For many Christians, nothing better signals secularism's triumph than the banishment of formal prayer and Bible reading from America's public schools. When the Supreme Court evicted God from the classroom, they say, the education system—indeed, the entire society—lost its moral bearings and started sliding swiftly downhill.
Such laments suggest a nation abruptly sundered from its Christian heritage. Generations of students contentedly recite their prayers and Scripture passages, and then, in a flash, a handful of judicial tyrants intervene to scuttle a beloved tradition. Steven K. Green, director of the Center for Religion, Law, and Democracy at Willamette University, shows otherwise in his new book, The Bible, the School, and the Constitution: The Clash That Shaped Modern Church-State Doctrine (Oxford University Press). Vigorous debates over religion in public schools, it turns out, have a history nearly as long as the schools themselves. And dissatisfaction with the privileged place of Christianity long predates the early 1960s.
Nineteenth-century pioneers of "common" schooling sought to unify a pluralistic populace around democratic principles. In this task, they reckoned Christianity a valuable ally. But how to harness the faith's virtue-generating potential without sowing sectarian strife? Green identifies two safeguards that formed an emerging consensus. Christian doctrine—in theory, the beliefs shared by all denominations—would serve as an instrument not of conversion but of character formation. And no public funding would go to Catholic parochial schools or to other church-based alternatives.
Were the "nonsectarian" and "no-funding" principles compatible with a pervasively Protestant public school ...1