Some Thoughts on God in Public Schools

One of the unfortunate byproducts of tragedies like yesterday is that people will often be pointing fingers about what went wrong. Civil, constructive conversations about access to guns, mental health, security, and other issues certainly need to take place. These issues do matter. Unfortunately, many (though certainly not all) engage these issues in less than timely fashion.

But I want to address something else that inevitably comes along. Often many will say that such horrible things happen in schools because we have removed God from our public schools. Yesterday it wasn’t too long after the atrocity in Connecticut before social networks and a former Presidential candidate were citing this reason as a primary source of the tragedy.

First, God has not been taken out of public schools. No human being, no court, no earthly entity can ever remove God from anything. It doesn’t matter how hard one tries, you cannot kick God out. I’m reminded of Psalm 139:7-10 where the psalmist reflects on the reality that there is nowhere one could possibly go to escape God’s presence. It’s silly to suggest that the Almighty has been taken out of schools because there’s not an officially sanctioned prayer.

The responsibility to bring salt and light to schools does not rest with the government. It rests with those that follow Jesus. The Kingdom of God is not something that comes from the top powers down to the people. A non-religious government is not supposed to fulfill our calling. It is a grassroots movement. It won’t come through required prayers, but through people living out lives of compassion and goodness in their everyday lives because they have been transformed by God.

I cannot stand it when people say that God has been taken out of our schools because it ignores all of the godly people within public education. I am married to a high school teacher and I know many wonderful Christian people that serve within schools. And even though they do not open the class in prayer or have an altar call before the final bell, they are being wonderful, godly influences within their schools. To say that God has been removed from schools is an insult to the Christian witness of many.

There is also the misconception that prayer in schools is some sort of magic answer that is going to erase all of our societal ills. When prayer, etc. was much more common in schools, it was not a golden age. Prayer was common in schools in the American South when racism was rampant. God in school was not the cause of that ugliness, but it did not completely stop it either. All the religious instruction in the world will not necessarily stem the darkness of the human heart. God can turn that darkness, but it is typically God working through love rather than indoctrination.

There is also the fact that the United States is increasingly pluralistic religiously. Separation of church and state aside, the re-implementation of Jesus prayers (or even Judeo-Christian prayers) in school would ostracize children who are Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, other religions, or no religion at all. Such an action would show a lack of hospitality and respect towards these children.

One of the most important commandments is to love one’s neighbor as one loves his or herself. So we must put ourselves in the shoes of someone of a faith in the religious minority. I would not want a religion in which I did not believe to be forced upon me in the setting of publicly-funded education. We must consider all of our neighbors and not just “our kind” when we make sweeping statements such as the ones made yesterday.

Finally and I think most importantly, what upsets me about the implication that we have removed God from our schools is that it somehow suggests that God was not present in that Connecticut elementary school. God was very, very present. God did not abandon those twenty-six people. I believe God was there with those children, with those educators, with those shattered families, and that hurting community. God was in that moment hurting and broken-hearted over the tragedy as it occurred. 

God was in that public school as God is in all public schools. To suggest otherwise is to discount God and neglect the Christian calling to be salt, light, love, mercy, and goodness in the world.

Hope to Carry on (or Hope-pocalypse Now!)

A Lament