Russell and Duenes

Public Schools and the State-Created Orthodoxy

with 5 comments

“No single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!'” – Abraham Kuyper

Is Kuyper right? If he is, do his words have anything to say to Christians about public school education? Can something as formative and life-shaping as the training of one’s mind and patterns of thought be “hermetically sealed off” from one’s spiritual development? Did not Paul command us to “be transformed by the renewing of our minds?” Wouldn’t this be an educative task?

Like many Christians, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, in his opinion in Lee v. Weisman, apparently does not see the absolutely spiritual nature of education, and therefore, he thinks the government schools can carve out some kind of religiously neutral truce with all religions in the way they conduct their educational task. But let’s look at some of Justice Kennedy’s words on this count.

In Lee v. Weisman, Kennedy writes:

“The explanation [of the difference between the free speech clause and the establishment clause] lies in the lesson of history that was and is the inspiration for the Establishment Clause, the lesson that in the hands of government what might begin as a tolerant expression of religious views may end in a policy to indoctrinate and coerce. A state-created orthodoxy puts at grave risk that freedom of belief and conscience which are the sole assurance that religious faith is real, not imposed.” (emphasis mine)

Education, properly understood, is a central part of teaching people to love God with all their heart, soul, strength and mind, and to love their neighbors as themselves. But the government schools don’t believe this. The public schools engage, whether intentionally or not, “in a policy to indoctrinate and coerce” adherence to secular agnosticism.

Don’t believe me; then consider a few items. Consider that the government forces me and every Christian to subsidize it’s officially secular schools, whether we want to or not, on pain of punishment for tax evasion. Further, if we cannot afford a private school education on top of the taxes we pay to support the government schools, or if we cannot homeschool, then our kids have no choice about going to public schools. This sounds a bit like coercion.

On the indoctrination front, consider briefly how the public school teaches biology: We came from primordial soup, we’re descended from apes, and our evolutionary process needs no God to have superintended it all. This theory is not open to serious question or discussion in the public schools, and it certainly is not religiously neutral. Consider how public schools teach English: There’s no story that underlies every story. There’s no meta-narrative above all other human-created narratives. Good literature does not point one to either humanity’s godwardness or godlessness. No, it’s about discreet narratives, and likely the older narratives come in for more criticism, unless we can dress them up in the themes of modern sexual license, so that Jane Austen becomes a sexually liberated 60s woman and Shakespeare a modern Don Juan.

Or how about history: Do public schools teach that God started history, is Lord of history, and has a purpose for history? Do public schools have anything to say about what God might think about certain historical developments? Will public school history be taught from the perspective that no one culture was really better than another, and that all human cultures stand under the unchanging justice of God, and so must all be critiqued? What about foreign languages? Why study them? What does God even have to do with languages and why we have so many different ones?

And Government and Economics classes? Will the public schools even broach the topic of what God might think about power and money? God talks about it quite a bit. Or is this all stuff left for the home? So what religious view of money and of human government will a kid imbibe at a public school? Maybe it’ll be a pretty good one, but you can be sure that he or she won’t imbibe the notion that God has any thoughts about it, and I’m guessing that thinking well about economics and government takes a good amount of effort and perseverance, the lack of which will not be remedied by the youth group at church or the various conversations when busy parents and busy students have time to chat. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

What I’m saying is: One cannot plausibly argue, like Justice Kennedy does, that a school’s forcing students to sit through graduation prayers amounts to “indoctrination and coercion,” but that forcing students to sit through 13 years of teaching that God has nothing to do with the basis and acquisition of knowledge, that His moral and spiritual rules are irrelevant to the educational process, and that evolution is the God’s-honest truth about how we got here is not “indoctrination and coercion.” The problem, however, is not the secular agnostics. It’s the Christians who accept the state-sponsored religion of the government schools as some kind of neutral activity that won’t significantly mold their children into its image. Were enough Christians to call the government’s bluff on this, we’d be done with public education in this country.



Written by Michael Duenes

November 18, 2012 at 9:04 pm

5 Responses

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  1. D-

    Aside from public schools, do you think there should be any separation of church and state at all?

    According to your logic, shouldn’t all forms of government be outspokenly Christian? The courts, the police, the social security office, the DMV, etc- shouldn’t they all be organized around Christ? Shouldn’t we basically have a version of Christian Sharia law? Or maybe, shouldn’t we organize our government according to Leviticus, with priests settling disputes, and a divinely ordered King?

    That obviously sounds ridiculous, but doesn’t the logic you use against secular public schools apply to all other secular government institutions? If not, why not?


    November 19, 2012 at 11:28 am

    • B – I’ve tried to consider your objection over the years, and I’m not sure I have a fully satisfying answer. But here is a first thought. I think education is unique in its spiritual significance. I think the Bible speaks directly to education, and speaks of it as a centrally spiritual activity which Christians should conduct in an explicitly biblical way. I don’t think it is totally analogous to the police, the social security office, the DMV, etc. I have more thoughts on your comment, which I will give later, but let me ask you a question first:

      How would you define “religion” or “church” in your “separation of church and state” analysis? In other words, what is the content of “church” or “religion” (which is really a more appropriate term) and the content of “state?” On what basis do you make your definitions?


      russell and duenes

      November 19, 2012 at 12:20 pm

  2. Aside from public schools, do you think there should be any separation of church and state at all?

    According to your logic, shouldn’t all forms of government be outspokenly Christian? The courts, the police, the social security office, the DMV, etc- shouldn’t they all be organized around Christ? Shouldn’t we basically have a version of Christian Sharia law? Or maybe, shouldn’t we organize our government according to Leviticus, with priests settling disputes, and a divinely ordered King?

    Quite, bates, we should. Ideally society would look like the Byzantine Empire, whose institutions were explicitly Christian, where Christianity suffused the public environment in a way that popular media suffuses ours.

    However, even for someone who objects to that, D’s reply is apt: education is a qualitatively different sort of activity. It’s difficult for me to imagine a specifically Christian way of “doing” the DMV. Education, by contrast, is the actual imparting of knowledge; the actual teaching of what is true and false. It can’t seriously be maintained that it is possible to do this in a values-“neutral” way.


    November 20, 2012 at 4:59 am

  3. D-

    I don’t know where the separation of Church and state should be.

    I don’t think there should be public schools, but that’s because I don’t think other people should have to pay for educating my kids, and because the government stinks at whatever it tries to do.

    I see your point about education being different, but is it really? The courts are deciding between guilty and innocent, right and wrong, shouldn’t they be explicitly Christian?

    Congress makes the laws we all have to obey. Shouldn’t the laws and law makers be explicitly Christian?

    The Police use force to arrest those who break the God given laws, shouldn’t they be required to be Christian?

    I think much of your logic could be applied to other state run institutions besides schools, but I haven’t heard you complain about them.


    November 20, 2012 at 3:07 pm

    • B – Perhaps I haven’t complained about the others because I don’t consider them as central, and frankly, I have experience in education and see it’s importance and there are only 24 hours in a day. And yes, it is really different. Courts are indeed deciding, and I think we see what a hash they make of things when they are not guided by biblical notions or wisdom, ethics, and justice. And the judges ought only to interpret laws, and those laws would be better for everyone if they were made in conformity with biblical truth. I certainly hope that the cops are acting on some notion of what’s right and wrong, and to a large extent, those notions are undergirded by biblical teachings. I might ask you: Do you think that God takes pleasure in secular governments that ignore Him, ridicule His laws as ridiculous superstition, and seek to aggrandize themselves and their own wisdom? I accept that He ordains them and allows them as part of His plan of redemption, but the same could be said of a whole host of other godless things.

      I complain about education first and foremost because I take it as axiomatic that education is the foundation for all the others. That is, the Christians of our nation will not know how to think and act Christianly apart from most of them receiving an explicit and faithful Christian education. The family and the church have the primary responsibility here, but this is all the more reason why they should collaborate together to educate God’s people.


      russell and duenes

      November 20, 2012 at 5:45 pm

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