Last week, New York Times editorial writer Gail Collins reported that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was voted the second worst cabinet member award member of the Trump administration. The survey placed her behind only Bill Barr, who really isn’t a cabinet member. While I plan to vote Democrat this November, she is the one member of the Trump administration I would like to see continue.
A survey respondent described her as “not believing in public education.” I think that respondent got it exactly right, but didn’t really understand what “not believing in public education” likely means for Betsy. Since Betsy and I attended the same private Christian school system and went to the same Christian College, I think I do know what it means to her. And since I have gone on to earn a Ph.D. in religion, I also know a bit about “belief.” The way I understand “not believing in public education” means there can be no such thing as “un-religious” education. Here’s why.
Start with this premise: Everyone is religious.
Many of humanity’s earliest artifacts were used in religious worship. Across nearly all times and places people have worshiped gods, performed religious rites, followed religious teachers, etc. Only in recent centuries has the notion of a religion-free zone, or secular sphere developed. There, it is alleged, religion cannot and should not be found.
Betsy and I would argue there is no such place. While there may be no religious practices or symbols in many spheres of life, humans are religious in all times and places. I, for example, am a Christian while being a father, teacher, investor, gardener and whatever else you may think of. It is impossible for me to become un-Christian in any aspect of my life.
This is because religion is the frame that holds all of life together. Theologian Paul Tillich called religion “our ultimate concern,” and saw culture as “lived religion.” This “ultimate” nature of religion is what makes it so pervasive. Daniel Webster provides six definitions of religion, and the American Academy of Religion, of which I have been a member, has many more. My own operational definition of religion is: the source of one’s ultimate truth, meaning and value.
Betsy and I would argue all aspects of human life are undergirded by religions/ philosophies/worldviews. For example, I have recently seen “consumerism” described as the worlds’ largest religion. Think of it: Consumerism defines the human person as one who can freely choose products, services and even his/her identity. It has rituals such as shopping. It has a high-priesthood of advertising. Heaven, happiness or nirvana comes to those who successfully satisfy their preferences.
Back to education. To argue public schools must be religion-free is a Trojan Horse — religion has long been inside. When schools educate children, they make assumptions about the nature of humankind, the goals for their lives, and what is good for the students. These are religious beliefs.
State education departments tend to address secondary goals such as “skills, technology use, and employability” in their mission statements, while ignoring the deeper presuppositions. But were they to express their ultimate beliefs, these would be recognized as religious schools as well. If you doubt they are really religious, turn me or other religious scholars loose in any classroom in America. We will come back with a lengthy (and likely dull) report on the religious beliefs and practices we found.
In contrast, the educational philosophy statement from the Christian school system Betsy and I attended states, in part: “God created humans in his image as whole persons. … We have the freedom and responsibility to develop each of these areas of our lives. Our creator wants us to discover, probe and seek after knowledge in every discipline. … We must show mercy, promote justice and share in the work of Jesus.”
Pretty clear, right?
The difference between public and private religious schools seems clear as well. It is not “non-religious” versus “religious.” It is one religion versus another. The real difference is that while all schools are religious, only some explicitly acknowledge it. When you enroll a child at “St. Mary’s” or “Wisconsin Lutheran,” for example, you can be sure of the religious perspective you’re getting. When you enroll a child in a public school you cannot say in advance which religion(s) are present.
Since all people and schools are ultimately religious, why shouldn’t the state support all of them? Why shouldn’t parents be able to choose whatever religious tradition they wish for their child’s education? At present, it is only the rich who can choose the school they prefer since only they can afford its tuition. The poor are stuck with…