Christian oppression in schools: A reaction to loss of ownership?
It pains me that the loudest opponents to an appropriately-funded common system of education that I encounter are Christians. While it is entirely possible that many of these people are also fighting for the least of these (as I purport to do), I’m concerned that they are using a sympathetic vehicle—poor children—to drive to a destination that few poor families want and that offers more harm than good.
The current iteration of white evangelical Christianity is primarily responsible for the latest erosion of support for public education and even those who support the institution feel that the Bible is useless to correct the destruction. Here’s where I need to be honest about how I’m borrowing a good deal of language from the author Wendell Berry, except that his lament was focused on land conservation. I’ve broken up my argument here into two sections: culpability deals with what blame needs to be borne by my people and usefulness is the proactive case for public schooling for white evangelicals. I’ll write about culpability today and save usefulness for a future post.
Culpability. I’m afraid that there is pernicious lie sitting in the heart of how white Christians talk about and prioritize the nuclear family, and this falsehood helps fuel the fire burning public support for common schools. The lie goes like this: your immediate family is the most important thing in this world at all times, thus all other people or responsibilities should bow down to the preferences of the family. Somehow the need to honor oaths and take care of those under your authority has transformed into an idolization of practices that could run counter to the Gospel.
In my experience it is not uncommon for people to be celebrated for reneging on responsibilities because of the cultural primacy of the secular family unit. There are certainly times when, say, priorities will clash and a man’s responsibility to his wife will trump others he encounters, but the cachet of earthly marriage and childrearing is such that no protest is allowed if the offending party “…is putting his family first,” regardless of what that might entail. Any number of subtle horrors apparently can be excused for a practice that, at its root, may be no different from harsh individualism. What is more natural and secular than taking particular care of a group of people who ensure your wealth, protection and fame?
Jesus Himself appears to scoff at secular family idolization when, after being told that immediate blood relatives were in a crowd, refused to elevate them higher than an unrelated person who “…does the will of God.” Maybe this is the reason that the church, even millennia later, confirms baptized children (or committed children) to the entire congregation. It is a physical acknowledgement of a new inverted reality: the child is in the care of the body of Christ and no longer simply belongs to their parents.
Let me pause here to say that this observation could be limited to lay Christians. I have heard from those who get paid to work for and with the Church that say the opposite is true and that families continue to fall apart due to a parent putting their work before their familial obligations. As I’ve said there’s obviously an elevated place for these responsibilities, but they should not somehow steamroll all other needs in the community.
This distortion is important to public policy because within this family-individualistic worldview no person can be asked to participate in an institution that can be viewed as a sacrifice of any part of a child’s (or parent’s) life. If you can make the case that sending your child to the local school in any way would cost your child or family something, then in this worldview you are compelled not only to resist but for your resistance to be sponsored by the state.
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As to the sacrifice, I’m convinced that the typical white evangelical now harbors fears that participating in public schooling is akin to giving up their children to the evils of this world. These fears have proliferated after years of attacks on the institution by faith leaders, but their strength is in their attachment to power and discrimination.
I want to defer the details to true education historians, but I think it’s worth considering the role of prayer in public schools as both a stand-in for something sinister and the defining moment that white evangelicals began to treat public schools as “not ours.”
In the 19th century the practice of school “prayer” (I’m putting this in quotes because, as I hope I show, I do not want communion with God to be confused with what transpired) and Bible reading was used to discriminate against Catholic students specifically and Irish immigrants generally. Knowing this, it is hard to separate the furor over the supreme court decision against school-sponsored prayer in the mid-twentieth century from the parallel concerns in white America over school desegregation.
Concerns is the wrong word, isn’t it? “Concerns” are what people have about a new ride at Six Flags. White America didn’t have concerns, we had racist hatred. The origins of the religious right can be found in school segregation and the push against government interference in all-white Christian private schools. Just like how my son tells me his stomach hurts instead of admitting that he’s afraid of something, maybe white Christians stated that they were concerned about the government in schools because it’s not polite to say “I don’t want to send my child to a school with Black folks.”
I am in no way suggesting that all people who despise the prohibition of school-sponsored prayer are harboring hatred against the racial integration of schools, but is it too much of a stretch to see a pattern of fear against who owns your school? White protestants held a monopoly on public school culture until the 1960’s--prayer in public schools is a bright red line which represents not only the diminished power of the church in public policy but also the diminished power of white people. We white Christians have a long history of idolizing retreat in the face of the loss of power, the myth of the founding of our country depends on it. A new perspective took root in white evangelical circles: if public schools are no longer ours, they must belong to the enemy.
Instead of continuing to rely on italics to describe something, I need to work out my theory on ownership and schooling. For years a strange phenomenon has been evident through polling data: folks overwhelmingly approve of their local public school and at the same time express strong disapproval of the general state of public schooling.
How can this be, how can each individual school get higher marks than the system as a whole? I think the answer is found in ownership. We feel like we “own” our local school—the principal takes our calls, the teachers send us little notes home, we can make input into the status of the playground or whether the school play is Shrek or Les Misérables. However, there is currently no “we” that owns United States public schooling. Rural folks can look with disgust at urban schoolchildren who don’t have FFA groups, coastal liberals might recoil at the textbooks used in the Midwest, Christians can lament the loss of school-sponsored prayer while atheists pull their hair out at the centrality of Judeo-Christian values in our schools. Us white protestants straight-up OWNED public schooling for generations and used it to advance a white protestant view of the nation. The loss of ownership (or, put more fairly to those not in this group, the sharing of power) has been painful for folks who were used to sitting in the driver’s seat.
There’s a popular expression in progressive circles that helps explain reactionary politics: when you're accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression. Christians like me have had things taken away from us within public school policy over the last 60 years, and now we’re crying oppression. But should we lament what was taken? If school-sponsored prayer was used (accidentally or purposefully) to single out people, how do we square that with the Biblical command not to pray performatively in Matthew 6?
Further, what if the cry over school prayer is nothing more than a polite way for white folks to square their discomfort with integrated schools? It is no mistake that the segregation academies that popped up across the southeast in response to Brown v. Board were Christian schools. You may join me in claiming that creating all-white schools under the Christian banner is a misuse of the Gospel. However, even if the white evangelical Christian church does not advance white supremacy, it is abundantly clear that white supremacists feel at home there.
What was “ours,” we got by stealing from others via racist, xenophobic and other discriminatory policies. The tax collector in Luke 6 should be our guide in this new reality. Instead of trying to defend his sins as common practice, he offered to pay back four times what he stole. Have we done the same to our non-white or non-protestant brothers and sisters? We need to not only stop pouting about the loss of power, but perhaps recognize that worldly estrangement is the natural and right position for Christians today. I’ll talk more about that in my next post.
 James KA Smith writes about this aspect of the church service much better than I ever could in Desiring the Kingdom