As summer slowly grinds to a steamy close, children and young people around the country are gearing up to go back to school. For most of them that means public school.
Public schools have been the mainstay for educating our children almost from the beginning of our republic. Our schools have been an integral part of helping children and young people gain competency in the skills needed to live a meaningful life.
Unfortunately, for several decades now, public schools have also been the front line of a brutal culture war, much of it driven by a particular view of Christianity.
For many Christians the first shot in the culture war was fired by the U.S. Supreme Court when it declared teacher led prayer unconstitutional. For these Christians that single ruling removed not only prayer from public schools but also God.
It’s not true, of course. So long as there are algebra tests, there will be prayer in school. Beyond that, the court ruled only on teacher-led prayer. Students are free to pray as they would like. The only provision is that their activities do not disrupt instruction time.
Other faith-inspired issues in the culture war include sex education, evolution and history. History is a particularly saucy topic. After all, the history of the United States looks very different to African and Native-Americans than it does to Americans of European descent.
Of course that’s one of the things that make public education so important and challenging. Public schools are the first staging area for our ongoing experiment with democracy. Public schools are a microcosm of our country trying to find a way to have unity in the midst of our great diversity.
Instead of being the front line of a culture war where one group seeks to impose its values on everyone else, public schools ought to be the place where we diligently seek to find common ground. Public education at its heart is the quest to find those important truths to which we can all say “yes.”
There are too many ways of praying in America for any single prayer to be adequate. We are simply not going to be able to all say the same thing about God. But we should all be able to say “yes” to the U.S. Constitution and the freedoms our laws provide.
In addition to reading and math and science, schools have the opportunity to teach and demonstrate what it means to be a citizen of the United States. Public schools are amazingly positioned to help children and young people learn to respect and value all people, even those who are different ”especially those who are different.
When we gather in our individual houses of worship, we can chant “our faith is number one,” until we all pass out. But when we gather in our common areas, those places owned by everyone, the claim to a superior faith must be left at the door.
For those who simply cannot embrace the idea that in a public school all faiths are created equally, there is always the option of home schooling or private schools ”both have a long tradition in our history.
But an important ingredient of community is lost when we segregate ourselves from others ”for whatever reason. We lose the opportunity to learn from others, to see the world through the eyes of another. Wouldn’t it be sad if the viewpoint we fail to consider is the very view that would complete our own.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.