Jonathan Merritt on Bible Literacy Classes

Is religious literacy valuable for society?

A few very brief thoughts on this piece from Jonathan Merritt:

1) Merritt’s point about Christian parents probably not wanting a state-approved presentation of Christianity is valid. To the degree that Christians have to let lawmakers or anyone else comb through and filter the contents of our faith in order to gain a foothold somewhere, I think we’ve already lost a big part of our mission.

2) On the other hand, Merritt’s argument is disingenuous because it basically boils down to an assumption that the kind of evangelicals likely to back a Bible literacy bill are not the kind of evangelicals likely to see value in a comparative religion-style education on Scripture. Merritt pretty much assumes from the get-go that the real reason any evangelical would want a Bible literacy class is to catechize. Aside from being a rather bad faith assumption, is he really sure that evangelicals would be outraged to hear their children were taught the Bible was fully of mythical symbolism? I mean, isn’t that what they’re pretty much taught anyway?

3) I wonder why Merritt doesn’t mention comparing a high school Bible literacy class to a college equivalent, of which there are many examples.  Public universities study the Bible all the time, and the vast majority of those classes are taught from an unbelieving point of view. I don’t recall seeing many organized evangelical protests of those classes, which are also taxpayer funded.

4) Merritt writes, “While evangelicals are generally more politically conservative, teachers in public schools might choose to emphasize the Bible’s many teachings on caring for the poor, welcoming the immigrant, and the problems of material wealth.” Ah, my least favorite genre of writing: The I’m-Arguing-From-Your-Terrible-Point-of-View essay.

5) It seems Merritt pretty much ignores the crucial question, which is, “Is religious literacy valuable for American society at large?” Stephen Prothero wrote a well-reviewed book arguing that it is. Near the book’s conclusion, Prothero quotes no less than Charles Colson on why Christians need not fear public courses on the Bible that refuse to proselytize:

“Some critics fear that merely studying the Bible’s role in history, or as literature diminishes it,” writes Colson. But such a course, he argues, does not prevent Christians from taking the “next step” and trying to convert young people to Christianity. As Colson recognizes, however, spurring young people to take this “next step” cannot be the job of public schools. “Can people be good citizens,” Colson asks, “if they don’t know their own history?” The answer, of course, is no.

6) Of course, this entire discussion presupposes that it’s possible to educate about something without prescribing it to the people being educated. Given the rigorous calls for schools to stop teaching everything that requires mature, critical moral evaluation—everything from political history to Mark Twain—I think there’s a deep confusion in Western culture as to whether that is possible at all. Right now we seem awfully comfortable simply banning stuff in the name of justice rather than engaging with our past. Merritt doesn’t find time to ask whether this is a good thing. That’s a shame.

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A Falling Out for Christians and Public Schools

Rod Dreher reprints a correspondence between one of his readers and their child’s school principal, regarding a teacher’s lesson on transgenderism and sexual orientation. As the emails indicate, the parents had requested advance notice if their child’s classrooms were going to teach on the topic, so as to officially request an exemption. When that didn’t happen, and the child received a day’s worth of ideological training on gender, the frustrated parents reached out to the principal.

After initially not responding, the principal replied:

As a mother and school leader, I can empathize with the challenge of keeping up with what our children are exposed to and wanting to be their first teacher on so many issues.

I also think well of [the teacher]. She has shown herself to be a proficient teacher and student advocate.

I do not recall a conversation about how we would handle conversations about transgender issues, but I cannot imagine agreeing either to censure such material or inform you in advance. I am sorry if [the teacher] or I led you to believe such a request would be honored.

The book used is one that is a respected text in honoring the diversity of our children. It is a text that explains a real situation that many children face in self-acceptance, acceptance by others and being true to themselves. We feel the classroom is the appropriate place to share such messages.

We would not request that these themes require permission, or clearance with families. (Different than courses on sexual education, for which we do require permission.) Quite the contrary, families have asked that we enhance our curriculum to be more inclusive of all the different groups our children and families represent, and we feel that this book achieves this purpose.

Here’s what frightens me about this. I cannot imagine a reason that the parents would lie about having talked to the principal previously. There’s nothing to gain from a lie like that (especially since the reader who showed this exchange to Dreher does not reveal the name of the school/principal/teacher). There is, however, quite a bit to gain for a school in misleading parents to feel more in the know about sexual diversity training (which is what this is, not education) than they actually will be. Of course, I don’t know that this principal lied to the parents, so it would be irresponsible to say absolutely that she did. And that’s kind of the point–the alleged conversation was off the record, so the parents can’t prove that anything was agreed to or that their trust has been betrayed. If this were a whistleblowing case involving a CEO and an employee, I think I know where initial public empathy would lie.

Up to this point I’ve resisted the idea that Christian parents have a positive moral obligation to withdraw their children from public school. I still think laying a burden where Scripture does not should be avoided at nearly all costs, and I know these issues affect lower income families in a much different way than they do upper-middle class ones. To that end, if I were a pastor, I wouldn’t (I think) say from the pulpit that parents shouldn’t enroll their children in public schools.

But I have to admit that the exchange Dreher reprints is terrifying to me. It’s terrifying because it’s a naked assertion of authority that is beyond accountability. It’s terrifying because I cannot conceive what the parents could have done differently while assuming the school and its administrators were acting in good faith. It’s terrifying because the lack of nuance, the lack of sympathy, and condescending tone of the principal in these emails suggest that there is no space in her moral imagination for people who have the concerns of these parents. They simply don’t appear on the school’s radar. They don’t count. What matters is pleasing those who want compulsory transgender training in the school, even if it means being duplicitous with parents who have religious or moral scruples.

It feels more and more like the arc of history is bent in the shape of a bow, and its arrow is pointed squarely at people like me and my family.

My honest advice to orthodox Christian families right now would be to do everything possible–financially, logistically, even geographically–to have your young, school-age children spend their days at traditional institutions, or at home. And my urgent request to Christian churches would be for local congregations to quickly move to help families with this burden by organizing part time school opportunities as much as possible. If churches have to wait on that new gym in order to pay some volunteer instructors to teach 2 or 3 days per week, why not? If local churches have a strong group of stay at home moms, or dads with flexible schedules, why not engage these members to be proactive in Christian education? In thinking about public mercy ministries that churches can invest in, I can hardly think of a mercy ministry that would make a larger kingdom imprint than a part time day school. The moment and the opportunity is right there.

Oh, and as a postscript: How do progressive evangelicals who rebuke conservative Christian families for not supporting public schools reckon with all this? If you can look at this episode and come away still thinking that the real problem are moms and dads who want to do a “white flight” out of public schools, I’m afraid you’ve reached Sean Spicer-levels of objectivity. This isn’t a group of privileged Benedict Option religious fanatics who want their elementary and middle schools to teach the 10 Commandments on Thursdays. We’re talking about families whose only request is that their children not be forced to learn a destructive, secular liturgy. And that request is increasingly beyond the pale for public schools. Who is fleeing whom here?

A (Very) Brief Word About the Education Debate

For the last two weeks my social media feeds have burst with punditry on Betsy DeVos. Probably the majority of my feed think her appointment as Secretary of Education is a mistake. The rest wonder aloud when it was that so many people suddenly became education policy wonks overnight. As the conversation around DeVos has continued, however, it seems to have expanded into a more theoretical debate over the merits of public schools, the wisdom of school choice programs, and, least interestingly, Why This Writer’s Personal Narrative Proves Your Political Opinion Is Wrong.

Truthfully, I don’t have a horse in the DeVos debate. I don’t know much about her or the Department she now leads, and I don’t care enough about either topic to learn more. I do though have something more of a perspective on the public school-school choice subjects. Here’s a bullet point summary of what I think:

  • What a person believes about public education in this country is shaped largely by their own personal experience and the experiences of those close to them. That’s OK. It’s OK to have your opinion formed by experience. As far as I’m concerned with education, results matter more than ideology. The effects the rules have on people is absolutely part of the conversation.
  • That being said, a person’s personal experience is personal, which means it describes what happened to them and not necessarily what happens/has happened/will happen to others. Being able to draw knowledge and perspective from one’s own experience without making that experience the sole basis of how one understands the world is a mark of intellectual maturity. Intellectual maturity, alas, is not social media’s strong point.
  • Those who have a more sympathetic perspective toward American public schools should not behave as if public education is really ever on the line here. Public schools will never disappear from this country. No serious person wants that to happen or is working toward it. Construing criticism of the current system as a wholesale assault on the ideal of public education is hysteria, not serious thinking.
  • It seems to me that those who resist school choice programs often misunderstand where the other side is coming from. I’ve seen a lot of friends on social media belittle homeschooling and private schooling families for “white flight,” for not caring about poorer students or inner city students. What I haven’t seen yet is an honest explanation from an anti-school choice evangelical of why Christian families who send their children to public school should not be concerned about the upcoming Supreme Court case concerning school bathrooms and transgendered students. What I haven’t seen yet is a validation of the concerns many parents have about gender ideology in the classroom, or about the dissemination of pornography in school halls. What I haven’t seen yet, in other words, is an evangelical critic of school choice who takes seriously the mistrust that many Christians have toward the public school system. I have to conclude that either A) these evangelicals don’t know how seriously many of their fellow believers take these issues, or B) these evangelicals do know how seriously they take them, but don’t agree that they should take them seriously. Either way, the lack of understanding from school choice critics that I’m seeing is disheartening.