On May 20, 2021, former Attorney General William Barr received the annual Edwin Meese III Award for Originalism and Religious Liberty from the Alliance Defending Freedom at the Alliance Defending Freedom event in Orlando, Florida.
Several times during his acceptance speech, Mr. Barr defended the idea that it is impossible to separate religion from education. His thoughts provide powerful ammunition for those repelled by attempts to promote secularism and, especially, the harmful Critical Race Theory and its spawn, The 1619 Project.
The outspoken Catholic conservative contended that many schools promote radical ideologies harmful to students and society. This “indoctrination” has severe implications for those who fall under its spell. These ideologies, he specified, were “totally incompatible” with Christianity.
Education’s Religious Foundations
Mr. Barr gave a brief history of religious attitudes within the education profession. “Throughout the history of Western Civilization,” he began, “it has been generally understood that a true education… is inherently bound up with religion and morality.”
Indeed, the concept of schools, as understood today, springs from Church origins. There is nothing unusual about the relationship between religion and education. However, Mr. Barrr contends that “sealing off” the schools from religious influences is novel. Many modern Americans, including religious Americans, would be surprised by that fact. The phrase “separation of Church and state” is so ingrained that many think that the current secularism goes back to the nation’s founding.
Promoting Civic Virtue
Mr. Barr divides the history of American public education into three parts.
The first part begins about 1830 when educators like Horace Mann saw two purposes for the system that they were creating. The first was to develop a common national identity. Mr. Barr illustrates this with a turn on the national motto—“forging the unum out of the pluribus.” The second goal was to build the moral character of American youth.
This second goal, while laudable, was never fully achieved. Unfortunately, the basis of this approach was a kind of lowest common denominator that Mr. Barr refers to as “pan-Protestantism.” This age also saw Catholics establish their competing school system.
Limited as it was, this public school moral education did pass on civic virtues based loosely on the Ten Commandments. Students in these public school classrooms offered a generic Christian prayer every morning after saying the Pledge of Allegiance.
That practice ended as Mr. Barr’s second phase began. He does not give a specific date or event that caused the shift, referring to it as “the latter part of the twentieth century.”
This second phase saw “a relentless campaign of secularization intent on driving every vestige of traditional religion from the public square.” This drive took dead aim at the most vulnerable part of the square—public schools.
After enlisting the support of the Supreme Court, these secular zealots ruthlessly moved against any religious influence within American culture. “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” replaced traditional Christmas Carols in school concerts. Athletic teams could no longer pray before games. Mentioning Sacred Scripture could only be done as part of a history or literature lesson. Mr. Barr calls this process “secularization by subtraction.”
As schools expelled God, student discipline suffered. School authorities had only one weak arrow in their quiver, “trite talk of liberal values.” They told children to be friendly, show respect, wait for their turn, not lie or strike out in anger. However, they gave no reason for those rules. “What passed for morality had no metaphysical foundation.” These values, essential for civilized discourse, “became nothing more than mere sentimentality, still drawing on the vapor trails of Christianity.”
Even in this deteriorating situation, parents could usually expect that schools would reinforce—albeit weakly—the values taught at home. Perhaps teachers would not be allowed to teach morality, but they did not contradict the parents’ lessons in the classroom.
This idea could, Mr. Barr argues, only work in a society with relatively homogenous values which cross common lines of race and social class. Critical Race Theory is the most recent attempt to destroy that society. Modern educationists rush to implement the third phase, “the affirmative indoctrination of children with a secular belief system that is a substitute for religion and antithetical to the beliefs and values of traditional God-centered religion.” (Emphasis added.)
Finishing the Job
Currently, leftists relentlessly attempt to remove any lingering vestige of Christian culture from the schools. Strenuously they lay the foundation of a dystopian anti-Christian world. This goal preempts all others. The self-image of children—long the educationists’ buzzword—is sacrificed, especially if the child is white or Asian. Rigid standards are now symbols of oppression. Difficult lessons penalize the victims of past injustices. Any disciplinary system—in the minds of many—evokes images of whipping slaves. The concepts of objectivity and absolute truth deny “lived experience” and “alternate narratives.”
The results are harrowing. “[T]he state of our public schools is becoming an absurdity that can scarcely be believed. While an astonishing number of public schools fail to produce students proficient in basic reading and math, they spare no effort or expense in their drive to instill a radical secular belief system that would have been unimaginable to Americans even 20 years ago.”
Mr. Barr offers evidence to bolster this conclusion. He mentions a lesson that was part of a “Black Lives Matter Week of Action” at a public pre-school in Iowa. The caption on a coloring page heralded a social revolution. “Everyone gets to choose if they are a girl or a boy or both or neither or someone else, and no one else gets to choose for them.”
This message is not pertinent to pre-school students in Iowa. It does, however, represent an assault on traditional values. It “softens up” children’s moral senses to accept flagrant violations of natural law, which they otherwise reject. A similar process is at work in the repugnant Drag Queen Story Hours, to which leftist parents have turned into a line in the sand to groom their all-too-malleable children.
No Easy Answers
There are no easy answers to this offense save that of a national moral and spiritual regeneration. Until then, committed Christians must do all they can to defeat—school by school, board by board, state by state—this secularist ideology that threatens everyone. Former Attorney General William Barr must be commended for spelling out the problem so succinctly.
Photo Credit: David Sckrabulis, U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs