May 4, 2013

Religious Education in Peril

Religious Education

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by Rick Plasterer

The education of children says a great deal about the social order. The advent of public education in the nineteenth century, the desegregation of schools beginning in the 1950s, the banning of school prayer in the early 1960s, and the increasing use of alternatives to the public school (private school, religious school, and homeschooling) are all indications of changes in our society.

The last item is indicative of the dissolution of commonly held values between different segments of society, particularly the conservative segments of the public and the liberal/left educational elite. But just as the loss of traditional values binding society made educational alternatives more common in our society, so now the effort of the elite to enforce its vision of society may take away real educational choice.

It is not likely that public school attendance will be required of all children any time soon, but the government may effectively restrict or prohibit religious education. This is being held to be biased and dogmatic, not proper for a democratic society. But a moment’s thought will show that it is the requirement of state education which is dogmatic. The state is then made the principal educator, inculcating its own doctrines and values. This is an issue with some history. The post-Civil War era saw the American system struggle with religious education, with the anti-Catholic Blaine amendments of the late nineteenth century prohibiting state support for “sectarian” schools, but efforts to prohibit such schools entirely blocked by the Supreme Court in its 1925 Pierce decision. While this decision was based on parental rights, rather than religious liberty, it did annunciate the important doctrine that “The child is not the mere creature of the state,” and that doctrine has held since then. Indeed, it was somewhat expanded in the 1972 Yoder decision, which opened the door to homeschooling, and which did explicitly base itself on the religious freedom of parents to educate their children.

As public schools began to feel the impact of the 1960s de-Christianizing cultural revolution, they moved in less than a generation from assuming a least common denominator morality that would be recognized by Protestants, Catholics, and Jews in their educational programs to strictly secular instruction; the Supreme Court’s school prayer decisions of the 1962 and 1963, and subsequent decision prohibiting display of the Ten Commandments decision in 1980, left little alternative. What followed was, for essentially another generation, a value free educational program.  But as the ideologies of “sixties liberalism” (feminism, homosexual liberation, secularism understood as the exclusion of traditional religion from public life) have increasingly become the orthodoxy of the academy, there is increasingly pressure for this liberal orthodoxy to be the “universal values” taught in public schools, and indeed, to all children.

Not only are the values of this orthodoxy increasingly taught in public schools, but in the more liberal jurisdictions, religious schools are restricted or under pressure where their Judeo-Christian education contradicts the liberal orthodoxy. Sweden may perhaps be regarded as the cutting edge of social liberal orthodoxy, it has essentially banned religious education, even in private schools, several years ago, with Britain following in its wake, if later and less clearly. Since homeschooling is essentially banned in Sweden as well, all children must be instructed in what the state authorizes as the truth. Germany, the nineteenth century source of the progressive educational “common school” idea in this country, likewise prohibits homeschooling, acknowledging it as academically adequate, but prohibiting it for the explicitly ideological reason of preventing a religiously based “parallel society.”

In North America, the erosion of the legal right to religious education can be most clearly seen in some Canadian jurisdictions. In late 2007, Quebec radically changed its educational policy with respect to parental rights from recognizing the right of parents to direct the religious and moral education of their children in public school to restricting this right in the case of all children when it conflicts with the state’s judgment of “the best interest of the child.” To that end, the province now enforces an “Ethics and Religious Culture” curriculum on all education in Quebec, whether public, private, religious, or home school, as Canada’s social conservative reported. It is not simply a survey course of religions, but offers a definite doctrine about religion and morality, namely that morality arises from conversation, not from external authority (such as the Bible or the church). The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, an “intervener” in the case at the Canadian Supreme Court (allowed to comment to the court) discussed its significance before the decision, indicating that in offering a doctrine about religion and morality, the state is not neutral. As EFC so incisively said, “To compel tolerance is to dispense with it. Every religion – including no religion – is, in essence, exclusive. Compelling tolerance by state-mandated compulsory religious and moral education can only be accomplished by violating the freedom of religion and conscience of each religiously devout individual.” The decision, however, was in favor of the relativist curriculum, and Canadian legal commentators held that it effectively transferred authority to determine the instruction of children from parents to the state.

Meanwhile, in Ontario, the new Accepting Schools Act, which purports to require tolerance and prohibit “bullying,” is being interpreted by the provincial government to require “gay/straight clubs,” and prohibit teaching that homosexuality and abortion is sinful. An Ontario priest, Raymond D’Souza, has pointed out that most bullying in schools involves things other than homosexuality, yet the provincial government is focused on that in an effort to force Catholic schools to change their moral teaching in Catholic schools. Similarly in the United Kingdom, the “Conservative” Prime Minister, David Cameron, in the midst of a fierce, uncompromising, and unpopular effort to enact homosexual marriage, also says that religious schools should not be allowed to teach that homosexuality is sinful. Another part of the package is that school teachers must teach the propriety of homosexual relations.

The same pattern is appearing in the United States, where a California law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2011 mandates the teaching of the positive contributions homosexuals in history in public schools and forbids the teaching of anything negative, pointedly adding that “antidiscrimination” provisions apply to “alternative” (including, perhaps especially, religious) schools. This effectively establishes a state doctrine to be taught, forbidding dissenting opinion. The Home School Legal Defense Association also offers an alarming summary of developing secularist legal opinion against religious education which is in opposition to Enlightenment rationalism.

The Pierce and Yoder decisions, and the presence of widespread homeschooling, make suppression of religious education unlikely in the United States in the next several years. But those spearheading the war against Judeo-Christian morality believe that their offensive is unstoppable, and clearly are prevailing in the contemporary West, if slowly. Christians need to understand that the alternative advanced against religious education is state doctrine, from which there can be no dissent. This is not compatible with a free society, and we should say so in the public war about religious education. But more importantly, for ourselves, we need to remember that when the right to religious education has been sufficiently eroded (and prohibiting the teaching of Christian doctrine or Christian morality as the truth should be quite sufficient), continued investment in Christian schools is pointless. The government cannot be allowed to make changes in Christian communities (whether churches, schools, or families) that state doctrine requires. Where God has given us absolutes, we must hold to them, and take the penalty. In our own institutions, on what is essential to the Christian faith, we must answer only to God.

3 Responses to Religious Education in Peril

  1. […] This article first appeared on the Institute on Religion and Democracy’s blog and is used with permission. […]

  2. […] Religious Education in Peril Rick Plasterer, Juicy Ecumenism […]

  3. […] services to God. Religious colleges, universities, primary and secondary schools, and home schools must function according to religious standards, and in the case of orthodox Christians, Jews, and Muslims, this […]

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