God & Man at Central High

Author: Thomas McGrath
Issue: 25 – May 2008

God & Man at Central High
As a lifelong Catholic and a twelve year veteran of the public schools, I am often asked about the situation regarding religion in the American system of public education.

It goes without saying that most people who are interested in this issue have religious sentiments, and that they are concerned about the removal of God from the public square entirely. They are usually well-informed on such matters, and they are concerned spectators of what commentators now refer to as the culture wars. Sharing their concern, there are times when my impulse is to tell them that there is considerable prejudice against Christianity, and that we ought to be very concerned about it. After all, most local high schools now have a school-sponsored club/support group for homosexuals, and though the law requires schools to provide equal access to Christian groups (like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes) to advertise their meetings during the morning announcements, the Christian groups are required to meet off campus, whereas the homosexual support group is permitted to meet at the school. Furthermore, Christian groups must preface their advertisement by stating: the following is not a school-sponsored activity, while the school usually has no problem sponsoring the homosexual group.
And yet, the less belligerent part of me acknowledges that the issue of religion in the public school is more complicated than the aforementioned example of overt (and absurd) discrimination. After all, the earliest battles against the teaching of religion in the public schools were mounted by Catholics who objected to the Protestant perspective through which Christianity was being taught. Despite the Public Schools Societys promise that all parents of all religious sects [should be able] to send their children to public schools without doing violence to their religious teachings, the early history of the public school system is rife with anti-Catholic sentiment and bigotry from the Protestant majority which, in many cases, extended all the way to the President himself.

Fearing the impact of an aggressively Protestant perspective on the faith of their children, Catholics petitioned the courts to remove the King James Bible (with its warnings against popery), and their goal was to create an environment in which religious minorities would be safe from bigotry and the active evangelism of the more dominant Protestant belief system. Ultimately, this battle, combined with the considerable anti-Catholicism of the mid-nineteenth century, are what led to the creation of the Catholic school system in America, and to a variety of conflicts between the Irish Catholic immigrants and the Protestant social infrastructure which sought to break them of their beliefs.

In view of that history, Catholics in particular should be sympathetic to religious minorities and their concerns about a government-imposed (and tax-payer funded) religious ethos taking hold in the public school system. In a nation that was founded by religious minorities seeking to escape religious oppression in England, it is virtually un-American to suggest that minorities should be required to adhere to practice the dominant religion, and the authors of the First Amendment were very astute to the possibility of such concerns.

And yet, it seems equally un-American to neglect the importance of religion by excluding it from the education system entirely. After all, as commentators often point out, the American people are promised freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. As such, the idea that Christian groups would not be allowed to meet on campus seems in violation of this principle, as does the fact that many teachers almost entirely avoid the subject of religion in their classes out of fear that something they might say could be interpreted as evangelical speech.

Although the courts do not seem as committed to this idea of excluding religion from the public school dialogue as the militant secular progressives who foment these controversies, the controversies themselves have had their intended chilling effect. It is the fear of conflicting with these intellectual bullies that inspires many teachers to avoid the topic of religion entirely, and it is this sad fact which leaves countless students bereft of a clear understanding of the faith that has shaped their own history and culture. Despite the fact that the courts have made it clear that while teachers may not proselytise, they may talk about religion, the current zeitgeist is such that most teachers feel its safer to avoid the subject entirely lest one of their students interpret one of their statements as an attempt to evangelise them. In this regard, the culture wars have had their intended effect of silencing the majority through fear.

For this reason, it is unfortunate to contemplate the number of students leaving high school without knowing that the abolitionists were not the secular liberals of their era, but devout Christians, and that without their uncompromising defense of African slaves as Gods children, the efforts to free the slaves would not have succeeded. Nor do most students have much of an understanding as to the importance of the Judeo-Christian value system on the shaping of the culture in which they live. Although one hopes that the young soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan will make it clear to their generation that western values are, simply put, better than those that have shaped the Middle East, most contemporary students graduate high school with the false concept that all cultures and religions are created equal, and that globalisation will eventually lead the rest of the world to the morality that has long protected the nations of the west from the injustices and inequalities of the rest of the world.

In the final analysis, it is difficult to comment as to the long-term impact of these problems on the future of America, and western civilisation at large. Clearly, not all students attend public schools, and one can hope that that those who know better will offset this problem. Furthermore, it should be recalled that the public school system is not the only place where people learn about their history and heritage. In addition to their families and churches, many people become interested and aware of such matters through later exposure to it, often finding that what they learned in secondary school and university were inadequate (and sometimes ideological) versions of events and social movements.

Nonetheless, most historians will acknowledge that those cultures that do not respect their heritage will not remain intact for very long. For this reason, the neglect of religion in the public school is creating a generation of people who neither have an understanding of nor a reverence for the religious traditions that have created, guided, and protected their society for generations, and this is no small tragedy. In an age in which there are countless assaults on the very architecture of western society and the forces that have defined it, this is no small concern.


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