The Southern Baptist Convention has a long record of support for public education but has in recent years grown increasingly antagonistic toward state-run schools, according to an analysis of SBC resolutions.
A resolution proposed to this year’s convention calls for parents to withdraw their children from public schools and either home school or educate them in private Christian schools. The resolution, which still must clear a committee in order to come up for vote, says government schools are godless and anti-Christian and that they undermine religious teaching children receive at home and church.
The denomination has previously passed resolutions affirming home schooling and private Christian schools but has never renounced earlier statements describing Southern Baptists historically as “strong supporters of public education.”
In 1961 the convention endorsed a “strong program of public instruction” supported by taxpayers. The resolution urged Southern Baptists to seek adequate funding for public schools and make their services available as teachers, administrators and members of school boards.
A 1970 resolution discouraged churches from using their facilities for private schools, citing growing pressure for government funding of parochial schools. It also noted that some church-related schools “are being formed simply as a strategy to avoid racial integration.”
The convention in 1979 recognized a “crisis” in public schools in the form of communicating moral values, funding, discipline and other problems. “While recognizing the validity of the ministry of church-related private schools, Southern Baptists [are] urged to become more involved in shaping and supporting public schools, participating responsibly wherever possible in the local school and in the decision-making bodies which determine the course of public education,” the resolution said.
The year 1979 marked the first year of the “conservative resurgence,” which gradually replaced the convention’s moderate leadership with conservatives. It also represented a decided shift in tone for resolutions on education.
Resolutions in ensuing years decried “secular humanism” in public schools, the teaching of evolution and limits on school prayer and religious expression in the classroom.
A 1981 resolution on “secular humanism” cited a “trend away from theistic teaching in the public educational systems.”
A 1982 resolution warned that students were being “indoctrinated” with the theory of evolution and expressed support for teaching “scientific creationism” in public schools. Another resolution in 1982 declared support for a constitutional amendment to restore prayer in schools.
A 1984 resolution called on Southern Baptists to fight a “de facto exclusion of references to the Deity from public schools, which makes the government not neutral to religion but antagonistic to it, and replaces the Judeo-Christian ethic with a religion of secular humanism.”
A 1986 resolution on religious liberty voiced concern over “suppression of religious expression and Christian views,” including Supreme Court rulings denying “the right of voluntary prayer and Bible reading in the public schools.”
A 1992 resolution proclaimed that “the free exercise rights of students are not forfeited at the doors of America’s public schools” and urged Baptist students to “vigorously and aggressively to seek all means by which they may share the love of God with their fellow students.”
In 1993 the convention criticized a U.S. Supreme Court decision banning prayers at high school graduation ceremonies, citing “severe erosion” of religious freedom in the previous half-century.
In 1994 the convention opposed the Outcome-Based Education theory of school reform as being “more concerned about promoting multiculturalism, ‘politically correct’ social values and New Age philosophy to the exclusion of traditional Judeo-Christian values rather than measuring academic outcomes.” The resolution urged parents to become “actively involved in the education of their children, whether in public or private schooling.”
A 1999 resolution on “public discourse and the free exercise in religion” observed a “climate of growing and pervasive hostility” toward religion in secular society, including schools. It called for policies providing “greater opportunity for the free exercise of religion in general, and greater opportunities for religious instruction in particular,” in public schools.
Other objections related to sex education and the distribution of birth control in schools.
Resolutions in 1986 and 1987 targeted sex education. The 1987 resolution on sex education decried “values neutral” materials as “offensive to the religious convictions” of many students and parents and asked that schools rather be mandated to teach “sexual abstinence until marriage.” The 1986 statement linked sex education taught from a “secular humanist” perspective with increases in teen pregnancy and abortion.
The convention explicitly embraced home schooling in a 1997 resolution saying the Bible “establishes parents as the principal educators of their children” and encouraging government officials to recognize parents’ right to home school.
Two years later, a resolution on Christian schools asked churches to consider “supporting educational programs that follow biblical principles, whether they are implemented in Christian, private, public or home schools.” The resolution noted that children are exposed to “secular worldviews” through institutions, media and “humanistic curricula.” It commended LifeWay Christian Resources, the SBC publishing house, for its “Kingdom Education” emphasis and development of curricula “designed to teach children from a biblical perspective.”
Along with educational content, SBC resolutions over the years focused on school funding. Earlier conventions viewed the prospect of taxpayer support of predominantly Catholic parochial schools as a threat both to public-school funding and the separation of church and state. Over time, as more Baptists considered alternatives to public education, SBC resolutions became more tolerant of government lending a hand to parents paying tuition at religious schools.
A 1953 resolution opposed the use of taxpayer funding for parochial schools, based on Southern Baptists’ commitment to the separation of church and state.
A 1971 statement affirmed the right of parents to send their children to non-public schools but viewed channeling of state funds to church schools in any form as a violation of religious liberty. “A basic tenet of American democracy is that every child deserves an equal opportunity for public education, regardless of race, color, religion, national origin or economic status,” the resolution said. It reaffirmed Southern Baptists’ “commitment to our system of public school education as a means of raising the knowledge level of all children in the nation” and supported efforts to improve the quality of public education.
A 1974 resolution opposed any federal aid-to-education program that made taxpayers responsible for funding of non-public schools.
The convention in 1982 opposed tax credits for tuition paid to private schools, saying it would benefit most “those who could afford to finance their children’s attendance at private schools, including elite schools.”
By 1996, however, the tide had turned with passage of a resolution encouraging legislation allowing “parental choice” in educational funding.
While debating the educational values of public schools, the SBC still encouraged adult teachers and administrators to remain involved in public schools as a form of Christian witness.
A resolution in 1999 on Christian influence in public schools noted that “Godly public school personnel are often the only adult representation of Jesus Christ and His redemptive love that students in public schools experience in their lives.” The resolution called for affirmation and support of public-school employees and asked Baptists to “pray for them and the places in which they serve.”
The current resolution, being proposed by former SBC second vice president T.C. Pinckney and Houston lawyer Bruce Shortt, also commends “adult believers who labor as missionaries to unbelieving colleagues and students.” It describes them as “salt and light in a dark and decaying government school system.”
Pinckney and Shortt’s resolution says it is foolish for Christian parents to “give their children to be trained in schools run by the enemies of God.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
Managing editor at EthicsDaily.com from 2003-2009, Allen wrote more than 1,500 news stories during his tenure.