Increasingly, it seems that the angst among some white communities over changing demographics, and resulting cultural power, is escalating. There is a renewed effort, especially in Republican led states to pass legislation to condemn the use of Critical Race Theory under the guise that it may cause students to feel uncomfortable. The need to be made to feel uncomfortable over some aspects of our history aside, this effort to ban some educational tools while simultaneously endorsing others, reveals the hypocrisy at the heart of much of this educational activism from some on the political right. Specifically, I’m referencing the popular use of educational materials that purport to teach history and other subjects from a distinctively Christian perspective.
Even as a Christian attending a public school, this kind of echo chamber sub culture served to inform much of my upbringing and initial educational formations. My small rural school in Northeastern Arkansas was saturated with incursions regularly transgressing the boundaries that were intended to separate Church and State. My early memories are filled with teachers regularly praying to Jesus in our classrooms and leading us to do the same. I have one specific memory of a teacher warning us not to tell anyone about our participation in a Thanksgiving prayer circle, for fear that the “government might shut us down and imprison her.” The ensuing repressed trauma from that experience for a sensitive child like me notwithstanding, it serves to illustrate how often Christians feel justified in actively imposing their values and practices on everyone else, while actively condemning those who they believe are attempting to do the same. In the general scheme of things, I’m sure that my teachers meant well and weren’t fully thinking through the implications of proselyting children who had no other choice but to be in school, not to mention the manipulative power dynamics that were at play. Yet my experiences are very similar to many others who grew up in the Bible Belt and attended public schools, and should be considered the next time someone on the political right screams “They’re indoctrinating our kids!”
But my experiences at public school pales in comparisons to those who attended private Christian schools or who were homed schooled by well intentioned people seeking to escape the evil influences of the world. My point here is not to condemn parents who made decisions for what they believed to be the greater good of their children, but to simply illustrate that often what we disparage in others is present in our own motivations and practices. Consider that the textbooks most often used in Christian educational settings are produced by companies and authors committed to a revisionist history that often just gets things wrong, and worse yet serve to perpetuate white nationalist ideas. For example, this past August, The Guardian published an article where they reviewed “dozens of textbooks produced by the Christian textbook publishers Abeka, Bob Jones University Press and Accelerated Christian Education, three of the most popular textbook sources used in private schools throughout the US. These textbooks describe slavery as “black immigration”, and say Nelson Mandela helped move South Africa to a system of “radical affirmative action”.”
The article goes on to reveal; “Instead of focusing on the horrors of slavery, the Accelerated Christian Education book sympathizes with the southern landowners who had to learn a new way of life after the war: ‘Under radical reconstruction, the south suffered. Great southern leaders and much of the old aristocracy were unable to vote or hold office. The result was that state legislatures were filled with illiterate or incompetent men. Northerners who were eager to make money or gain power during the crisis rushed to the south … For all these reasons, reconstruction led to graft and corruption and reckless spending. In retaliation, many southerners formed secret organizations to protect themselves and their society from anarchy. Among these groups was the Ku Klux Klan, a clandestine group of white men who went forth at night dressed in white sheets and pointed white hoods.'”
This kind of activist education intent on indoctrination causes those hearing laments from evangelicals leading culture wars to justifiably scratch their heads in bewilderment at best, and at worst launch retaliatory rhetorical salvos further widening the divide between us. In my estimation, this is a far cry from the “Salt and Light” that Jesus encouraged us to be among cultures that are opposed to our values. Christianity was never intended to be a militant religion, yet historically we continue to make it so. But as my colleague Dr. Alan Noble points out in his book You are not your own, “In fact, if everyone in America started attending church, I doubt that any major issues facing our society would be resolved.” I’ll add, it is even more unlikely that any of our problems as a nation would be resolved if everyone in America were forced to believe as we do. But on most cultural fronts, it seems, that evangelicals in alliance with the political right are insistent that this is exactly what will fix our country. Insisting that mandating these values, while resisting mask or vaccine mandates, further confuses a watching world that is in need of hope. A hope to be found in the simplicity of the gospel of Christ and not by winning a ginned up culture war.
The fact is, that as a Christian, I did a lot of praying at my public school. I silently, and sometimes, just under my breath prayed for guidance, help, peace, and courage, as I faced the challenges of my physical, mental, and emotional maturation. None of these prayers were sanctioned or endorsed by my teachers. Had they been I’m not sure they would have been as authentic or comforting. In junior high school and throughout high school, I openly carried my King James Bible and actively studied it during school hours. I was living my faith in Christ, not in a mandated or directed way, but genuinely, sincerely attempting to grow in my faith as a young person. I’m sure that I got a lot wrong about my faith in those days, but I reflect upon those moments as real, because they were self directed. I think all of us would do well to have more faith in our Faith. If it is genuine, it will survive and even flourish, when all of culture is aligned against it, and not when it enjoys the seat of esteem and privilege.
Our Christian Faith is at its best, when like the primitive Faith lived out historically before us, it is personal and powerful. Not endorsed, mandated or imposed.