The American Melting Pot: How It Got That Way

The most important transmitter of American culture is the public school. Compulsory education created the great American melting pot to transform the poor and downtrodden of the world into good Americans, imbued with the democratic ideals of our nation. Motley hordes drawn to these shores from every nation under the sun learned what it meant to participate in a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Evangelicals, who early on constituted a minority in the population (though nine-tenths of all church members), provided far more than their share of the intellectual leadership of the new nation on this side of the Atlantic. But partly because they were a minority in a pluralistic society, partly because of the practical necessity of getting along amicably and peaceably with their non-Christian neighbors, and partly because of deeply felt convictions regarding the inalienable right of personal religious freedom, they became redoubtable supporters of the doctrine of separation of church and state. They recognized that this ruled out public school instruction in their own distinctive doctrines, including such cherished fundamental teachings as salvation by grace through personal faith in Jesus Christ.

Nevertheless, evangelicals generally remained strong supporters of the essential rightness of the American public school system. They gladly enrolled their children in it because they too believed in democracy and wished their nation to inculcate democratic ideas in the youth of the land. Moreover, many of their own deepest convictions were faithfully transmitted to their children by the American public school system. Teachers. Christians and non-Christians, by and large taught their children the virtues of honesty and truth telling, the desirability of frugality, the limiting of sexual activity in the marriage relationship, the misfortune of divorce, the duty of loving one’s neighbor, the nobility of a life of service to others, and a host of morals and customs that came to be thought of as “the American way of life.”

Thanks to the vestiges of that heritage, this American way of life was close enough to the evangelical way of life that occasional deviations could be tolerated as exceptions to the rule. And where certain evangelicals felt pinched by the “American way,” generous teachers and school administrators (backed by elected boards of education not willing to lose votes) eased the pinch. Meanwhile, the outward symbols of evangelical Christianity were granted appropriate place. The Christian Hag was proudly displayed on the school platform. Protestant ministers delivered the address at required commencement. The school calendar celebrated Christmas and Easter. The Bible was more or less faithfully read and reverent prayer offered to God at the beginning of each day’s class. The Jewish boy could read a psalm, while the Roman Catholic girl from a family that felt strongly about religious matters was not there: she and other children with strange-sounding names went to school at Saint Joseph’s down the street. In theology, public schools were not Protestant; but in practical matters and basic values, they stood for the right things—most of the time.

The Move To A Value-Free Education

Suddenly, in 1963, all that changed. The U.S. Supreme Court barred both the Bible and prayer from the public schools (or so it seemed). Of course, bit by bit and unnoticed, this comfortable marriage of evangelical Protestantism and the religion of the American public school had slowly been falling apart. But now all was out in the open; now for the first time evangelicals saw what had happened.

The causes of this change are complex and need not be rehearsed here. Americans had become pluralistic in a far deeper sense than ever before. The melting pot was no longer handling the influx of disparate immigrants—to say nothing of the homegrown varieties of religion deviating from traditional Protestantism. The courts rewrote the Constitution to transform the meaning of separation of church and state into separation of religion and state. A deep and radical commitment to individual freedom came to dominate American society; “No law can proscribe what is done in the privacy of one’s own bedroom.” Every child must be protected from the “tyranny of the majority.” For some, this was understood to mean that no instruction could in any way lend direct or indirect support to religion as over against irreligion or atheism. Everyone must be free to do his own thing. A community has no right to dictate what its young can or cannot be taught. Ethical standards cannot be taught or imposed upon children who reject (or whose parents reject) those standards.

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Traditional religious and moral values, long a stock in trade of the American public schools, found less and less place in the curriculum. Overt religious values must be barred from the public school on the dual grounds of separation of church and state and of the duty of the nation to safeguard religious freedom. And the former consensus on basic ethical values, not immediately and directly identified with traditional Protestantism, quickly came into jeopardy.

Can Public Education Really Be Value Free?

Meanwhile, a new factor was introduced into the troubled mix of religion and the public school by educational philosopher John Dewey and those public school leaders who followed in his train. The goal of education was to prepare children to live in a democracy by teaching them how to become well adjusted to others and to their environment. Humanism, devoid of religion, provided the framework for a new philosophy of education. In a society deeply committed to democracy and human freedom, the new philosophy of education (usually without explicit reference to its atheistic or agnostic roots in humanism) gained ascendency in the highest circles of educational leadership with unbelievable rapidity. From Columbia University, the new humanistic philosophy of education spread through teachers’ colleges and graduate schools of education to educational administators all across the nation. Too late, evangelicals discovered that the traditional values of the American public schools of the past were really religious values, and that there really is no such thing as a value-free education.

“The essence of education is that it be religious,” wrote Alfred North Whitehead. And he was right. The short-sighted pleas of some to restrict public schools to the basic skills—reading, writing, and arithmetic—leaving value education wholly to the family and to the church, just will not work. Every time a teacher administers an exam, he teaches attitudes toward cheating, stealing, obedience, industry, individual responsibility, justice, responsibility to society, law, and order. The psychology teacher touches the neural point of the worth of human personhood, the science teacher discusses the product of God’s creative hand, sex education unfolds what it means to be a man or a woman, the marriage counselor shapes the minds of students on the nature of the basic building block of human society. Value-free education is a myth and a delusion. Our only choice lies not in whether values are to be taught in our public schools, but rather what values—or better, whose values.

The Evangelical Dilemma

What then shall Christian parents do in the pluralistic society of contemporary America? They love their children and they desire to be obedient to God and his command to train their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Certainly this means that they must seek to have their young taught not only Christian faith, but basic biblical values essential for the good life (biblically good, that is). Certainly distinctive Christian ideas can be taught in home and church.

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But with equal certainty, no Christian parent can responsibly place his children during the best hours of every day under the instruction of teachers who seek to tear down these values and instill values alien to biblical standards. At the same time, the Christian parent believes in the golden rule: Do to others as you would have them do to you. Evangelical parents would not like their immature children taught antibiblical values and ethical practices, so how can they ask that this be done to others?

Unable to find support for their basic religious and ethical values in the public schools, evangelical Christians have turned increasingly to private Christian schools. In the long run, we believe this is the best solution to the problem. In a pluralistic-society, only private schools can provide-a truly integrated education based on a Christian world-and-life view.

But for financial and other reasons, most parents will not find such an education possible or desirable. They will keep their children in the supposedly “neutral” public schools. And even if they place their own children in private schools, evangelicals dare not isolate themselves from their fellow citizens by deserting public education. As evangelicals, they feel responsible not only to share with others the ethical and religious values they cherish, but also to insure the faithful transmission of those religious values to each new generation so that they and their children may continue to live in a land of righteous laws and political and social justice.

The Search For Common Values

For the protection of society, therefore, evangelicals are committed to public instruction in basic precepts of personal and civic virtue. The California education code expresses it well: “Each teacher shall endeavor to impress upon the minds of the pupils the principles of morality, truth, justice, patriotism, and a true comprehension of the rights, duties, and dignity of American citizenship, including kindness toward domestic-pets and the humane treatment of living creatures, to teach them to avoid idleness, profanity, and falsehood, and to instruct them in matters of morals and the principles of free government.”

Of course, these are religious—even biblical and evangelical Protestant—values. The founders of America who wrote its first Constitution and Bill of Rights understood quite clearly that these were religious principles. But they are not the particular and exclusive doctrines of any religious body, and they are necessary for the good of the nation. The Northwest Ordinance, adopted by the Continental Congress in 1787, reflected this when it proclaimed, “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” And continuously to the present, our courts have affirmed that “we are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.” Accordingly, evangelicals are constrained to support as public policy those values they deem essential for the preservation of a just and democratic government and of a society whose people will be disposed to seek the welfare of all. Such a society can only be built on those moral values of honesty, truth telling, respect for authority, service to others, justice, and consideration for the weak and needy (see Christenson article, p. 36). These virtues represent the heritage on which this nation was founded; without them, it can retain neither its liberties nor its greatness.

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Christians ground these virtues in the God of the Bible who has provided us with a revelation of himself, of human nature, and of the world in which we live. The non-Christian does not accept this basis. Indeed, he may have no basis at all for such commitments; but he does share these values, and we do not violate his convictions if we require that they shall be taught to his children in our public schools.

But someone objects: “Would not this create a tyranny of the majority?” No, because evangelicals are not asking to teach their own particular doctrines in public schools. They are only seeking for values necessary for a goodly society and the preservation of government that will provide for the general welfare of all. Some will not agree to this, but a halt must be called at the point where we have a tyranny of the minority. The minority that seeks to make impossible a sustainable basis for a goodly human society must not be permitted to have its way. The principle we support is this: One man’s freedom stops where the next man’s freedom begins. We cannot in conscience yield to those who would destroy personal, social, and political values necessary to our survival as a free people. Rather, we must support teaching that prepares the coming generation to live uprightly in a just society and to preserve our treasured human freedoms.

Easter 1981: violence and conflict in El Salvador, Afghanistan, Iran, Northern Ireland; uncertainty and unrest in Poland, Namibia, and South Africa; squabbling and tension in the United States over new social, economic, and political initiatives. Is this what the resurrection of Jesus Christ was intended to bring?

We speak of his resurrection as victory over sin and death, but all too plainly sin and death still reign. Realists mock the so-called Christian victory. They see victory coming through the power of a gun barrel, or political influence, or economic exploitation. Death is a small price to be paid by terrorists and revolutionaries.

Where is the resurrection victory when the diagnosis is cancer? Or when the boss says, “Sorry, we’ve got to let you go”? Or when the wife says, “I’ve had enough, I’m leaving”? Or when the police officer on the other end of the line says, “I regret to tell you there’s been a serious accident and …”?

Some tell us the victory has been won but that Christians can’t claim it until Jesus comes back in power and glory. In one sense, that is true: conflict, suffering, and death will continue. The battles rage, but the outcome is not in doubt. Scripture speaks plainly about enemies who remain to be vanquished, who are not yet Christ’s “footstool” (Heb. 1:13). Even the apostle Paul said victory awaits the time when “the perishable puts on the imperishable” (1 Cor. 15:54).

However, in addition to future, ultimate victory at Christ’s return, Christians rejoice in resurrection triumph now. “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,” exclaimed the apostle (1 Cor. 15:57).

Because Jesus conquered death, believers can trust him in all the circumstances of life. Christ’s resurrection proved once and for all that sin and death do not have the last word. Jesus Christ conquered both, not only as a kind of absentee hero waiting for the right moment to claim his kingdom, but also as the Great Shepherd who is altogether able to care for his wounded sheep right now.

The French Bishop Talleyrand gave up his office and his faith to become the cleverest diplomat in postrevolutionary Europe. A lesser follower battling against traditional Christianity complained to him how difficult it was to start a new religion. Talleyrand’s response was: It’s really quite easy. All you need to do is get yourself crucified and then rise from the dead.

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Christ’s death and resurrection are past, but they are also a present reality. They are our assurance of Christ’s ability to conquer all foes. Christians are “united with him” in his death and resurrection. Therefore, in him they can know present as well as future victory. In him they find adequate grounds for hope today. This Jesus is sovereign even over death. He is Lord, the living Lord of the universe. No matter who wins in El Salvador, Poland, or the U.S. Congress, no matter what unexpected trial may come, the Christian in the light of the resurrection of Christ can share Easter hope with the apostle Paul: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Rom. 15:13).

In the aftermath of the murder of Chester Bitterman III in Colombia by members of the M-19 guerrilla group, some have murmured that the Wycliffe Bible Translators—related Summer Institute of Linguistics should have taken more vigorous action to secure his release. We do not agree with those complaints.

The new administration in Washington is making abundantly clear that America will not be pushed around any more.

The writer of Hebrews 10 reminds us of earlier, better days of suffering, public exposure to insult and persecution, and joyful acceptance of confiscation of their property. Only God, he stresses, is to avenge. The apostle Paul faced prison and hardship, but declared that his life was of little value so long as he bore effective testimony to the gospel.

The SIL policy breathes the spirit of the New Testament. It has won official public endorsement by Colombian officials and a groundswell of popular support. But even if it hadn’t, the Christian outlook is best summed up by the hymn fragment often quoted by missionary Hudson Taylor: “Sufficient is His arm alone, and our defense is sure.”

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