Not many decisions coming out of the Southern Baptist Convention these days occasion much shock anymore, but what looks like a proposal for a Southern Baptist parochial school system to replace public education causes my old Baptist eyebrows to arch way up.
When I was growing up in the Missouri Ozarks nearly 70 years ago, Baptists wouldn’t for a moment have questioned the appropriateness and the necessity of a public educational system.
Quite to the contrary, they looked with suspicion on Catholic parochial schools, wondering whether they adequately prepared Catholic youth for life in today’s world and vigorously opposed Catholic children riding public school buses, much less receiving money for support of their schools.
How times have changed! Now we hear Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, declare that the time had come for responsible Christian parents to begin to develop an “exit strategy” from public schools and a “Kingdom Education” leader in the SBC assert that America needs a new Christian-run “public” school system committed to turning out followers of Jesus Christ.
Let me concede that Southern Baptist churches will need to create their own schools (and have about 600 already) if they expect them to teach “intelligent design” rather than evolution, a “biblical worldview,” to feature prayer and Bible reading and to foster a Religious Right moral agenda.
Public schools have to prepare citizens who can function in an increasingly pluralistic global environment. However much some may wish it were true, America is no longer a “Christian” nation. A majority of its people identify themselves as Christians, but there are also six and a half million Jews, six million Muslims, four million Buddhists, a million or more Hindus, plus Ba’hais, Taoists, Confucianists, and numerous other religious types. As Diana Eck has established, “America is the most religiously pluralistic nation in the world.”
It is not hard to understand why Southern Baptists would follow the lead of the Roman Catholic Church here. The Southern Baptist Convention is numerically so dominant in the southern region of the United States that Southern Baptists no longer think like Baptists.
In our beginnings the Baptist consciousness was a minority consciousness. In education that meant strong support for public schools which would prepare all citizens without discrimination for life in their context.
Baptists had experienced a lot of discrimination when the only schools were church-operated, and when they established their own, they tried to eliminate every trace of sectarianism. The charter of the first Baptist college, Rhode Island College, stipulated that neither trustees nor faculty nor students had to be Baptists.
How different the situation of Baptists in the American southland today! If it can get a hand into the public purse in support of its schools, the Southern Baptist Convention could succeed in establishing a parochial school system parallel to the Roman Catholic.
Many readers might expect me to say that would be all bad, but I cannot. Early Protestant misgivings notwithstanding, the Roman Catholic parochial schools have made and are making a significant contribution to American life and culture. I can confirm from experience of teaching in Catholic universities that Catholic schools today mold outstanding citizens and prepare them well to contribute to American society in all areas.
Could a Southern Baptist parochial school system do the same? It could if it would strive to inculcate genuine Christian values, but that would require laying aside some of the major reasons for creating such a system, especially the negative ones.
Christians, too, have to be prepared to benefit from and contribute to the culture and not to set themselves against it. On that score I am not hopeful in regard to a Southern Baptist parochial system.
A lot of rage fuels this movement. Although it died in committee, in 2004 one resolution proposed to denounce “government” schools as “officially godless” and “anti-Christian,” warning that secular education was undermining Christian values of churchgoing youth. A movement spawned by this kind of anger will not bring forth healthy and productive citizens.
E. Glenn Hinson is senior professor of church history and spirituality at the Baptist Seminary of Kentucky.