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Mar  2018 13
The Influence of Religion in Support for Public Education

Oklahoma “leads” the nation in ways that are sometimes painful. One of those bleeding, ah, that is “leading” areas is in starving public schools. West Virginia schools look “well-fed” in comparison to Oklahoma schools.

At a Tulsa Public Schools advisory council meeting recently, during a discussion of the crisis in funding for schools in Oklahoma, I asked, “Whose interests does the current arrangement serve? Everything is as it is because it serves someone’s interest. Legislators are heeding the interests of persons who want to keep the funding as it is.”

In response, and among other reasons given, we were told that there is a small percentage of elected officials who disdain “government schools.”

I worry that the percentage who disdain state-run public education, of a sort required for a complex, diverse, just and compassionate society, is actually quite large.

Oklahoma is, statistically, a highly religious state, meaning that varieties of conservative Christianity (fundamentalist, evangelical, or Pentecostal/charismatic) dominate the culture of public spaces and public offices.

The largest single Protestant denomination in Oklahoma is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention (see Oklahoma’s religious landscape). In sum, conservative Baptists include nearly a quarter of the state’s adults.

Below are two statements, one Southern Baptist and the other United Methodist, concerning public schools. United Methodism, representing seven percent of the state’s adults, is the largest formerly mainline denomination in the state. I include the United Methodist statement for the sake of contrast with the Baptist statement.

The following statements express two sharply different understandings of what public education is, of what is wrong with public education today, and reasons for Christians to affirm and support public education. Both agree that children are precious, and then the statements diverge in ways that echo and reflect what I suspect is going on in Oklahoma, which is a culture war.

The Southern Baptist statement:

On Engaging the Direction (emphasis added) of the Public School System, Greensboro, NC - 2006

WHEREAS, Children are the blessed promise of our next generation, and we are obligated to secure their education (Proverbs 22:6; Deuteronomy 6:6-7; Proverbs 17:6); and
WHEREAS, The loss of even one generation of children can adversely affect the spiritual dynamic of our nation (Deuteronomy 4:9; Proverbs 22:6); and
WHEREAS, In December 2005, a federal judge ruled in favor of government schools indoctrinating children with dogmatic Darwinism (Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District), which radically influences their view of origins; and
WHEREAS, Public schools continue to adopt and implement curricula and policies teaching that the homosexual lifestyle is acceptable; and
WHEREAS, A humanistic and secular orientation pervades much of the public school system; and

WHEREAS, Children are our most important mission field, and the overwhelming majority of Christians have made the government school system their children’s teacher; and (emphasis added)
WHEREAS, All citizens have the right and responsibility to participate in local, state, and national elections and to use their influence to effect change; and
WHEREAS, According to the 2005 Southern Baptist Convention Statistical Summary, there are 16,270,315 Southern Baptists vested in the membership of 43,699 congregations located across the face of our nation; and
WHEREAS, The Baptist Faith and Message, adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention in June 2000, contains “Article XII. Education,” which states “All sound learning is, therefore, a part of our Christian heritage...Moreover, the cause of education in the Kingdom of Christ is co-ordinate with the causes of missions and general benevolence, and should receive along with these the liberal support of the churches”; now, therefore, be it
RESOLVED, That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Greensboro, North Carolina, June 13-14, 2006, encourage Southern Baptists to heed our Lord’s admonition to be salt and light in our society; and be it further
RESOLVED, That we affirm the hundreds of thousands of Christian men and women who teach in our public schools, and we encourage our young people who are seriously considering the teaching profession as a possible calling of God to pursue that calling; and be it finally
RESOLVED, That we encourage all Southern Baptist churches to solicit individuals from their membership to engage the culture of our public school systems nationwide by running for election to their local school boards and exerting their godly influence upon these school systems. (emphasis added)

Contrast the Southern Baptist statement with paragraphs from the Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church.

The public school is the primary route through which most children enter into full participation in our economic, political, and community life. As a consequence of inequities in our society, we have a moral responsibility to support, strengthen, and reform public schools. They have been, and continue to be, both an avenue of opportunity and a major cohesive force in our society, especially as society becomes more diverse—racially, culturally, and religiously—almost daily. (emphasis added)

By almost any standard of judgment, the schools our children attend can be described in contradictory terms. Some are academically excellent; others are a virtual disgrace. Some are oases of safety for their students; others are dangerous to student and teacher alike. Some teachers are exceptionally well qualified; others are assigned to areas in which they have little or no expertise. Some school facilities are a fantasy land of modern technology; others are so dilapidated that they impede learning.

The wide disparities among public schools exist largely because schools reflect the affluence and/or the political power of the communities in which they are found. Within virtually every state, there are school districts that lavish on their students three or four times the amount of money spent on other children in the same state. A new phenomenon in our society is “re-segregating of communities” which further diminishes the effectiveness of public schools. Most tellingly, the schools that offer the least to their students are those serving poor children, among which children of color figure disproportionately, as they do in all the shortfalls of our common life. Indeed, the coexistence of neglect of schools and neglect of other aspects of the life of people who are poor makes it clear that no effort to improve education in the United States can ignore the realities of racial and class discrimination in our society as a whole. (emphasis added)

Does the religion of citizens and elected officials in Oklahoma influence the perceptions of public schools, of what is wrong with public education, and the desire to fund or not to fund public education more adequately? If Oklahoma’s most dominant expressions of Christianity have any influence on Oklahoma’s culture and electoral politics, then I would surmise the answer is “yes.”

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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