Left Side-Reading, Writing ... And Religion?

The Wall Must Be Maintained—Religion Does Not Belong In Our Public Schools

Tom Robotham explores the relationship between church and state separation.

Believing … that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his god … I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion … thus building a wall of separation between church and state. —Thomas Jefferson.

Conservatives like to say that America was founded on “Judeo-Christian values”—by which they really mean, Christian values.

Historical reality is a little more complicated than that, of course. Thomas Jefferson, for example, was a Deist. He believed in a Creator but not in the divinity of Christ. Indeed, he once cut up the Bible, stripping out all the supernatural stuff and keeping only Jesus’ social doctrine.

Beliefs varied among the other Founding Fathers. Some were nominally Christian, others more devout. But in the end, they agreed that Congress should “make no law respecting the establishment of religion.” They did so not because they were opposed to religion, but quite the opposite: They realized that the best way to protect religious freedom was to maintain a strict divide between church and state.

In 1962, the Supreme Court reinforced this view with a ruling that declared school-led prayers unconstitutional. Right-wing Christians have been fighting this ever since, arguing that a “decline in morality” in this country can be traced directly back to the Court’s decision. Bring back prayer in the schools, they shout.

Running parallel to this in many districts are ongoing efforts to force schools to teach “Creationism” or “Intelligent Design,” alongside Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Let’s consider the latter effort first.

Creationism has no place in the science curriculum, for the simple reason that it’s not science. Indeed, it is the opposite. Scientists begin with hypotheses and then conduct experiments to see if a particular hypothesis holds up. Fundamental to the process is the acceptance of whatever the evidence suggests. Creationists, by contrast, begin with a firm belief, then selectively seek evidence to support that belief. The fact is, though, no legitimate scientist today gives credence to Creationism.

But what about prayer? Shouldn’t students be free to pray in school?

Of course they should—and they are. If a student wants to bow his or head over lunch in the cafeteria, nobody is likely to stop him. And if some misinformed teacher or cafeteria aide were to do so, that person should be enlightened regarding the law of the land. The very idea of public education is a testament to the value of American diversity. All are welcome, or should be, regardless of race, ethnicity or creed.

I think religion as an academic discipline is best left for college. As a subject in elementary and secondary schools, it is too open to abuse by teachers who would push it as gospel rather than an important piece of literature. And having it taught as an academic subject wouldn’t satisfy most religious conservatives anyway. It would likely have just the opposite effect. Many parents would complain that introducing it as literature would undermine their own religious teachings. The complaints would no doubt increase were school curricula to include world religions—the study of Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim scripture along side the teaching of the Bible.

With this in mind, it should be clear that religion is best left out of public schools entirely. While we’re at it, we should strike the phrase “one nation under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance—a phrase that was only officially added in the first place in 1954.

Those who argue that this sort of thing represents an attack on religion are dead wrong. It represents precisely the opposite: a protection of religion. Just not one single religion over another.

Why this is not sufficient in the minds of many Americans, I do not know. Indeed, it has always struck me as odd that many Christians who profess deep faith don’t seem to have very much of it. By their actions—by their calls for reintroducing religion into the schools and the public square generally—they seem to be suggesting that faith is a fragile thing and that instilling in their children their own religious values at home and at church is not enough.

But that’s just an observation. They’re free to believe what they want, even if it includes the conviction that Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims are going to burn in hell. Oh, and the wrong kind of Christians, too. Years ago, after I published a personal essay about my religious upbringing in the Episcopal Church, I received emails from both a Roman Catholic and a Southern Baptist saying that I was damned for eternity because I belonged to a “false church.” Presumably the Catholic thought that about the Baptist as well—and vice versa.

That story in itself should reinforce the wisdom of keeping religion out of government affairs and all of its institutions—including public schools. But for a lot of people it will not reinforce this wisdom. They will continue to push for more government endorsement of “Judeo-Christian values.” Thank goodness that the First Amendment stands in their way.

Tom Robotham is an award-winning writer and an adjunct professor of American studies at Old Dominion University. He was born and raised in New York City but has lived in Norfolk for the past 22 years. He can be reached at tomrobotham@gmail.com or at the Taphouse Grill in Ghent.

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