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Why Is Religion Taboo in American Schools?

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By John W. Whitehead
February 19, 2009
Our young people are growing up in a world in which GOD is the new four-letter word. Look around and you will find that while it is permissible for children in many public school systems and homes to read novels with graphic language and watch sexually explicit commercials on TV, talking about God or religion is taboo.

Few objections are raised over the kind of music kids are listening to on their MP3-players at school during non-instructional time. However, lawsuits are constantly being filed over whether students should observe a moment of silence at the start of the school day. Two incidents that perfectly illustrate my point recently came across my desk.

The first incident involves Wade, a fourth grader from Colorado. Wade's class was given a "Hero" assignment, which required each student to pick a hero, research the person and write an essay. The student would then dress up and portray the chosen hero as part of a "live wax museum" and give an oral report in front of the class.

However, when the 9-year-old chose Jesus as his hero, school officials immediately insisted that he pick another hero. (You have to wonder whether school officials would have objected had Wade chosen the Dalai Lama--or even the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.--as his hero.) After Wade's parents objected, the school proposed a compromise: Wade could write the essay on Jesus. He could even dress up like Jesus for the "wax museum." However, he would have to present his oral report to his teacher in private, with no one else present, rather than in front of the classroom like the other students.

The message to young Wade, of course, was two-fold: first, Jesus is not a worthy hero, and second, Jesus is someone to be ashamed of and kept hidden from public view. Yet do we really want our young people to grow up believing that freedom of speech means that you're free to talk about anything as long as you don't mention God or Jesus?

Wade is not the only school-aged child being singled out for censorship because of a particular religious viewpoint. For instance, a third grader at an elementary school in Las Vegas, Nevada, was asked to write in her journal about what she liked most about the month of December. When the child wrote that she liked the month of December because it's Jesus' birthday and people get to celebrate it, her teacher tapped her on the shoulder and informed her that she was not allowed to write about religion in school.

Much of the credit for this state of affairs can be chalked up to secularist organizations that have worked relentlessly to drive religion from public life. John Leo, a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report, painted a grim picture of those who operate under the so-called guise of safeguarding the separation of church and state so that all faiths might flourish. Leo's article, written seven years ago, was an eerie foreshadowing of our current state of affairs:

History textbooks have been scrubbed clean of religious references and holidays scrubbed of all religious references and symbols. Some intellectuals now contend that arguments by religious people should be out of bounds in public debate, unless, of course, they agree with the elites.
In schools the anti-religion campaign is often hysterical. When schoolchildren are invited to write about any historical figure, this usually means they can pick Stalin or Jeffrey Dahmer, but not Jesus or Luther, because religion is reflexively considered dangerous in schools and loathsome historical villains aren't. Similarly a moment of silence in the schools is wildly controversial because some children might use it to pray silently on public property. Oh, the horror. The overall message is that religion is backward, dangerous and toxic.

Unfortunately, as the many cases that I deal with demonstrate, things have only gotten worse since John Leo wrote those words. How do we explain why these instances of discrimination have become the rule, rather than the exception?

Plain and simple, an elite segment of society that views God as irrelevant has come to predominate. As Christopher Lasch details in his book The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (1995):

Public life is thoroughly secularized. The separation of church and state, nowadays interpreted as prohibiting any public recognition of religion at all, is more deeply entrenched in America than anywhere else. Religion has been relegated to the sidelines of public debate. Among elites it is held in low esteem--something useful for weddings and funerals but otherwise dispensable. A skeptical, iconoclastic state of mind is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the knowledge classes. Their commitment to the culture of criticism is understood to rule out religious commitments. The elites' attitude to religion ranges from indifference to active hostility.

Those who have adopted this secular outlook frequently cite the "wall of separation between church and state" as justification for censoring, silencing and discriminating against religious individuals, especially in the public schools. The threat posed by this extreme secularism is that religion and religious people are not merely kept separate from the school system but are instead forced into a position of utter subservience.

Moreover, contrary to history and tradition, most Americans have now come to accept the assumption that religious faith has no real bearing on civic responsibility or morality. This is because the extreme concept of the separation of church and state has literally been drilled into their heads through the schools, the media and the courts.

This is not to say that the concept of a wall of separation between church and state is not an important part of our cultural and legal landscape. However, the wall of separation is not the issue in the myriad of cases that arise in schools today. The issue in such instances is the religious believer versus the secular state. It is also a denial of everything this country stands for in terms of the freedoms of speech, religion and a respect for moral traditions.

Contrary to the propaganda peddled by various separatist organizations, those who founded this country were not anti-religionists. Take Thomas Jefferson, for example, who coined the wall of separation phrase. While Jefferson was correct in arguing that churches should not interfere in the workings of government, he did not intend to seal religion off hermetically from public life. In fact, Jefferson was a religious person who on two separate occasions--once while President--reduced the New Testament to include what he believed were the true teachings of Jesus (absent the virgin birth and the miracles). Jefferson's conclusion was that Jesus' teachings were "the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man."

American public education was established on the precept that it would accommodate religion. For example, the Northwest Ordinance, enacted by the Continental Congress in 1787, recognized the importance of religion in its provision setting aside federal property for schools. This section of the Ordinance provided: "Religion, morality, and knowledge being essential to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged." Thus, according to the Northwest Ordinance, religion was part of the foundation of American public schools.

In fact, the historical record reveals that religion was integrated into the early public school curriculum. Textbooks referred to God without embarrassment, and public schools considered one of their major tasks to be the development of moral character through the teaching of religion.

While the cultural landscape has changed greatly since the founding of the country, one thing has not: America still stands for freedom and pluralism. What this demands is an equal voice for all viewpoints. This includes religion. If we do not maintain this ideal, then the only alternative is a form of secular society and government that respects no one's freedom or opinions at all.

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Founded in 1982 by constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead, The Rutherford Institute is a civil liberties organization that provides free legal services to people whose constitutional and human rights have been threatened or violated. The Rutherford Institute has emerged as one of the nation's leading advocates of civil liberties and human rights, litigating in the courts and educating the public on a wide spectrum of issues affecting individual freedom in the United States and around the world.

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