S4, Ep. 14: Public schools and Christian nationalism

Amanda and Holly discuss concerns about Christian nationalism and its effect on debates regarding public school education.

Mar 2, 2023

From curriculum debates to the posting of “In God We Trust,” we’re seeing the political ideology of Christian nationalism impacting religious freedom in our public schools.  During Public Schools Week, Amanda and Holly review recent controversies and discuss the important role our nation’s public schools play in serving all people and educating 90% of American schoolchildren. They also discuss why some schools would rather teach a misleading version of history and shut down any conversation by calling on the “boogeyman” of Critical Race Theory.

Segment 1: A proliferation of bills pushing Christian nationalism in public schools (starting at 00:49)

Learn more about Public Schools Week on this website.

We played a clip of Amanda’s testimony before Congress in December 2022 during a hearing titled “The Evolution of Anti-Democratic Extremist Groups and the Ongoing Threat to Democracy,” led by the House Oversight Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. Watch her full testimony at this link.

Amanda and Holly mentioned this “super-thread” on Twitter from Bryan Kelley, a policy analyst,  of bills being introduced in state legislatures which have a component that combines religion and public education.

Segment 2: What’s the role of religion in public schools?  (starting at 14:45)

Visit BJC’s collection of resources on religion in the public schools at this link

Amanda and Holly mentioned an article by the Rev. Jennifer Hawks, BJC’s associate general counsel, that was published in Good Faith Media: Strong public schools fight Christian nationalism


Segment 3: Other opportunities to support public schools (starting at 23:25)

Watch the webinar on advancing religious freedom in public schools, featuring 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

Respecting Religion is made possible by BJC’s generous donors. You can support these conversations with a gift to BJC

Transcript: Season 4, Episode 14: Public schools and Christian nationalism (some parts of this transcript have been edited for clarity)


Segment 1: A proliferation of bills pushing Christian nationalism in public schools (starting at 00:49)

AMANDA: Welcome to Respecting Religion, a BJC podcast series where we look at religion, the law, and what’s at stake for faith freedom today. I’m Amanda Tyler, executive director of BJC.

HOLLY: And I’m General Counsel Holly Hollman. Today we’re going to talk about the importance of our nation’s public schools in serving all people and the concerns we see about Christian nationalism and its effect on debates about public school education.

This week is Public Schools Week. It runs February 27 through March 3, 2023. BJC participates in Public Schools Week each year because we support public schools as an essential building ground of our democracy and because public schools support religious liberty for all students.

AMANDA: That’s right, Holly. And as we know, BJC has long recognized that students from all religious backgrounds — including students without religious affiliation — can attend public school and should expect the same treatment as any of their peers. Public schools demonstrate our country’s religious freedom ideals and model how people of all faiths and none can build relationships and trust with each other.

You know, in many ways, I think public schools are a microcosm of our larger society. Everyone has a right to attend, and there’s this core aspect of what it means to be an American, that we all equally belong in our society, regardless of our religious identity.

Even as I say that, I think we have to acknowledge that that is an aspiration that we don’t always achieve and practice, but it is a principle that is promised to us nonetheless, including for our young neighbors in our public schools.

HOLLY: We recognize that public schools differ across the country and struggle in different ways, but they are nonetheless important as setting a baseline for the education that we all hope that our young people will receive.

But we also recognize that Christian nationalism, as an ideology that permeates our society, is having an effect on religious freedom in our public schools. One reason is that the myth of a “Christian nation” — on which Christian nationalism heavily relies — is being pushed as something that should be taught in our public schools.

AMANDA: As a reminder, the way we use the term “Christian nationalism” is with this definition: Christian nationalism is a political ideology and cultural framework that seeks to merge American and Christian identities. Put another way, Christian nationalism suggests that to be a real American, one must be Christian and specifically a Christian who holds certain political views.

HOLLY: And, Amanda, you recently testified before Congress, and if anyone listening to this podcast has not heard that testimony, I think they should go listen to the whole thing. It’s short. It’s a short, beautiful, succinct way of describing the problem of Christian nationalism and what we are called as Americans and as Christians against Christian nationalism to do: to fight Christian nationalism.

But there’s a particular part of that testimony that I think we should play right now that really speaks to this issue.

AMANDA: (audio clip) Christian nationalism relies on a cherry-picked and misleading version of an American history in order to thrive. The “Christian nation” myth must downplay or ignore the role of Indigenous communities, Black Americans, immigrant populations, religious minorities, secular Americans, and all others who undercut the false narrative that the U.S. is special because it was founded by and for white Christians.


But the myth of a “Christian nation” is worse than just bad history. It undermines and contradicts the U.S. Constitution, specifically the prohibition in Article VI against religious tests for public office, one of the truly revolutionary aspects of the Constitution that laid the foundation for the U.S. being a faith freedom nation.

HOLLY: So all of you listening to us today, with that reminder, understand why we — as lawyers and advocates for religious freedom — are dedicated to both defending religious liberty in the public schools and fighting these bad education efforts that would undermine our country and our commitment to faith freedom for all.

AMANDA: And we’re seeing perpetuation of this “Christian nation” myth in curricular fights that we’re seeing at the local level in a lot of the schools, and this is one example of how Christian nationalism is threatening religious freedom for all in the public school context. We see that some schools would rather teach this very misleading version of history that perpetuates Christian nationalism, rather than a more honest appraisal of American history.

And I think a lot of this debate centers around the teaching about racism and the history of discrimination based on race in this country. So we see attacks on any discussion of racism in the public schools, labeled with the bogeyman of “critical race theory.” We are seeing some book bans that are narrowing the canon of permissible books in such a way that cherry-picks our history and our literature, and therefore provides an incomplete view of American history.

And we see the teaching directly of this “Christian nation” myth, a mythology that turns framers like Washington and Jefferson and others into super-Christians instead of acknowledging their complicated relationship with religion, and saying, you know, here are Christians, and they meant to found the country as one that was privileging Christianity. That really betrays not only the historical record but also, of course, the Constitution itself.

HOLLY: Yeah. I find these debates so maddening, because they’re often pitched as needing to say something positive about America by taking out all the negative things, which would not be a positive thing to say about our country. I mean, there’s so many important stories in the history that by looking at the more difficult chapters, you can find inspiration about the kind of country that we can be, that we are becoming and how we have advanced, as well as providing inspiration for continuing to want to be a better country.

AMANDA: And your comment, Holly, takes me to think about what’s going on in Florida these days. I feel like the fights over education policy and curriculum — sometimes talking specifically about religion but much more often targeting in particular any conversations about race — are very much related to this larger question.

And I’m thinking specifically about Governor Ron DeSantis’s attempts to ‑‑ or, I guess, successful banning of — the AP African American history course that’s being piloted in a number of states around the country right now, and labeling that as “indoctrination,” in his words, as a way that somehow to teach about racism and to teach about African American history in this country — that includes, of course, slavery and then also overcoming slavery and liberation and incredible achievements made in the face of degradation and subjugation and attempts at dehumanization — it, as you note, should be an inspiring American story for us all that is being silenced by this movement to, again, continue a white-centric history in our public schools.

HOLLY: Yes. This most recent debate in Florida seems so contrived to divide people and to really infect debates about education with racism. I think you can always debate policy and ways of teaching history, but to say certain things just can’t be mentioned, obviously it’s going to be a problem for teachers and a problem for all these hungry smart students, these kids that are eager to learn and that are able to grapple with history.

So I think that debate is such a sharp and ugly example of warring in public schools, you know, and political debates in public schools that are meant to divide, and it’s really one level deeper or more obvious than the attacks on public schools that we’ve been seeing and that we’ve been fighting for a long time as a matter of religious liberty and that often go kind of under the radar.

And by that, I’m talking about efforts to just have more Christian symbolism in public schools, things that are designed to counter problems that do not exist, because public schools already are open to people without regard to religion, and there are opportunities for people of all different faiths to participate in public schools. You know, and specifically we know there’s a long list of legislative proposals that have been promoted by a group called Project Blitz to further perpetuate Christian nation myths in the public schools.

AMANDA: Right. And this is a playbook that they’ve made public that consists of model bills that any legislature could pick up and try to pass, and they include the posting of “In God We Trust” in public school classrooms or in a prominent place in the public school.

We also see these bills that would push so-called “Bible literacy” classes in public schools — not religious literacy classes, but rather specifically Bible literacy classes — suggesting that to be a fully well-informed American citizen, one has to understand the Bible.

And the preambles to these bills focus on the, in quotes, “Judeo-Christian foundation of the United States.” By the way, Judeo-Christian was not itself a term at the time of the founding. This is a more recent idea that people are trying to then superimpose into the past.

HOLLY: It’s a very confusing religion really, if you think about it, you know. People claim it, and it’s very confusing.

AMANDA: Exactly. I don’t know any Judeo-Christians in that religion. So, again, in contrast to what we were talking about going on in Florida, on the face of these bills, we might not see overt racism or a sense that any of this has to do with race, but as we acknowledge in our Christians Against Christian Nationalism campaign, Christian nationalism often overlaps with and provides cover for white supremacy and racial subjugation.

So I think we have to understand how these model bills are again perpetuating Christian nationalism in such a way that also works in many instances to perpetuate racism and white supremacy.

Now, we also — in addition to these kind of stock bills that are being shopped around to all the legislatures — we also have legislatures who are being very creative in ways that they can pursue Christian nationalism in their laws and policy. And I have to say Exhibit A is often my home state of Texas, who are finding new and creative ways to push for Christian nationalism.

I was just in Texas talking about Christian nationalism to some faith-based advocates and learned for the first time of a bill pending in the Texas legislature that would change the list of essential knowledge and skills, things that all Texas students should learn, in their health classes to include teaching that “human life begins at conception and has inherent” ‑‑


AMANDA: — “dignity and immeasurable worth from the moment of conception.”

HOLLY: Whoa. Is this alongside bans on teaching sex education in Texas?

AMANDA: Oh, I’m sure. So this, again, idea ‑‑ like that is a very specific theological position that not even all Christians hold, by the way, let alone all people of any faith ‑‑


AMANDA: — in the state. And yet they are saying that in order to be a well-educated Texan, you have to know that.

So we’re seeing really a proliferation of these bills that push Christian nationalism across the country. And I would really commend, for people who are interested in digging a little deeper, a Twitter super-thread from Bryan Kelley who is an education policy expert, where he is keeping track of all these bills at the intersection of education policy and religion. So if you want to see what’s going on in the legislatures, we’re going to put a link to that thread in the show notes.

HOLLY: And it is certainly not just in Texas. Bryan provides quite the collection of bad ideas that would tend to harm education and religious liberty in a lot of states.


Segment 2: What’s the role of religion in public schools? (starting at 14:45)

HOLLY: We mentioned at the outset that it is Public Schools Week and that BJC proudly supports public schools and this opportunity to celebrate them. Of course, part of the reason is because public schools are where we live out the First Amendment in ways that are pretty easy to understand.

The public schools, you know, are government entities, and they serve civic needs for all people, as we said, without regard to religion. It’s not their job to promote religion or to teach religious exercises or to talk about which religions are better or whether religion is recommended, but instead, they’re there to educate all our citizens. And they provide opportunities through specific constitutional and statutory protections ‑‑ and those vary state to state ‑‑ for schoolchildren to exercise religion at appropriate times in the public schools.

So when we talk about the proper role of religion in the public schools, many people get excited, say, Oh, yeah, that makes sense, and that’s why I love religious liberty and why we should uphold it. And some of our resources on this topic are among BJC’s most popular, most requested — again, because understanding religion in the public schools and how we come together as citizens that are united by our civic identity and not our religious identity, when we come together that way, we understand our country’s commitment to religious freedom.

AMANDA: I also think those resources are so popular, Holly, because they contradict the very prevalent myths out there that somehow religion is being suppressed in the public schools, which is, I think, not at all the case. I think we might have some isolated incidents of some teachers or administrators making a bad decision. That happens everywhere, making a mistake, and then once pointed out, very quickly rectifying their behavior. And so I think people like having a resource to be able to set the record straight.

HOLLY: I agree. It is not uncommon to hear the old saying that God was kicked out of the public schools in the 1960s, you know, and it just comes up from time to time. People will say that, use that — just as really some kind of weird and wrong scapegoat for the problems that we have in society and the difficulties that we have, being prepared for the problems that we face in our society.

I want to add that our strong support for public education of course does not mean that we oppose private education or fail to appreciate the ways that private schools, including private religious schools, contribute to society, and in many cases provide excellent education.

AMANDA: Yeah. And we agree and believe that learning about religion is an important part of a well-rounded education, and of course, we recognize as Christians and as Americans that the free exercise of religion means protecting the right to worship, the right to express our faith, and the right to educate our children within our religious traditions, outside of a government-sponsored environment.

HOLLY: We recognize that there are a variety of reasons that families choose different options for educating their children, and some religious traditions are more committed to having private religious education woven in to their secular education. But those concerns don’t take away the need for every state to have strong and effective public schools.

Education is a core function of state governments, not something that should be taken for granted or denigrated. An educated citizenry is essential to the workings of democracy. It’s essential to our country, and we should all want a country that values education and provides it for all children.

And by definition, public schools do that. They are open to every child, regardless of ability, wealth, country of origin, race, or religion. And, in fact, 90 percent of all students in the United States of America are educated in the public schools.

AMANDA: And so, therefore, we get to celebrate that during Public Schools Week. It’s a week for administrators, teachers, specialists, teacher educators, parents, and school board members to host events for their communities, and reach out to lawmakers, businesses, and other community members to discuss the importance of public education.

Research shows that communities and parents are largely supportive of their local public schools and educators, and they want schools to prepare their children to succeed in a diverse and changing world. And I was just reading from the Public Schools Week’s materials themselves, about what it is.

HOLLY: Well, our colleague Jennifer Hawks just recently wrote an article that we should put in the show notes, saying that strong public schools fight Christian nationalism. So she explores this idea that we’ve been talking about and how important it is to ensure not only good social studies and civics education, but to be aware of the ways that this Christian nation myth might pop up in public schools, and how it is directly at odds with what you hope our schools will teach about America, including that our Constitution has a design that is supportive of religious freedom for all and — in fact — explicitly rejected the idea of being a nation that was designed as a Christian nation.

And that’s, of course, in Article VI and the protection against any kind of religious test for public office. It’s a pretty clear way of understanding that we are not by design legally a “Christian nation,” and I think that represents the wisdom of our Founders.

AMANDA: I really appreciated Jennifer’s article and the reminder that in fighting Christian nationalism, we don’t always have to be on the defensive. We can be proactive in supporting public schools in enforcing our religious freedom protections, because we have all the tools that we need in our toolbox to support religious freedom with constitutional guarantees, many statutory guarantees of religious freedom, and many years of practice in how to do this in the right way. And so this Public Schools Week gives us this opportunity, I think, to remind ourselves and to promote public education.

HOLLY: One of the stories that Jennifer tells ‑‑ I think she’s told it in writing but also as she sometimes speaks to student groups on behalf of BJC ‑‑ is how she had a really good teacher that asked them, who is the government, asked them to think about who the government is, and basically got them to see, you know, it’s not just that you learn there are three branches of government, but think about how do you interact with the government, and that it is your public schools.

And that story really stuck with her. It’s like, oh, yeah, this is the government, this thing that I’m in every day, this thing that’s teaching me and shaping me. And guess what: It’s made up of people, like this smart teacher who’s making me think right now, and the principal and the school board members and ‑‑ that’s where we learn that we have a role and responsibility to ensure that the government serves us all, including serves our religious liberty interests.

AMANDA: I love that lesson. It really is putting “we, the people” into action and into terms that public school students can understand.

HOLLY: So if you want to be involved in celebrating Public Schools Week, we always encourage people just to make a note of it. Tell people it is Public Schools Week. Be public school proud, public school strong, somehow letting people know on social media that you’re proud of your public schools or that you are the proud product of a public education.

It’s also good to let your member of Congress know that you support public schools, so that they know they have your influence and interest when they have the opportunity to speak out for public education, and to show up and participate in the public schools in your own community, making sure that you appreciate those that serve your community on school boards and those that are really trying to make public schools strong.


Segment 3: Other opportunities to support public schools (starting at 23:25)

HOLLY: Of course, it’s not just during Public Schools Week. There are always opportunities to support public schools and to help in the fight against Christian nationalism.

AMANDA: That’s right. Public schools are places where we can learn and work together across lines of religious difference, and they are strong training grounds for life in our pluralistic society. And we at BJC, along with Christians Against Christian Nationalism, just hosted an educational webinar on advancing religious freedom in public schools.

We had presentations and conversation with two experts, Maggie Siddiqi who serves as the director of the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships for the U.S. Department of Education, and Rev. Dr. Brian Kaylor, president and editor-in-chief of Word&Way, himself a Baptist minister and a frequent advocate for religious freedom for all in the Missouri state legislature.

And they both had actionable ways to be involved in the life of local schools and in policy at the state and local level. And we’ll put a link to the video of the webinar, so that you can watch their excellent presentations and some of their questions. But some of the ideas that they shared in the webinar, one was to show up as a positive and supportive voice of public schools at school board meetings.

I think we’ve seen some of these viral videos of school board meetings gone really bad and ugly, but we can show up in a supportive way to public schools and have a voice for religious freedom for all.

HOLLY: And do more than just watch in horror.

AMANDA: That’s right. These are all open to the public. You can sign up as a taxpayer in your community and show up and testify.

Second ‑‑ and this came from Maggie Siddiqi at the webinar ‑‑ we can be sure that we’re asking for religious diversity and inclusion in school programming — in things like the holiday concert, that we really are including diverse religious perspectives in songs and in that programming, and religious holidays throughout the year.

I know I’ve seen this at my son’s public school in D.C. where at the holidays, they’ll ask all the children to bring in pictures of their holiday celebrations, and I personally have learned a lot from watching what comes home and what they post online about the religious diversity in our public school.

HOLLY: One thing I really like about that suggestion is that it’s just a way of kind of showing unity and coming together and just demonstrating that people come to the public schools from all different walks of life and different religious perspectives, because the same policy will not fit for every community, as far as the number of holidays that are needed or the numbers of accommodations that might be especially needed for some religious communities. But by encouraging people to come together and just being aware of that diversity, I think you’ll have a stronger public school.

AMANDA: I agree. At the webinar, we also talked about some of these legislative efforts to push Christian nationalism that threaten religious freedom, and Brian talked about different ways that we can track bills that are promoting Christian nationalism. Of course, we shared earlier the super-thread on Twitter, but he actually explained how to go to your local website and some key words to search to see if any of these model bills are pending in your state.

And then don’t just find out if the bills are there — but find out ways that you could go to the legislature and testify or contact legislators to express concerns about some of those bills. And in doing so, if it’s authentic to you, talk about your faith identity and how it inspires your advocacy. And this is an excellent way to model faith-based advocacy, bringing your religious self responsibly into the public square, not hiding that religious identity when you are there as a citizen.

And Brian explained that he often does this, and when he does, he is often the only Christian on his side of the debate and how surprised the legislators are sometimes that he is there, speaking up on behalf of religious minorities in his community, for instance, speaking against Christian nationalism.

And he also noted that he is treated differently and better than those from other faith traditions or those who are atheists, for example, by some of these legislators. And I think that’s a powerful example of how we can use our relative privilege when it comes to being of the majority religion in our country to great advantage for religious freedom for all people.

HOLLY: Well, these are all great tips for celebrating Public Schools Week, in addition to fighting Christian nationalism every week and as specifically needed in your community and really strengthening communities across religious differences.

That brings us to the close of this episode of Respecting Religion. Thanks for joining us for today’s conversation. For more details on what we discussed, including the links to articles and other resources we mentioned, check out our show notes.

AMANDA: If you enjoyed today’s show, share this program with others on social media and tag us. We’re on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube @BJContheHill, and you can follow me on Twitter @AmandaTylerBJC.

HOLLY: As always, you can email both of us by writing to [email protected]. We love hearing from you.

AMANDA: Thank you for supporting this program. You can visit our show notes for a link to donate to support the podcast and keep it free of sponsored content. And for more episodes, you can see a full list of shows, including transcripts, by visiting RespectingReligion.org.

HOLLY: We encourage you to take a moment to find out more about BJC and how we’ve been working for faith freedom for all since 1936. Visit our website at BJConline.org.

AMANDA: Join us on Thursdays for new conversations Respecting Religion.