Public Education, America and Religion
America’s schools are a mess.
Teacher morale is low. Disrespect, truancy and discipline problems are rampant.
Today’s kids are more profane, angry, hurting, confused, violent…and ignorant (especially of their history).
But a failing education system was a problem our Founding Fathers knew was possible.
In a rather inconvenient quote about American education. Dr. Benjamin Rush penned:
“The only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in religion. Without this there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty; and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments….”[i]
Dr. Rush fully knew the destructive nature of secular education. In his day the French Revolution had removed God from its cultural institutions…and French society collapsed as a result. There was a clear line between the religiosity of a people and her social dysfunctions.
Our Founders observed how a French secular state produced disobedience, crime, disrespect, division and ignorance.
Dr. Rush, who also founded the Sunday School movement in America, argued:
“We waste so much time and money in punishing crimes, and take so little pains to prevent them. We profess to be republicans, and yet we neglect the only means of establishing and perpetuating our republican forms of government, that is, the universal education of our youth in the principles of Christianity, by means of the Bible; for this Divine book, above all others favors that equality among mankind, that respect for just laws.”[ii]
American education originated in the mid-1600s in the Puritan colonies with the “Four R’s”: reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic and religion.
For centuries, American children were schooled in, with and through biblical values.
The purpose wasn’t to evangelize (a task for church and home) but to inculcate general Christian virtues of civility, temperance, respect, compassion, industry, self-reliance, frugality, self-restraint, fortitude and modesty. Children had the clergy as teachers. Many churches housed schools. Prayers and Bible readings were part of the curriculum. The greatest distinction was between Protestant and Catholic education (which is what prompted the rise of parochial schools).
A biblical philosophy guided the work of American education for three centuries, although not without occasional challenges.
In 1844, for example, a French Deist named Stephen Girard attempted to establish a secular school in Philadelphia prohibiting Christian education. The resulting lawsuit against Girard went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The famous lawyer Daniel Webster argued America was founded upon Christian values and religious principles, and Girard’s request was “repugnant to the law.” In the unanimous Supreme Court decision against the establishment of a purely secular school., Supreme Court justice Joseph Story opined:
“Why may not the Bible, and especially the New Testament, without note or comment, be read and taught as a divine revelation in the (school)–it’s general precepts expounded…and its glorious principles of morality inculcated? …Where can the purest principles of morality be learned so clearly or so perfectly as from the New Testament.”[iii]
Fifty years later, at the 1892 Columbian Exposition, Kansas teachers issued a national historical review of public education. They were concerned with a trend in public education to divorce itself from church control, noting in the 19th century how “the church reluctantly relinquished her claim upon the elementary schools.” Then these public educators made this stunning conclusion (and request):
“…if the study of the Bible is to be excluded from all State schools–if the inculcation of the principles of Christianity is to have no place in the daily program–if the worship of God is to form no part of the general exercises of these public elementary schools–then the good of the state would be better served by restoring all schools to church control.“[iv]
The “good of the state?” Absolutely. These teachers knew without a virtuous education (based upon biblical principles), a secular America, and all her social institutions, was doomed to descend into chaos, anarchy, violence and other evils.
In the 20th century progressives, socialists and secularists worked for decades–finally succeeding in the early 1960s–to remove religion from public schools.
On June 25, 1962, a U.S. Supreme Court–without legal precedent and invoking a vague line by Jefferson about the “separation of church and state”–banned the use of non-sectarian prayers in American schools. A year later the same Court, relying upon the precedence of its earlier ruling, removed Bible readings from public schools. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, America scrubbed public prayers, courthouse nativity scenes, the Ten Commandments and Christian crosses, among other religious imagery from its culture.
By the 1990s, America had raised its first purely secular generation (known as Gen X). By 2010, Millennials were checking “none” for spiritual preference, no longer attended church and embracing secular lifestyles. Not to be outdone, Gen Z is now the most agnostic and atheist generation in American history.
Why would a secular culture be so dangerous to America’s future?
A secular American culture is not only more profane, disrespectful, angry, divisive and narcissistic, but it’s also easier to manipulate for state control. The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci wrote in the 1920s:
Socialism is precisely the religion that must overwhelm Christianity…In the new order, Socialism will triumph by first capturing the culture via infiltration of schools, universities, churches and the media by transforming the consciousness of society.
Gramsci essentially laid out the playbook for American progressives and secularists. The first step is controlling the curriculum and changing the narratives. In order for a secular state to rise, it must eliminate the centrality of Christianity from its culture.
Ironically, in 1892 another Supreme Court ruled on the centrality of Christianity in shaping America’s political institutions. The case was the Church of the Holy Trinity vs. United States. The conclusion of that Court clearly supported religion as central to the civil health and happiness of a society:
“The happiness of a people and the good order and preservation of civil government depend upon piety, religion and morality.”[v]
Besides home and church, where does this “good order and preservation” propagate?
Founding educator Noah Webster, echoing the words of Benjamin Rush, argued for our American school system:
[T]he Christian religion is the most important and one of the first things in which all children under a free government ought to be instructed. No truth is more evident than that the Christian religion must be the basis of any government intended to secure the rights and privileges of a free people.[vi]
Similarly, Abraham Lincoln noted the connection between education and government when he reportedly said: “The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.”
And that proverb has proven true. Just talk to any teacher over 45 about how education and students have changed. Today’s students, not to mention many of their parents, are generally confused, ignorant, depressed, wounded and lost. Their lives are a mess. Their homes are a mess. Their neighborhoods and cities are a mess.
American schools are simply reflecting the culture.
And harvesting the fruit of sixty years of secular education.
[i] Benjamin Rush Quoted in “Report of the Commissioner of Education for the Year 1893-1894”; Washington Printing Office, 1896: p. 721. Download available at Google Books.
[ii] A Century of Gospel Work: A History of the Growth of Evangelical Religion in the United States” by the Rev. W.F.P. Noble (Philadelphia: H.C. Watts and Co, 1876): 184. Download available at Google Books.
[iii] Mr. Webster’s Speech in Defence of the Christian Ministry and in Favor of the Religious Instruction of the Young Delivered to the Supreme Court of the United States (February 10, 1844). Download available at Google Books.
[iv] “Columbian History of Education in Kansas” (Topeka: Hamilton Printing Company, 1893): 82. Download available at Google Books.
[v] “The United States: A Christian Nation” by David J. Brewer (Philadelphia: John C. Winston Company, 1905). Download available at Google Books
[vi] Noah Webster, A Collection of Papers on Political, Literary, and Moral Subjects (New York: Webster and Clark, 1843), p. 291. Download available at Google Books.
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