One reaction to the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School has been a call to “put God back in the schools.” I even heard one person suggest that the violence that happened in the school was because “we took God out of public schools.” As a pastor I have a deep desire to lead people to God and encourage people to pray, read the Bible, and carry their faith into every part of their lives. But I’ve got a few questions about “putting God back in the schools.”
In America our public schools are intended to be religiously neutral. Our teachers and schools are neither to endorse nor to inhibit religion. I believe this is a very good thing. When my kids were growing up I wanted their teachers to teach them science, reading, math, and history. I also wanted them to care about my kids. But I did not want my children’s public school teachers teaching them religion. That was my job as a parent, and the job of our church, Sunday school, and youth group.
If we’re going to put God back in schools, which God are we talking about? Within the Christian family alone there are often dramatically different ways of talking about God: fundamentalists, conservative evangelicals, Pentecostals, Charismatics, moderates, progressives, liberals, Calvinists and Arminians, high-church and low-church – and these are just the Protestants! Add in Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and a host of groups that are often said to be outside the mainstream and you can begin to see the dilemma.
And while 78% of all Americans claim to be Christians, 22% claim another faith or no faith. If these numbers are applied to teachers, this would mean that one in five teachers may be Hindu or Muslim, Jewish or Buddhist, atheist or agnostic. Few of the folks calling for “putting God back in schools” seem to be okay with people outside of the Christian faith teaching their children about God.
The religious neutrality in our schools is, I would argue, one of our strengths. Teachers cannot inhibit or deride religion. But this does not mean that we’ve taken God out of public schools. I’m reminded of the book of Esther in the Bible. God is not explicitly mentioned in the book, but that did not mean that God was not at work in the story.
Christians believe that God is everywhere and is involved in our lives at every moment, whether we publicly acknowledge God or not. Most of the teachers I’ve met in public schools are people of faith. For many, their faith shapes how they approach their work as teachers. It strengthens, informs, and inspires them to love their students and to pursue their work with excellence. As in the book of Esther, they may not explicitly mention God, but God works through them nonetheless.
Students also bring their faith into the schools. They are free to pray any time, provided they are not disruptive. They are free to talk about their faith, provided they are not belligerent or hurtful to other students.
Finally, there are many ways that churches and other religious groups may partner with public schools, provided that they are not seeking to evangelize. In the Kansas City area, the church I serve has partnered with six elementary schools in which a majority of the students live near the poverty line. We build playgrounds for these schools and paint and rehab their buildings. We fund literacy efforts and provide free books. We ensure that each child has a winter coat, gloves and hat, and school supplies, and we provide funds for special programs the schools otherwise could not afford. We also have tutoring programs with hundreds of volunteers who read to children and otherwise help the teachers and support their work. Every Friday we send backpacks with nutritious snacks home with 1,400 children who are at risk of being hungry on the weekends. We also distribute beds for children who we discover are sleeping on the floor in their homes. Our people are motivated by their faith to do these things. They don’t talk about their faith, but it is clearly seen in their actions.
I’m convinced many of America’s heroes are public school teachers and administrators. Many of these people do what they do because of their faith. We don’t need mandatory, non-sectarian prayers read over the loudspeaker to “put God back in schools.” God never left the schools. God is still at work through the hundreds of thousands of gifted teachers and administrators, committed parents, and passionate volunteers who seek to help give our children “a future with hope.”