Greg Forster, Ph.D. | August 10, 2017

Christians and public schools: Babylon, Exodus, or Pentecost?

Greg Forster, Ph.D.

There’s no one “right” choice for everyone. Parents should evaluate local schools, public and private, and select the one that aligns best with their views and goals. Of course, parents don’t have an equal choice as long as government uses its tax power to offer free schools while alternatives need to charge tuition. We need school choice policies to make real choices available.

As school choice is growing in Oklahoma, the Tulsa World has become ground zero for a new round in an old debate: What should Christian families do in a pluralistic society where the government schools don’t teach Christian doctrine? Are they duty-bound to be students in the pagan city where the Lord has placed them, like the exiles in Babylon? Or should they seek an educational exodus from the Egypt of government schools into a holy land of religious schooling? So far, no one seems to be offering an alternative to this unpleasant choice between captivity and culture war. I believe one exists; our model as Christians is not Babylon or Exodus, but Pentecost.

The Babylon faction kicked off the latest controversy with a Tulsa World column in May by Ryan Moore, co-pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Tulsa. Moore demands that we throw more taxpayer money at a government monopoly school system that has already squandered the resources lavishly bestowed on it over the course of the last 50 years, as school budgets consistently expanded and educational outcomes were flat. He expresses concerns about “efficiencies” but nonetheless demands that we cough up more money for the government schools—without setting any benchmarks for how the money will be used, or what results we have a right to expect.

Why must we do so? Because Christians have long supported “public” schooling, as evidenced by the fact that churches have a long track record of founding church schools in Scotland and America.

Moore seems not to have asked why, if churches were so aggressive in creating schools, government stepped in and used its power of taxation to drive churches (mostly) out of the schooling business. One reason was because the church schools taught people to think for themselves and live independently. As industrialists grew more powerful in the 19th century, they enlisted government to create a new school system whose products would provide more submissive and narrow-minded cogs for the factory machine. (Big business and big government colluding to destroy freedom and oppress the poor—it all seems so familiar, almost as if we’ve seen it somewhere before.)

However, the more important reason was religious. Massachusetts created the first government school monopoly in America in the 1830s, partly out of submission to exploitative industrialists, but also because the Unitarian Boston Brahmins were horrified at the unreconstructed Calvinism of the Massachusetts countryside. The new public schools indoctrinated students in a religion of good works without the cross, tearing up the cultural roots of puritanism. (One would think this history would be of interest to a Presbyterian pastor.)

The tool created to destroy Calvinism in Massachusetts was soon deployed nationwide in hopes of destroying Catholicism. As large numbers of Roman Catholic immigrants came to America, Massachusetts’ newly created government school monopoly began to look less like a quirky idea and more like an essential tool for washing the filthy Romanism out of these immigrants’ heads. Government schools imposed a “non-sectarian” religious instruction that was actually a thinly veiled mainline Protestantism. This is why the majority of state constitutions are disfigured with detestable “Blaine amendments,” which purport (in violation of the U.S. Constitution) to deny private schools equal participation in government programs solely on the basis of their religion.

Praise God, our Catholic friends were more true to the spirit of America than America itself. Faced with government schools that were dedicated to cultural genocide against them, they bore the burden of private schooling. Thus the American experiment in religious freedom was preserved, despite America’s own best efforts to stamp it out. (Irony alert: Our efforts to “assimilate” these immigrants to our culture would actually have destroyed America’s culture of religious freedom; their successful resistance to our “assimilation” efforts actually assimilated them to our real culture. God has a sense of humor.)

After the Babylon faction produced such a slow, fat target as Moore’s column, it wasn’t long before the Exodus faction took to the pages of the Tulsa World with a rejoinder. Edward Fowler, rector of St. Michael’s Anglican Church in Broken Arrow, argued that any school that isn’t explicitly Christian must be explicitly atheist. Government schools must present students with a coherent account of the universe that doesn’t include God. Therefore, schools that do not explicitly teach that God created the world are inevitably teaching “that God did not create the world.”

It is true, as Fowler argues, that there is no such thing as religious neutrality. All human beings have some kind of cosmic worldview, and everything we do presupposes that worldview. Even to assert “2+2=4” presupposes the view that the human mind is rational, and its spontaneous intuitions about the relationships between numbers are sound (and, for that matter, that other minds exist and I can communicate meaningfully with them). All of these premises are religious, or at least metaphysical.

However, while there is no such thing as religious neutrality, there is religious ambiguity. To assert “2+2=4” is not a religiously neutral statement, but it does not settle all religious questions, either. A Christian, a Muslim, and a Hindu have three very different metaphysical accounts of what the human mind is, yet each can square “2+2=4” with their view.

Thus, a school that is not explicitly Christian need not become explicitly atheist. It need not even become implicitly atheist. It may be implicitly Christian! Or it may be a shared possession, offering an educational discourse that accommodates a diverse population without resolving their religious differences.

In this, we are only discussing a specific instance of a much more general challenge. Creating a shared social world in which people of diverse faiths can live together is not only a problem for schools. It is the challenge facing all institutions and civilizations in the advanced modern world. Communication and transportation technologies, but more importantly our increased seriousness about religious freedom, are requiring us to invent new ways of living together.

If we believe in religious freedom at all, then we have already conceded that it is possible for people of diverse beliefs to share institutions and, ultimately, a public social world. The Exodus position implies not only an exodus from government schools, but from good citizenship in any society characterized by religious freedom. It is an invitation to endless culture war, in which everything not explicitly Christian must be treated as an enemy until it is “taken captive to Christ,” and we have no shared cultural ground with our neighbors of other beliefs.

The culture created by religious freedom is inevitably messy and unstable, because of the ambiguous nature of the shared social world. We will sometimes have to fight each other to define terms, draw boundaries, and figure out how to live together. But let’s not set up perpetual war with our neighbors as our definition of faithfulness!

This is not an argument for sending every child to government schools. This is an argument for parent choice—real parent choice, without captivity either to government schools or to church schools. Parents should evaluate local schools, public and private, and select the one that aligns best with their views and goals. My wife and I send our daughter to the local government school, because we are more satisfied with it on all counts—including spiritually—than the available alternatives. Others, facing other circumstances, may legitimately make other choices.

Of course, parents don’t have an equal choice as long as government uses its tax power to offer free schools while alternatives need to charge tuition. We need school choice policies to make real choices available. But policy isn't enough; we also have to understand and affirm as a culture that there’s no one right choice for everyone. Different families can make different choices, and that’s okay.

The problem with both Babylon and Exodus as social models for Christianity today is that they both come from the Old Testament, before Christ’s coming. With the Great Commission, Christ has sent his people out into the world; he wants disciples of every nation. Where the Jews were called out of Egypt, we are called into Egypt—our road is an eisodus, not an exodus. But we are not called to live passively, like the exiles in Babylon, merely marking time in a foreign land. The church has a mission to build godly ways of life wherever we go, and that means we can’t simply conform to the world around us or bunker down in Christian ghettos.

The model for Christians is not Babylon or Exodus, but Pentecost. The languages (i.e., cultures) of the world all participate in the church’s resurrection power. Cultures that never expressed the gospel before are now transformed. But it is only disciples of Jesus, only those connected to the power of the Holy Spirit through Christ’s death and resurrection, who experience this transformation. They are then sent back to all their nations, to build lives of discipleship and faithfulness in every culture.

What does it mean to build a life of discipleship in our nation today? That will be different for people living in Tulsa and Tampa, or even Tulsa and Topeka. It will vary from one household to another, and there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Indeed, “one size does not fit all” is part of the lesson of Pentecost.

A good Christian needs to learn to be comfortable with that ambiguity. For if God can be more than one person, we certainly can find more than one way to be Christian.

Greg Forster, Ph.D.


Greg Forster (Ph.D., Yale University) is a Friedman Fellow with EdChoice. He has conducted numerous empirical studies on education issues, including school choice, accountability testing, graduation rates, student demographics, and special education. The author of nine books and the co-editor of six books, Dr. Forster has also written numerous articles in peer-reviewed academic journals, as well as in popular publications such as The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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