God is with us in all our beautiful diversity

Our Christian forebears did not leave their religion behind when they came to this new world. We should not expect anyone else to leave their religion behind either. And, public schools, for a public nation, must always be as they were designed to be… public.

 

We took God out of our schools, and the world went to hell.

I hear the sentiment frequently. One of my church members recently offered this opinion as rationale for all of today’s cultural depravity, and the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, TX, now claiming fame as a Fox news guest and counselor to the president, offered the same judgment. At the same time Rev. Robert Jeffress threw his good, Baptist heritage under the bus blaming the separation of church and state for school shootings. Not guns. Not mental health. Not lack of security. The separation of church and state is responsible for mass murder.

Wow.

Spoken one way or another I often hear this conventional “wisdom” about God and our schools. The words are easy enough to say that the opinion can be repeated with conviction, whether you’ve thought it through or not. It offers a simple diagnosis and an even more simplistic solution to a connected web of very, very complex human problems. And, maybe best of all, it lets you invoke God as defender of your position and judge of your opponents, which seems to bring some Christians a hint of sadistic and condemning glee.

We took God out of our schools, and the world went to hell.

Let’s think about that because, just for starters, there was a good bit of hell in the world even when we were using prayers to start each school day. The problem with trying to make the world like anything it used to be is that when you look back to any “good old days” just a trace of honesty will help you see that the good old days never really were. The halcyon time of “Leave it to Beaver” was not so simple and sincere.

We should not want to go back to any past. Today’s world is better than any bygone era, no matter how you remember it. And tomorrow will be better.

Then, we should question how it is that we could actually manage to take God out of anything with just a public declaration. At the height of the cold war there were an estimated 150 million Christians worshiping regularly in the officially-atheistic Soviet Union – and we completely removed God from our schools just by ending a required daily prayer? Really?

Is God that easy to control? Is faith in America that shallow that it can only be practiced when a paid state official leads? Do you really believe a perfunctory petition offered in homeroom will silence all the mentally disturbed individuals with semi-automatic rifles? You may object at this point that the kind of “prayer” I’m criticizing is not really prayer. And I would say…

Exactly.

Jesus instructed his disciples, “When you pray, go to your closet… pray in secret… and you will be heard in secret.” Jesus practiced a life of prayer and advocated for prayer, but never for showy or shallow, perfunctory, mandatory public purposes. We need to go forward with much prayer for our schools. We do not need to go back to obligatory “prayer in the schools.”

This brings us back to the so-often misunderstood “separation of church and state.” The good Texas pastor wants us to “put God back in the schools” – but, Rev. Jeffress, which God? Have you been to a public school lately – especially in a large American city?

In 2016 there were students from 183 countries, speaking 197 languages in Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools. A website called “city-data.com” includes Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Unitarians in a list of over 90 different Christian denominations and the other religions represented in this county. Mecklenburg County boasts churches from all the major branches of Roman Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox and Pentecostal Christianity as well as congregations representing Islam, Baha’i, Sikhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, and the major branches of Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism.

Which teachers in our public schools, practicing which of those religions, does the Good Reverend really want leading the daily morning prayers for his Christian children?

The freedom of religion which our ancestors sought in coming to this continent has always included freedom from religion, and the diversity of our public life today, ethnic and religious, is the result of our brave, bold experiment in democracy. We should celebrate such diversity. It proves our democracy is working! Our Christian forebears did not leave their religion behind when they came to this new world. We should not expect anyone else to leave their religion behind either. And, public schools, for a public nation, must always be as they were designed to be… public.

God has never been absent from our public schools. The sooner we are able to recognize this, and begin seeing that God is always here, with us in all our beautiful diversity, the sooner we will realize that our problem is not the absence of God. The problem is the absence of our own vision and compassion.

 

(Dr. Russ Dean is a graduate of Clinton High School. He and his wife, Amy Jacks Dean, also a CHS graduate, are co-pastors of Park Road Baptist Church in Charlotte.)

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