When the Southern Baptist Convention meets June 13-14 in Greensboro, N.C., they may be asked to vote on a resolution to begin pulling their children from public schools.

Written by Roger Moran and Bruce Shortt, the resolution is motivated in part by a 2002 Southern Baptist Council on Family Life report which concludes that 88 percent of children from evangelical homes leave church by age 18 and do not ever return.

Moran and Shortt blame the public schools for this exodus, citing “dogmatic Darwinism” and “policies teaching that the homosexual lifestyle is acceptable” as the primary offenses.

Before the SBC circles the wagons to protect the faithful from the public schools and popular culture, they might want to look closer to home to understand why so many young adults are apparently rejecting their religious upbringing.

Although I am now married to a Presbyterian minister and belong to a congregation, many years ago I was one of those young people raised in an evangelical, fundamentalist church who walked away–and not because of my education, which was for all 12 years at a well-respected Southern Baptist school in Charleston.

Instead, I left my home church because it was intolerant and insular. Back then every sermon was a diatribe against the perceived threats of Jews, Catholics, racial equality and desegregation, and feminism.

As society has changed its collective attitudes–or at least its overt commentary–about anti-Semitism, racism and sexism, churches such as the one I grew up in have traded their old demons for the newer ones of secular humanists, homosexuals or liberals, but the sermons haven’t changed otherwise.

Such sermons run counter to what emerging adults need to hear. Instead of indoctrination and a call to conformity, young people need permission from the authority figures in their lives to put their beliefs under a microscope, to fly them in a storm, to break them apart and put them back together. Young adults who are trusted and pushed to examine a religion or an ideology with a critical eye will not reject it if it is sound and relevant.

One of my own students is a case in point. Each year in the small town of York, S.C., some of the mainline churches turn over a Sunday worship service to the graduating seniors, and this year one of my Advanced Placement English students, Hannah Wallace, wrote her sermon about this need to explore in order to mature.

“This class began a personal struggle for me in the growth of my faith,” Hannah wrote. “What no one had told me was that this class could be life changing. I am truly a completely different person standing here today because of this class.”

“I believe that Mrs. McSpadden’s unspoken challenge was this: ‘Ask yourself the hard questions.’

“She never told us how she felt or her opinions on any topic but pushed us everyday to ask the really hard questions about life and to think outside the box. We discussed issues like truth versus appearance, greatness, love and hate, identity, fate and free will, and justice.

“Before this year, I had never really thought about these questions. I had always believed that I knew what was right or wrong and that I knew who I was, but I had never dug deep enough to find out….

“One of the biggest obstacles I faced was determining ‘What is Truth?’ I wanted so desperately to make things black and white that I missed the fact that many issues and questions have only gray areas. I thought that every question had a Capital T Truth and struggled finding out that ambiguity was sometimes the only answer.

“Instead of remaining passive in my faith, I have asked myself the really hard questions. I believe I have passed Mrs. McSpadden’s challenge. Just like my questions, her challenge was tough. Never once did she say that we had to answer all the questions, simply research the questions and cherish the journey. The journey I have had while dealing with my doubt has made me stronger.”

Hannah and her classmates didn’t embrace moral relativism or reject their core beliefs. Instead, they learned that listening to each other–closely, with respect–was a mind-opening adventure that led them to value each other even when their viewpoints differed greatly. They recognized that easy certainty is a mental shortcut that sabotages genuine understanding.

Trying to inoculate young people against the demons of the day or attempting to separate them from the culture in which they must eventually live is not only ineffective, it is dangerous. The world is dangerous enough without more extremists who preach hatred, or entrenched political enemies who define compromise as defeat, or radicals who confuse righteous indignation with self-righteous posturing.

We need more people like Hannah, who aren’t afraid to ask themselves the hard questions and who are encouraged to do so by their families, their religious institutions, and yes, even by their public schools.

Kay McSpadden is a high school English teacher in York, S.C. This column, from Saturday’s Charlotte Observer, is used here with her permission.

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