Protecting public schools from Christian nationalism
Ensuring that students of all faiths and none can thrive in public school is another necessary component of protecting religious pluralism.
By Molly Racsko, spring semester BJC intern
To equip advocates to make a difference, Christians Against Christian Nationalism held a webinar on the role of public education in protecting faith freedom. Amanda Tyler, lead organizer of Christians Against Christian Nationalism and executive director of BJC, hosted the webinar Feb. 23, titled “Advancing religious freedom in public schools.” The program shared perspectives from the federal government and from an advocate, as participants heard from Maggie Siddiqi, Director of the Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the U.S. Department of Education, and the Rev. Dr. Brian Kaylor, President and Editor-in-Chief of Word&Way.
Siddiqi highlighted the freedom to worship without fear as a dimension of protecting religious freedom in our nation’s public schools. For many people, religious freedom means a lot more than just maintaining legal protections — the ability to choose to worship, or not to worship, must be free from fears for their physical safety. “There is some dangerous overlap between those who are seeking to create an America that excludes those with minority religious affiliations and those who are seeking to exclude communities of color,” Siddiqi said, adding that addressing this is especially pressing given the rise in hate fueled by white nationalism and antisemitism.
Siddiqi identified several actions currently being taken by the White House and the Department of Education to defend the constitutional right to the free exercise of religion, including developing a national strategy to counter antisemitism. The federal government also maintains guidance on constitutionally protected prayer and religious activity in public schools, and it requires certification from state educational agencies that the agencies are abiding by the guidelines. (For more on these guidelines, see page 5.)
On the topic of religious literacy, Siddiqi stressed the importance of inclusive school policies and curricula which teach students about different religions and respect for religious pluralism. “Religious literacy is also critical to guarding against bullying and hate that is born of ignorance about religious difference,” Siddiqi said. She emphasized that these programs should teach about religions rather than teaching a particular religion. Religious education happens outside of government institutions, and more important for our public schools is cultivating the skill set of respecting diversity and understanding the world. She noted that faith and community leaders often ask not only how they can protect their children from being bullied, but they also ask how they can protect their children from becoming bullies themselves.
Ensuring that students of all faiths and none can thrive in public school is another necessary component of protecting religious pluralism. School policies should therefore reflect that and accommodate different religious needs, such as dress codes which allow for religious head coverings or school calendars which don’t force students to choose between taking their final exams and observing their religious holidays. “We need to be able to bring our full selves into that process of identity formation and learning what it means to be human,” Siddiqi said. “And for students of faith, their religious identities will be a part of that.”
We need to be able to bring our full selves into that process of identity formation and learning what it means to be human. And for students of faith, their religious identities will be a part of that.
Tyler underscored this principle, emphasizing that “no one is asked to shed their religious identity when they come into a public school, nor do we want that.” To combat Christian nationalism, she explained, it is important to remind people that there is protected religious expression already happening in public schools. “That rich pluralism and religious diversity adds to our communities.”
Dr. Kaylor’s commentary provided an academic perspective, focusing on the struggles that public schools are currently facing in upholding religious liberty. Dr. Kaylor attended public schools, has children in public schools and taught at a public university in the past. “I believe in public education, and it is something that is foundational to our democracy, to the health of our communities, and it is important for all of our children — whether you have children that are in the public schools or just the children in our community,” he said.
Dr. Kaylor noted that attacks on religious liberty in public schools are often connected to systemic racism. Religious rhetoric was used to oppose school integration in the 1950s and 1960s, and private Christian schools provided a path for white flight out of integration. Current battles over school vouchers and private school funding, he argued, are a direct result of those 20th century conflicts. Christian nationalism now targets public schools because they highlight and defend pluralism in our society. He added that low-income families and those with limited opportunities are the most at risk when public schools are attacked.
Dr. Kaylor pointed to a number of modern efforts to push for an establishment of religion in public schools. One such venture involves a campaign that creates model legislation for state lawmakers, putting forth goals including: “To protect the free exercise of traditional Judeo-Christian religious values” and “To properly frame the narrative and the language of religious liberty issues.” The campaign, which up until recently called itself “Project Blitz,” is organized by the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation.
“They want to create a system where to be considered a ‘good American’ is to be a Christian, and that Christians receive a privileged place not just in government, not just in society, but in curriculum and the school system,” Dr. Kaylor explained.
He also identified the introduction of Bible literacy courses in public schools as a product of Christian nationalism. These bills, he stated, send the message that a specific type of Christian faith is preferred. Amendments to add other religious texts to the curriculum — which would create a comparative religious studies class rather than one which pushes the Bible exclusively — are often voted down. One Bible literacy course proposed in Montana “says the quiet part out loud,” he said, by asserting that youth need God’s word in order to survive in “today’s postmodern, anti-Christian culture.” It also says that a Bible course will provide students with the “marvelous opportunity to study God’s Word and have it change their lives for eternity” and that religion is “essential” to well-being and morality in our nation.
Other troubling initiatives include banning books, mandating the posting of “In God We Trust” in schools and passing “trigger laws” which would reinstate government-led prayer in schools if the Supreme Court overturns its long-standing precedent forbidding the practice. Dr. Kaylor said these policies send “a tragic and horrific message” to schoolchildren: telling them that if they are not a specific type of conservative Christian, that they are not fully American or fully welcome in their own schools.
Dr. Kaylor shared actions that all of us can take to combat this assault on public education. He noted that people can get their congregations involved in public schools, such as through tutoring and mentorship programs, to help people of faith to see firsthand the importance of the public education system. He also suggested getting involved in your local school board, speaking up and encouraging board members and teachers who are underpaid and underappreciated when they are being attacked for trying to educate the next generation.
He also pointed to the importance of being involved in your state government, attending hearings and contacting your state representatives to counter talking points informed by Christian nationalism.
“A lot of times when I show up on these church-state bills,” he said, “I will be the only Christian that’s testifying against some of these Christian nationalism bills.” Dr. Kaylor shared that he feels like he is filling an important role by appearing as a Baptist minister alongside minority religious and nonreligious groups. “It’s important for those who are Christians to show up at these hearings, because otherwise it can very easily just become religion-and-church people versus everyone else.
It’s important for those who are Christians to show up at these hearings, because otherwise it can very easily just become religion-and-church people versus everyone else.
Tyler agreed on the importance of Christians speaking up. “We bear a special responsibility in being active in opposing Christian nationalism and to bring our faith-based selves into those public policy spaces when we do that,” she said. “We can be patriotic in our public schools and in our communities and support and advance religious freedom for all.”
Visit the resources section of the Christians Against Christian Nationalism website to watch a recording of this webinar. You will also find additional resources to take a stand against this dangerous political ideology in our nation’s public schools.