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Oklahoma Educators, Clergy Meet in Statewide Summit on Religion in Public Schools

Education has become the flashpoint in the culture wars, but it could become a starting point to finding common ground, a professor told 150 teachers and clergy from Oklahoma at a conference March 25-26.

“Education is a profound intellectual task, but education is ultimately a spiritual task,” Tom Boyd, professor emeritus of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma, said at the first-ever statewide conference on religion and public schools sponsored by the Oklahoma Education Association.

Boyd said society has made public education a scapegoat simply because it is so important. Part of the problem, he said, comes from a faulty view of the separation of church and state that says religion is totally private and has nothing to do with public life.

“I believe religious life is profoundly personal, but it is never private,” Boyd said. “It is never purely private, because my deepest-lived convictions I bear with me when I go into the public sphere. I can’t leave them home and compartmentalize them.”

Boyd said there is also a danger when religion grows public that majorities will seek to cram their beliefs down everyone’s throat. He suggested a distinction by author Barbara McGraw between the “civic” public, the realm of laws and political action, and the “forum of conscience” concerned with moral sensibility and community, the sphere of the community of faith.

“I don’t believe as a religious person I should be making public policy,” Boyd said. “I try and vote for people who do that, and I may talk to them and encourage them, but they are doing that. I’m a part of the forum of conscience. That is the public sphere that I belong to.”

Though their approaches may differ, Boyd said religious communities and public schools share a common goal of nurturing children toward maturity.

“Can we not learn to sit together and deal with the religious dimension of life in such a way that we do not try to run over people, intrude upon their lives and indoctrinate them, but nurture them into understanding the depth of the religious consciousness in the world today?” he asked. “It is not going to go away, and we want to be there to participate and deal with it.”

Wade Burleson, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Enid, Okla., said he thinks that headlines about Southern Baptist Convention resolutions critical of public education are misleading.

“Take it from this man, who has served as president of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, who is pastor of a very large Southern Baptist church, I believe public schools are absolutely critical to the health of our nation,” Burleson said. “And I believe there are a lot of people like me out there, who are ready and willing to partner and walk with you. And I think a conference like this is a tremendous tool to facilitate that cooperation.”

Burleson said he has been president of a foundation for civic involvement for his local high school and once was appointed by the governor to a regional education committee, which was unusual because the church where he is pastor sponsors a Christian school. Burleson said his children attended both private and public schools, a decision that didn’t sit well among church members who felt he should model full support for the Christian school.

Recently Burleson led his church to adopt an at-risk school and sponsor a mentoring program, an experience that he said benefitted both the school and church.

“It tapped into a volunteer spirit found within my faith-based organization,” he said. “There’s a tendency, particularly among larger churches, to have a congregation that is tempted with the come-and-enjoy mentality, where they come to church to listen to a speaker, they are edified through the worship and the music, they’re entertained by what goes on, and it’s almost as if they have this mentality that church is all about coming and enjoying.”

“It gave us an opportunity to have an outlet for people in our church to work and to serve within the community,” Burleson said.

Major Jemison, senior pastor of St. John Missionary Baptist church in Oklahoma City, said there is a lot of fear about the future in the African-American community.

“We’re looking at our children now, and we’re seeing them moving backwards instead of forwards for a whole host of reasons,” Jemison said. “In fact it is predicted that among African-American children, this will be the first generation of our folks since the civil rights movement that will not achieve more than their parents achieved.”

Jemison said those reasons include a breakdown in home and family, which contributes to a lack of respect for authority and self-esteem, poverty and high dropout rates.

“There has to be a connection between the school and church in order for us to teach the moral values that our kids need in order for them to understand that education is vitally important if they are going to excel and climb higher in this society,” he said. “There is no way for us to compete in the future. There is no way for us to compete with other cultures if there is no educational foundation in our lives.”

“It’s a no brainer for us,” Jemison said. “We’re not bothered about the separation of church and state. That’s not a hindrance for us, because the church has always been interwoven in the fabric of our lives both intellectually and spiritually.”

Todd Littleton, pastor of Snow Hill Baptist Church in Tuttle, Okla., said he was surprised in his community, which is considered affluent, to also find many at-risk kids. Instead of waiting for teachers to ask churches for help, he said,” We need to take some more initiative and come in and say ‘Here’s what we can do.'”

Conference planners said the lines separating the church and state have been drawn, but that doesn’t mean public educators cannot develop partnerships with the religious community.

“It takes the whole community to sustain great public schools, and both churches and schools are a vital part of the community,” said Roy Bishop, Oklahoma Education Association president.

Educators and clergy agreed that the conversations addressed some provocative questions, while easing the tension between the two communities.

“The conversations were a starting point and hopefully each district will go back home and execute the plan they developed for partnering with their local faith community,” said Dottie Hager, OEA associate executive director and event organizer.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.