A perspective on the Sandy Hook School tragedy and religion in the classroom
Some of the reaction to yesterday’s deadly shooting spree at a school in Connecticut has included arguments that the fault for this tragedy lies with God having been kicked out of the American classroom.
Evangelical radio host Bryan Fischer, for example, said this:
“Here’s the bottom line — God is not going to go where He is not wanted. We kicked God out of our public school system. I think God would say to us, ‘Hey, I would be glad to protect your children, but you gotta invite me back into your world first. I’m not going to go where I’m not wanted.’”
Former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee endorsed Fischer’s view and told Fox News this:
“We ask why there’s violence in our schools, but we’ve systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage?”
These sentiments are nothing new. For years now, the claim has been made in some quarters that the atheistic courts have banned any mention of God or religion in public schools, a misimpression that’s shared by millions of Americans.
This brings to mind some of the things I found in my daughter’s social-studies textbook when she was a sixth-grader in a local public school in 2007. The material was a shining refutation of one of the great lies spread by the Religious Right in this country over the past 40 years.
The book is titled “World: Adventures in Time and Place.” It’s published by McMillan/McGraw-Hill and was copyrighted in 1997.
On page 246 of this work, there’s a picture of Jesus. There’s another one on page 248, and another one on page 249. The book also has a picture of Moses bearing the Ten Commandments, and there are pictures of people praying in churches and clergy addressing their congregations.
There are separate sections on the childhood of Jesus, on his teachings and on how he “changed the world.” There are passages from the Old and New Testaments. There are chapters on “how Christianity has affected life on every continent on Earth.”
And there are shorter treatments of Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and other religions.
On the whole, the book does a passable job of presenting to 11- and 12-year-olds some sense of the important role religion has played in the course of human history — politically, culturally, economically and in countless other ways.
In general, this textbook provides an invaluable service in disproving the popular notion that the mere mention of Jesus or God or the Bible in a public school will invariably bring on hordes of howling atheists and armies of ACLU lawyers.
The truth is that children in public schools are perfectly free to pray whenever they want, so long as it isn’t disruptive or in any way sanctioned by the school. The kids also are free to form prayer clubs or Bible-reading groups and hold meetings on school grounds after classes.
And, as evidenced by my daughter’s textbook, schools are free to teach students about the Bible as literature and religion as history. Schools have always had this freedom, no matter the rhetoric to the contrary from TV preachers and their ilk.
The demagogues on this issue, eager to create a demon against which they’ll valiantly posture, studiously avoid any mention of the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court, in its two major school prayer rulings, actually encouraged schools to teach about the historical importance of religion. Instead, these rabble-rousers direct all their efforts at decrying the court’s ban on government involving itself in the promotion of religion.
The Pat Robertsons of this world pretend that judicial rulings against religious exercises in public schools were unprecedented before the 1960s — as if the same influences that spawned a hedonistic hippie culture also tainted the courts and other institutions, which in turn chased God out of the schools.
In fact, the history of such rulings goes back more than a century. The School Board in Cincinnati, Ohio, banned Bible-reading and required prayers in 1869 and was upheld by the state Supreme Court. A similar ruling was passed down by the Illinois Supreme Court in 1910. In both cases, Catholic parents had challenged common practices on grounds that public schools had no right to push Protestantism.
By 1960, courts in 11 states had ruled against devotional Bible-reading in public schools. In retrospect, it was inevitable that the nation’s highest court would follow suit.
Widespread ignorance or misunderstanding of this history and of the realities of court rulings regarding religion have created significant problems. On one side of the equation, millions of religious folks wrongly believe that religion cannot be taught about or even mentioned in public schools. On another side, lots of school teachers and administrators have gone too far in guarding against school sponsorship of religious exercises.
On that latter point, it probably would surprise most conservatives to know that the ACLU has frequently brought lawsuits in cases where schools have enfringed on students’ religious rights. But, of course, the civil libertarians also are quick to fight against the pushing of religion by school officials.
As well they should.
FOOTNOTE: The foregoing is an adaptation of a post I’ve published here on several previous occasions.