Dr. Christian Overman
As shocking as it may sound, public elementary and secondary schools in the U.S. were overtly Christian in orientation and practice before the twentieth century. This is evidenced by the texts commonly used in public schools. Texts such as the McGuffey Readers contained many references to Scripture and biblical ideals. It sold 120 million copies between 1836 and 1960.
Perhaps the most noteworthy evidence of Christian thought being blended with U.S. education before the twentieth century is Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language (1828). This magnum opus took Webster twenty-eight years to complete. It is full of Bible references, and Webster had a distinctly Christian purpose in writing the dictionary, which he plainly laid out in the preface to the work.
Webster wrote, “Education is useless without the Bible. The Bible was America’s basic text book in all fields. God’s Word, contained in the Bible, has furnished all necessary rules to direct our conduct.”
As the United States transitioned to a state-run system in the late 1800s, Princeton theologian A.A. Hodge declared: “It is self-evident that on this scheme, if it is consistently and persistently carried out in all parts of the country, the United States system of national popular education will be the most efficient and wide instrument for the propagation of atheism which the world has ever seen.”
What is being propagated today makes mere atheism look pale in comparison.
That which was “self-evident” to A.A. Hodge was not so “self-evident” to others. The “scheme,” as Hodge called it, was indeed carried out. Few decisions have had more significant long-term consequences for American society than placing children’s education into the hands of the state.
Many people, including Christians, may balk at Hodge’s words, insisting that state education is “neutral” when it comes to matters of faith. Really? Do we not understand that secularism is a faith, too? It takes remarkable faith to be an atheist, materialist, humanist, or secularist of any sort.
The question of not mixing faith with education must be carefully re-examined. The question is not whether faith will be allowed to mix with education, but which faith is allowed to mix?
Silence Speaks Louder Than Words
Faith is being mixed daily with state education today. It’s just a different kind of faith than the one mixed with U.S. schools for our first 150 years. In the majority of U.S. schools today, it is not permitted to teach the way Noah Webster envisioned we should teach children. In declaring, “Education is useless without the Bible,” Webster condemned the wasteland of disoriented learning we see today. Did he not?
In most schools, it is no longer permitted to teach students that the Bible provides direction for truly understanding every subject in school. Yet, it is allowable to teach (directly or indirectly) that a framework of meaning is something students determine for themselves.
Here’s the big question: If it is a faith position to teach students that the Bible provides the overarching framework of meaning and purpose for learning and living, is it not also a faith position to teach—or to imply—that it does not?
If it is a faith position to say, “Jesus is Lord of all, and by Him and through Him all things exist,” is it not also a faith position to say—in so many words or lack thereof—“Christ and the Bible are irrelevant to our discussion of pronouns and math?” Are not both statements faith positions?
To teach students that Christ and the Bible are irrelevant to pronouns and math can be done very effectively without telling them this directly. A teacher does not have to stand in front of a class and say, “the Bible has nothing to do with our discussion” to communicate the message that the Holy Book is irrelevant. In school, silence speaks louder than words.
If we think the U.S. system of education is religiously neutral, think again. If state schools were indoctrinating children in Buddhism, Islam, or Native American Animism, many Christian parents would be quite distressed. Maybe. But when it comes to indoctrinating children in John Dewey’s “Common Faith” (the non-theistic faith in autonomous human self-sufficiency), many Christian parents are curiously passive. (See Dewey’s book, A Common Faith.)
Apparently, a host of Christian parents think secularism is neutral. If their children can learn to read and write well enough to enter a university, they’ll give secularized education a big pass. Evidently, many Christian parents feel that things are okay if teachers don’t stand up in front of a class and say, “The Bible is a fairy tale.”
Yet, when teachers don’t place a single academic subject into the context of a biblical frame of reference for thirteen years, are those teachers really being neutral?
A Profoundly Troubling Statement
Jesus said a lot of difficult things, but He made a profoundly troubling statement when He said, “He who is not with Me is against Me” (Matt. 12:30 NKJV). What did He mean by this statement? If a person is not with (or for) Christ, is he or she against Him?
What if a person never says anything bad about Christ, never uses His name in vain, and never criticizes or thinks poorly of people who follow Him? Is that person against Christ because he or she is not for Him? It appears so.
What about schools? If an institution selling knowledge and understanding is not for Christ, is it against Christ? Are non-Christian schools (public or private) against Christ if they never mention His name to a student, one way or another, for thirteen years? We need to think about this deeply.
Does a school have to announce that it is “against Christ” to be against Christ? Must it be written in the official handbook, “Our school is against Christ,” or be posted on the classroom wall or discussed at parent-teacher meetings for this to be the case?
Let’s pose the question another way: “Are non-Christian schools for Christ?”
What might happen if you asked your local public school principal (who is a dedicated Christian attending your church and feels called to serve in that capacity): “Is your school for Christ?”
What if the answer is: “Our school is neither for nor against Christ. We have students who are Christians and students who are not Christians. We take no position on the matter, pro or con, at school. We are neutral.”
Would Christ say this school (which is an institution selling knowledge and understanding) is for Him or against Him?
Sometimes Jesus’ words are profoundly troubling. They’re meant to be.
Dr. Christian Overman is the author of Assumptions That Affect Our Lives and God’s Pleasure at Work: The Difference One Life Can Make. Dr. Overman has taught on biblical worldview and Christian education across America and Central America, South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. He and his wife, Kathy, have four adult children and twelve grandchildren. Contact Dr. Overman at firstname.lastname@example.org.