A rough and rocky relationship has existed for some time now between segments of the Christian community and public schools. Growing partly out of integration, but also a clash with science, many believers are convinced that public schools are waging war on their faith.
The usual suspects are secular humanism, evolution and moral relativism – the triple threat!
This sense of threat has prompted a variety of responses. There are ongoing efforts to “Christianize” public schools with the imposition of prayer, Bible reading and religious displays such as the Ten Commandments.
When this has failed there have been repeated calls for Christian parents to withdraw their children from public schools. The effect of this move is obvious in the appearance of many church-based private schools and a thriving “home school” movement, which has become a lucrative industry unto itself.
There is a case to be made, however, for Christians keeping their children in public schools and working for the success of public education. We have no reason to fear public education. The Gospel can compete with any other truth claim. But it is not the school’s place to teach that Gospel. That job belongs to the church.
Beyond that, God does not call us to separate ourselves from the world. The Bible teaches that we are to live differently in the world, what Jesus called “in but not of.” But there is no way to make a biblical case for withdrawal.
When Jesus said “you are the light of the world,” he certainly did not intend that we would hide that light under the bushel of an exclusive community.
These days, education is an essential community resource. It is almost as important as food and water – without it life is certainly precarious. And as a community resource, it belongs to everyone, not just the ones who can afford it. In other words, providing educational resources becomes a matter of justice and fairness.
I understand the need to pass on to our children a legacy of faith. But there is also a profound challenge from our faith tradition that compels us to look beyond our own needs and embrace the needs of others.
We have a moral imperative to see to it that our communities work together to provide every child – regardless of race, religion or economic background – access to the best education possible.
There is also a pragmatic side to all this. Because we have short memories, we forget how new the idea of self government really is. It has only been slightly over two centuries since our forebears crafted the idea of individual liberty.
Before that time, we were ruled by kings who claimed to be chosen by God. The king told us what to do – and what to believe. You see, with individual liberty also came religious freedom. Faith is alive and well in America because it is free.
But this freedom cannot be taken for granted. Advanced citizenship – self government – requires an educated citizenry. We all have a stake, for freedom’s sake, to make sure all our children can read, think and understand the genius of our form of government.
The issue needs to become not saving the faith from its competitors, but living our faith in authentic ways. There is a real chance that by devoting our energies toward protecting what we have, we will actually lose what we have.
Didn’t Jesus say something about that?
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.