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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.

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13 Comments

  1. shawnnews

    http://www.nytimes.com/1983/12/18/us/teacher-shot-in-classroom.html
    In Rockford, we remember that a teacher was shot at Boylan Central Catholic High School in the 1980s. They have religion classes there. Even with people teaching about God, there can be a shooting.
    To say that if we bring God back to schools, shootings will go down or other crimes is preposterous. All the crimes committed by clergy against children of their denomination had to have been when the children were in religious environments where they came in to contact with offenders.

  2. Sue Rockwell

    This tragedy has nothing to do with religion in or out of schools. It has to do with unchecked mental illness and easy access to guns. People like Huckabee and Pat Robertson and their ilk make me nauseous. I’m a non-violent person but sometimes I’d just like to slap them.
    Anyone has the freedom to pray quietly at school if they wish, to any god they wish. You don’t need religion or belief (or fear) in a higher power to know right from wrong, and that your actions have consequences, positive or negative, and that you treat others as you would like to be treated, that what you put out into the universe comes back to you.
    Science flies people to the moon, religion flies them into skyscrapers.

  3. “Science flies people to the moon, religion flies them into skyscrapers”

    Religion AND science have both been used as an excuse for abuse and violence in human history. Evil people are evil no matter what excuse they use to rally people to their cause.

    That doesn’t mean that all science is bad and it certainly cannot be used to discount the countless acts of good done in the name of various religions.

  4. Brian Opsahl

    Very well said ….who ever you are…? so do you mean this one…orrrr

  5. Craig Knauss

    doc,

    Religion has been used for more abuse that science ever has. How many wars were started because of science? Historically, about 2/3 of all wars were based on some religious cause. And religion was even used to put scientists in prison, such as Galileo and Copernicus. Religious zealots even tried it in this country. Remember the Scopes Monkey Trial?

    Sue, you hit it right on the nose!

  6. shawnnews

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mobileweb/rabbi-alan-lurie/is-religion-the-cause-of-_b_1400766.html
    The religions may or may not be true but they are not the major cause of war according to a recent book on the history of warfare.

  7. Janice Biggers

    My God is everywhere. He needs no picture or anyone spouting His name. However, this is for Sue Rockwell. You suggested that we treat others as we want to be treated. If I recall correctly, I believe Jesus first coined that remark in Matthew 7:12. We call it the Golden Rule.

  8. Good article. I agree that the religious right is creating a demon that they can stand against. It’s called a straw man argument in philosophical circles.
    As a Christian I am saddened more by the religious right shenanigans than i am by any court.
    The religious right is neither religious nor right.

  9. dogrescuer

    In Obama’s speech about the grammar school massacre, he said that “God has called the children home”. Really? Is that your fun-loving God’s way of calling small children “home”? This isn’t a criticism of Obama, just another example of how absurd religion can be.

  10. “Is that your fun-loving God’s way of calling small children “home”? ”

    After they have been blown away by an evil maniac?

    It sure is.

  11. Here’s another perspective on the Sandy Hook massacre:

    President Obama’s drone assaults have murdered over 200 children in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and god-only-knows-where-else.

    U.S. Drone Strikes Are Causing Child Casualties: Video and Report
    by Robert Greenwald
    Posted: 12/01/2012 4:06 pm
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-greenwald/us-drone-strikes-are-caus_b_2224627.html

    See also:
    http://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/category/projects/drone-data/

    How are Obama and his drones different than Adam Lanza and his assault rifle?

    Well, for one thing, Lanza was severely mentally ill. Obama, on the other hand, is a presumably sane, hotshot lawyer.

    However, when it comes to child murder, there is a definite difference in our national outrage. Why? Are not all children equally undeserving of being brutally murdered?

    Joe Klein, a stalwart Obama supporter, admitted that Obama’s drones were killing children and justified it by saying this:

    “If it is misused, and there is a really major possibility of abuse if you have the wrong people running the government. But: the bottom line in the end is – whose 4-year-old gets killed? What we’re doing is limiting the possibility that 4-year-olds here will get killed by indiscriminate acts of terror.”
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/oct/23/klein-drones-morning-joe

    The President has never bothered to distance himself from this bloody-minded justification, and the press has never bothered to demand that he do so. Not once during the recent presidential campaign were the candidates forced to confront this carnage and either justify or denounce it.

    Obama is getting away with murder, and no one cares. Why should God bless America?

    SEE ALSO:

    In the US, mass child killings are tragedies. In Pakistan, mere bug splats
    Barack Obama’s tears for the children of Newtown are in stark contrast to his silence over the children murdered by his drones
    BY George Monbiot, The Guardian, Monday 17 December 2012 15.30 EST
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/dec/17/us-killings-tragedies-pakistan-bug-splats

  12. Janice…while you reference is admirable, the ‘golden rule’ was actually a moral/philosophical premise established probably 500 years before Christ was born by a non white, non Christian fellow by the name of Confucius. I guess it shows that there is an underlying ‘truth’ between nearly all religions and what we need perhaps is that common morality taught in our schools instead of the contentions of religion.

  13. Red Rover: Approval of your comment was delayed because of computer problems here at Applesauce World Headquarters. Sorry.

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