Public attention has been concentrated for several years on attempts in many communities to achieve school desegregation. But few people have taken much note of the effects on schools of the United States Supreme Court decisions on required school prayer (Engle v. Vitale, 1962) and Bible reading (Schempp v. Abington, 1963). These decisions did not remove God from the classroom. They did not even remove religion from the classroom. But they did force school officials to take a new look at the role of religion in the public-school program.

These decisions mean at the least that school officials:

1. May not prescribe formal prayer, Bible readings, or other exercises that may be construed to be acts of worship.

2. Cannot assume that all their students are Christians, or even that all of them adhere to some religion.

These two Supreme Court decisions were not anti-religious. Rather, they affirmed that our society is based on genuine religious freedom. And this religious freedom must be more, history has shown, than mere religious toleration. Evangelicals are convinced that Christianity is the one true religion. However, other religious groups have the same opinion of their own beliefs. In a society that assures impartial religious liberty, the government must remain neutral. In effect, it must act as though all religions were true; as the U. S. Supreme Court said in 1871 (Watson v. Jones), “the law knows no heresy …” Assumption by the government of the superiority of one religion over another implants the seeds of religious persecution in the social structure.

Furthermore, the government must respect a citizen’s right to have no religion. As Supreme Court justice Robert Jackson pointed out in his dissent to Zorach v. Clauson (1952), “the day this country ceases to be free for irreligion it will cease to be free for religion—except for the sect that can win political power.” Of course, a balance must be struck. The Illinois Supreme Court noted in 1913 (Reichwald v. Catholic Bishop) that “the man of no religion has a right to act in accordance with his lack of religion, but no right to insist that others shall have no religion.”

How does one preserve true religious liberty while not restricting the rights of those with religious commitment? Some school administrators reacted to the Supreme Court decisions on prayer and Bible reading by ignoring them. In some parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, for instance, these decisions were defied openly. Many assumed that the court had countered a widespread United States tradition. They seem unaware that public-school prayers and Bible readings were prohibited by, for instance, the 1902 California state constitution and state supreme court decisions in Nebraska (1902), Illinois (1910), and Louisiana (1915). Admittedly, public-school prayer and Bible reading had been upheld by the supreme courts of several other states, but these practices were by no means universal in this country’s public schools. And the misguided attitude of some who advocated these practices may be seen in a 1904 Kansas supreme court decision (Billard v. Board of Education): the court supported the practice of reading the Lord’s Prayer and Bible selections as a disciplinary device to quiet the students at the beginning of the school day and not “to inculcate any religious dogmas.” Some indication of the attitude of state legislatures that authorized these practices may be found in Tennessee’s placing the requirement for Bible reading in an obscure section of the general education law.

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But the U. S. Supreme Court challenged school administrators to find an answer to the dilemma of public-school religious neutrality. Speaking for the majority in Schempp v. Abington, Justice Tom Clark explained that “nothing we have said here indicates that … study of the Bible or of religion, when presented, objectively as part of a program of education, may not be effected consistent with the First Amendment. This suggestion accelerated introduction of Bible and religion courses in high schools scattered across the country. (The National Education Association has encouraged development of such courses for nearly twenty years.) Also, new courses were developed for state-wide use in Pennsylvania, Indiana, Florida, and Nebraska.

In reviewing the Student’s Guide to Religious Literature of the West and other Pennsylvania materials, Dr. C. John Miller, a member of the Westminster Seminary faculty, noted the evident “naturalistic bias of the writers” of this syllabus and concluded that it is not “openly atheistic. Rather it is a poorly camouflaged presentation of doctrines slanted … toward anti-biblical naturalism” (CHRISTIANITY TODAY, August 1, 1969). The material has since been revised.

Last year I reviewed some of the Florida and Indiana curriculum units. The Florida Religion and Social Studies Project publication dealt with American religious history and related social problems. The material was theologically neutral and seemed to meet the Supreme Court challenge.

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The Indiana curriculum units were a different story. On Teaching the Bible as Literature, published by the Indiana University Press, happily is not typical of the material used in Indiana public-school courses, but it is a disturbing suggestion of what the future may hold. Financed by a U. S. Office of Education grant (which in itself raises church-state questions, it contains basic materials for a series of English literature units on the Old Testament. The book is subject to all the weaknesses noted in the Pennsylvania materials by Dr. Miller. The authors claim that their book provides a springboard for free classroom inquiry. But they begin by rejecting any teacher who disagrees with them and holds that Scripture is inspired and that God exists and acts in history. Further cause for concern is an essay from another Indiana University Press volume that appeared at about the same time. University education professor Stanley Ballinger contends that objectivity has no place in public-school teaching about religion, and that atheism has special rights and intellectual and moral superiority.

Development of courses in Bible and religion will continue. And, of course, not all the curriculum materials will be as objectionable to evangelicals as are these Pennsylvania and Indiana productions.

What, then, should evangelicals do?

1. Recognize that Christians do not dominate our society. As Franklin Littell, William Marnell, and others have clearly shown, this has never been a Christian nation in the classic sense. One cannot reasonably discover a theocratic political structure in the U. S. Constitution. Despite more than a century of effort by the National Reform Association and the Christian Amendment Movement, this country has never been made formally subject to the rule of Jesus Christ. But it is true, as Supreme Court justice William Douglas (speaking for the majority in Zorach v. Clauson, 1952) noted, that “we are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.” This country is a secular state in which religion in general and particular religious groups may function.

2. Learn to live as a Christian minority in an increasingly non-Christian society. Evangelicals are fifty years past the time when they could manipulate legislatures to achieve their goals. We can no longer dominate the political, social, or cultural structures of our country. But we can demand that our beliefs not be discriminated against. (The judicial structure recognizes the evangelical’s right to responsible witness. As an example, in November, 1969, the Alameda, California, County Counsel ruled that a local evangelical high-school student could witness on campus so long as he did not interfere with school operation.) On one hand, we must apply the basic rule for life in a democracy: The liberty we deny to others, we deny ultimately to ourselves. On the other hand, evangelicals must learn to select with care the issues they champion. For instance, as John Blanchard, Jr. pointed out in United Evangelical Action (February, 1967), “it is a waste of time and energy and effort for Christians to endeavor to impose legislation concerning prayer upon a society that no longer believes in prayer.” And it is equally unrealistic to attempt to ban the teaching of evolution from the public schools. But it is inexcusable for evangelicals nationwide not to lend active support to California parents who are seeking to restore mention in high-school science courses of the belief that the universe was created by God. Too often, we have argued the wrong cause at the wrong place and time.

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3. Encourage Christian public-school teachers. Evangelicals can no longer avoid direct concern for the needs and problems of the public schools. James Panoch and David Barr of the Religious Instruction Association (Box 533, Fort Wayne, Indiana 46801) are correct when they charge in their book Religion Goes to School that “the church, largely unconscious of the good that could come from the proper use of the Bible and religion in the schools, has withdrawn from the public education.” In an increasingly mobile and secular society, the public-school classroom has become one of the few places where all aspects of community life meet. In the ultimate urban complex, the Christian public-school teacher may become a prime home missionary. Yet we fail to consider a call to this work as much a Christian call as that received by any minister or missionary. Evangelicals need also to encourage those Christians who are already in the classroom. The National Educators Fellowship, an organization of Christian professional educators in the public schools, seeks to provide such encouragement. Local congregations can assist in strengthening existing chapters and in organizing new ones (for information write to: Mr. E. A. Patchen, P.O. Box 243, South Pasadena, California 91030).

4. Strengthen local congregational Christian-education programs. If evangelicals do not revitalize church and home teaching about religious matters, the public schools will take the teaching of religion away from us; the actions of school administrators and classroom teachers make this clear. Evangelicals are not yet serious about assuring quality Christian education in the local church. They have yet to dedicate themselves to true Christian education. Very little of what goes on in the typical local church can be called good Christian education. Despite the best of intentions and a lot of effort, much of what is done in the name of Christian education is self-fulfilling busy work.

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Until recent years, the public schools were used five days a week as agencies of general religious and moral training. Evangelicals supplemented this with a scant hour of particular religious instruction each week in Sunday school. This will no longer suffice. We are part of a generation that is far better educated than any in history, and education has become for many a life-long activity. Evangelical Christian education has failed to keep pace with these developments.

Evangelicals need to find a new approach to religious education in the local church. They should agree that religious training for all our people is of prime importance. Then, all the church’s activities should be evaluated in the light of that primacy. For one example, there is no God-ordained limit to the time to be given to education in our churches. It may be best in some congregations to give three hours or more on Sundays to this task, even at the expense of the formal worship hour. Or it may be advisable to maintain a day-long school on Saturday, or to establish after-school classes as some Jewish congregations have done for many years. Secular adult-education classes that extend well into the late evening hours demonstrate that busy adults can be reached when the educational program challenges them.

There is a growing concern among parents about the wasted weeks of the public-school summer vacation. Perhaps there might be a special summer church-school session, one that is much more intensive than vacation Bible school and is operated in somewhat the same manner as public-school summer sessions.

Furthermore, evangelicals have yet to explore the new developments in educational technology. There are few if any programmed texts in Christian education. Fewer still have been the attempts to develop cassette tape recordings as self-study tools. And no one seems to have thought seriously about the potential for preschool Christian education of audio-visual ventures like television’s “Sesame Street.” The Holy Spirit cannot be expected to honor a refusal to make full use of the best tools available.

Belden Menkus is a free-lance management consultant in Bergenfield, New Jersey. He is the author of several books, One of which is “Meet the American Jew.”

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