ruled that states could not mandate the displaying of the Ten Commandments in classrooms.
1985 – Wallace v. Jaffree
The court struck down a law that allowed teachers to lead a voluntary prayer for willing students.
1992- Lee v. Weisman
The court struck down a law that allowed clergy-led prayer at graduation ceremonies.
2000- Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe
The court ruled against a student-voted prayer at football games.
Of course, there are more examples, but this should demonstrate the trend of the court in the last 60 years or so with regards to the Establishment Clause.
Now, I do not want to sound biased or one sided, nor do I want to turn the facts to support my own conclusions. The court has upheld the Free Exercise Clause on multiple occasions. Student-led prayer has been upheld as long as no one is coerced to participate. Religious groups are allowed to use public facilities. Student Bible study is allowed on campus. The Bible may be used as a historical reference. Nativity scenes are allowed on some occasions. Religious Christmas carols can even be sung at school events, provided that secular carols are included as well.
Let me be clear. The court has a very difficult job. I am not a religious doomsayer who sees a satanic conspiracy. I do not think that the federal government is a front for the society of Freemasons, whose sole goal is to foster a new era of secular humanism. I actually believe the Justices of our Court do their best to interpret the Constitution. They are faced with issues that the founders could not possibly have envisioned and are charged with sorting through the vague ambiguity of a 225 year old document. It is a difficult job and I actually believe that, given the wording of our Constitution, the current stance of the government toward religion in public education is correct. Let me say that again. Given what is actually written in the First Amendment, OUR COURTS HAVE GOTTEN IT RIGHT!
But, what if the First Amendment is wrong? What if the entire premise is damaging? So, at the risk of sounding completely un-American (which, incidentally, is one of the most American things you can do), I am going to disagree with a piece of the First Amendment and argue that the establishment of religion is one of the most important and patriotic things that a government can do for its people.
I am not talking about a government-run church or a mandatory allegiance to a certain faith. I am talking about the simple realization that man is not the end all. I am talking about faith in something greater than ourselves.
You see, graduates of a typical American public high school cannot help but come to one basic conclusion as they leave the comfort of their adolescence and venture into the world as future productive members of society. That conclusion is this: man has been, and will continue to be, the solution to his own problems. There is no room for faith. There is no room for trust. There is no room for the miraculous. There is only room for science and reason and thought.
Take the basic narrative of scientific research: if there is a problem, one should hypothesize, experiment, and find the solution. Take the narrative of American history: we came across the sea, we established the government, we wrote the Constitution, we destroyed and built and suffered and learned and grew, and we will make the future. Take the basic lessons of literature: man is broken, but beauty can be found if we look for it. Take the basic lessons of health class: you must choose to exercise because you control your own body and your own future.
The theme is consistent. If there is a problem, man is the solution. But what about problems with no solution? What about situations beyond explanation? What happens when our graduates find that their hard work and their best efforts do not give them an answer? What happens when you rely on yourself, and you let yourself down?
Not to be a downer, but it’s easy to see what happens when we rely on ourselves. Broken marriages. Fatherless children. Abuse. Hopelessness. Pain.
Guess what…no man has a cure for heartbreak. No man has ended fatherlessness. No man has eradicated poverty or war or sickness or death. We cannot solve all of our own problems!
Pain is coming and sometimes there is no solution other than prayer, meditation and faith. What is so ironic is that the same narrative that is used in high school to teach the importance and sovereignty of man, ignores an obvious fact — so many of our heroes only did what they did because they were driven by their faith in God.
This is not to say that everyone who has accomplished great things has done so through faith in something greater. But worshipping and idolizing the accomplishments of man without regard to the faith of these individuals is a relatively new phenomenon that has only been enhanced by our government’s application of the First Amendment. Not everything in history, science, math and literature has origins in faith. But the accomplishments of faithful people have often been taken, used, applied, and celebrated, while the motivation for those accomplishments (which in terms of practical application is arguably even more important than the accomplishment itself), has been ignored.
For example, America loves the story of Martin Luther King Jr., but the lesson we take is that man can overcome persecution and that even the ugliest can be thwarted when we stand together. That’s a good lesson, but that only takes us part way. The truth is that MLK endured because he had faith and belief that could not be shaken. He believed and lived the words of Christ. He loved his enemies. He prayed for his persecutors. He knew that this world was only temporary and something greater was coming. Oh my goodness! That is the message that our youth needs to hear. That is a message of hope and life and truth. That is a message that gets you through cancer and divorce and poverty and disappointment and all of the other trials that are waiting.
We love the story of Lincoln. He is a hero because he stood against the culture and helped end injustice. That is a great lesson, but that is not the whole lesson. Lincoln was constantly in prayer. His journal is a testament that his faith was the cornerstone of his resolve. Is it too much of a leap to conclude that without faith, Lincoln would not have been Lincoln? That is a step that the public school curriculum dares not take, as it comes ever so close to establishing the dangerous idea that faith might actually be beneficial, and that man doesn’t always have the answers.
What about the story of Copernicus and astronomical discovery? The basic narrative given in most American classrooms is that the church believed the earth to be the center of the universe and did everything in her power to thwart scientific discovery. In actuality, Copernicus’ work led him to a greater faith in God as he proved mathematically that the universe was far bigger and more complex than man could ever comprehend. But, we can’t tell the story that way in American classrooms because it might lead students to the conclusion that science can actually increase faith and awe in our Creator.
This is why Christian education is essential. We have to battle the cultural narrative. We have to give our kids more. We have to teach the next generation that there are things beyond their control and that reliance upon God is not a criticism of their human strength or will. I am reminded of II Corinthians 12:10, where Paul says, “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” Talk about a counter cultural and anti-21st century American statement. When I am weak, I am strong…not exactly a super bowl quality ad campaign.
But as followers of Christ we know that when we humble ourselves and learn to rely on Him; when we actually give it all to God and trust His will and His purpose; we find peace and joy and strength that is outside of explanation. That is the transformational message that the next generation needs to hear.
Christian education is about more than just memorizing Scripture. It is about more than dogma and doctrine. It is about more than school prayer or Silent Night at the Christmas program. Our teachers are instilling a worldview. They are teaching a way of life and a way of being. They are shaping the mindset of the next generation of leaders. That is: the only way we will thrive and the only way we can ultimately survive is if we stop looking in and learn to look up.
Erick Streelman is the Head of School at Saddleback Valley Christian. His enthusiasm for Christian education in general and for SVC in specific is palpable. “I believe that our teachers can change the world through their influence on the next generation.”
He has been married to Erica, a professional photographer and former High School teacher, for 12 years. The Streelmans enjoy traveling and cooking together. In his spare time, you are likely to find Mr. Streelman playing golf or working out.