Christian Schools & Racial Realities by Hunter Baker

Christian Schools & Racial Realities

Hunter Baker on Desegregation & the Rise of Christian Education in the South

I live in Jackson, Tennessee. Our town of about 100,000 people sits between Memphis and Nashville. One of the outstanding features of Jackson is that it features an unusually large amount of Christian and other private schooling. Three public-school-sized parochial (or semi-parochial in one case) entities occupy positions on the north side of town. Another smaller one with a Great Books emphasis (the paradoxically new thing in Evangelical Christian education) is the proud owner of a smaller building outgrown by one of the three flagships. It also happens that the public schools of Jackson only recently gained their independence from federal supervision dating back to the racial tensions of segregation and desegregation.

Many view Christian schools with suspicion because a significant number of them began operation in the period when the United States was grappling most earnestly with desegregating American school systems in the hopes of vindicating our fundamental belief in equal opportunity. Statistics buttress this suspicion. From 1961 to 1971, enrollment in non-Catholic private schools doubled. The natural inference is that enthusiasm for Christian schooling was little more than a cover for racism. Some even referred to emerging Christian schools as "new segregation academies."

My argument is that while we observe clear covariation between desegregation and the rise of non-Catholic private schooling, other factors are available to explain at least part of the rise. My further contention is that even if we can vitiate the racial concern to some degree, there is a continuing moral and spiritual burden, which remains to be adequately addressed.

Cultural Changes in Public Schools

I met with a professor in my university's school of education to discuss the issue. Ben Phillips has a unique pedigree in that he previously served as a principal of a large and racially balanced public school in the Memphis area and then later in the same capacity at a largely white Christian school here in Jackson. I asked him about the inference of racism. He conceded that the inference is a natural one, but disputed the assumption that parents necessarily fled the public schools for invidious reasons. While admitting throughout our conversation that race was then and possibly is now one of many potential motivators, he said, "It is important to remember that school desegregation and busing efforts represented an unprecedented and large disruption and intrusion upon established routines for parents, families, and schools." Even though the end goals of desegregation were honorable and necessary, one might not be surprised to find members of local communities scrambling to avoid government moves they found unpredictable and burdensome for children as well as for adults.

Another important feature of the question at hand is the cultural change that was occurring at the time. The 1960s and 1970s were a period when issues of religion and worldview became much more salient in public education.

Perhaps the single most emblematic illustration of cultural change was the Supreme Court's 1962 decision in Engel v. Vitale to end officially sanctioned prayer in public schools. The Court closely followed that case with its 1963 decision in Abington v. Schempp to block official Bible readings. Taken together, the two cases represented a firm disestablishment of Christianity (especially Protestant Christianity) from the public school system. Even today, the public claim that secular liberals "threw God out of the schools" draws forth an appreciative response from many Americans.

In addition, sex education in the schools became a major controversy. Large numbers of parents viewed the incorporation of sex-ed in the curriculum as a replacement for the teaching of parents and churches. The reaction of parents to protest and/or flee sex education is often pilloried as a form of repressive hysteria, but they may have been justified. As Thomas Sowell has pointed out in The Vision of the Anointed, the percentage of girls who had "engaged in sex was higher at every age from 15–19 by 1976 than it had been just five years earlier." Sowell also noted that "the rate of teenage gonorrhea tripled between 1956 and 1975." One might add explosions in both the abortion rate and teen pregnancy during the relevant period to the roll call. The issue has staying power. Many parents (especially Christian ones) wish to preserve the more traditional view of sexuality and resent the idea that a taxpayer-funded representative of the state might teach their child differently.

Changes such as these added to the smoldering resentment over the teaching of evolution, which picked up more steam in the late 1950s as some argued that the Soviet success with Sputnik meant that American science education was unsatisfactory. A lack of teaching on evolution was one of the exhibits to which reformers pointed, and it led to renewed efforts to push states to be more vigorous in their coverage of the topic in schools. That issue continues to be litigated in courts (e.g., Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, 2005), with both sides attaching huge symbolic importance to the outcome. This is easy to understand since many atheists begin their testimonies of unbelief with vignettes centered on hearing about the theory of evolution for the first time.

These cultural developments—apart from the civil rights movement—helped push many Christian parents to choose private education, just as the heavy Protestant influence in public schools in years prior had helped drive the explosive growth of Catholic schooling. Catholics had resisted the broadly Protestant establishment in the public schools by setting up their own schools. Now conservative Protestants were doing the same thing, as they found that their own welcome had become worn. If they wanted an education for their children that would reinforce their beliefs, they would need to start new schools. And they did so. The movement has picked up steam as Christians have added whole new layers of classical schools and homeschooling.

Damage Done

Being able to provide reasonably good answers for why Christian schools began to pop up in larger numbers during the period of desegregation can blunt the impact of accusations of racism, but it does not necessarily help with the issue of effects. Part of the reason why racial wounds have failed to heal completely since the advent of de jure equality is that, as soon as the doors were opened to everyone, a sizeable number of folks began to make alternative arrangements.

The blame can be spread around. Judges and policymakers sometimes chose tactics (such as forcing children to endure long bus rides to unfamiliar parts of their cities at early and late hours) to achieve integration that would have given even the most level-headed and fair-minded parent fits. There was also the problem that solutions had to be lived out by children rather than parents. It is one thing to be Jackie Robinson. It is another to expect one's child to be the trailblazer. Finally, we might add that secular liberals probably unwittingly undermined the project of integration by overthrowing the "slender" Protestant establishment of faith and worldview in the schools during the critical span of years when integration efforts were ongoing. Still, all the good and valid explanations we might adduce do not erase the damage that has been done and continues to accrue in ways known and unknown.

The toll has taken two forms. First, there is the sense of rejection African-Americans felt as whites fled hard-won integration. Second, there has been a problem in schools similar to the trouble of the housing projects. Whenever institutions concentrate individuals whose lives have been marked by unwed parenting, poor employment records, crime, a lack of role models, and negative social fashions (such as the idea that studying is a "white" behavior) in disproportionate numbers, the prospect for social improvement and vertical mobility declines. There can be little question that trends toward suburbanization, private schooling, and homeschooling remove many children who come from homes with more cultural capital from the schools where they might add helpful values, attitudes, and habits to the community of students. And, of course, the parents of those children are likewise not present to help share tasks of volunteering and leadership.

A Quandary for Christian Schools

All of this leaves the Christian schooling project in something of a quandary. On the one hand, Christians have a strong mandate to help the disadvantaged. Being in the public schools is one way to do that. On the other, many have worked hard (and made heavy sacrifices in terms of time and money) to build institutions offering an education for mind, body, and soul that they believe in strongly as a foundation for their children. Though the logic of something like faithful presence (to use James Davison Hunter's term) in the schools has a great deal to be said for it, there is something not quite right about an appeal to the folks in the Christian school movement to fold their tents.

Ben Phillips explained to me that when he became the principal of a strong Christian school following his years in Memphis public schools, "I wanted more minority students. I think a big part of the problem is that they were closed out by price." So far, the response of conservative Christians has been to advocate for taxpayer-funded tuition vouchers. That project, however, has been fraught with difficulty both because of perceived church-state issues (a modest legal problem) and the resistance of public school supporters—worried about budgets already—to allow any resources to go to the private school system, which they perceive, correctly, to stand in judgment of their own efforts (a much bigger political problem).

Assuming a continuing deadlock over the issue of school choice, the best answer may be for conservative Christians to find other ways to create greater access to their institutions for those from whom they are suspected of fleeing. It is a burden of history not easily shrugged off, even by generations who did not make the world in which they live. We inherit debts other than the kind governments incur on their balance sheets. But the racial unification of the American church might best begin in the Christian schoolhouse before it takes hold in the Sunday services. It is a home mission (as the Baptists might call it) awaiting a champion and a movement.  

Hunter Baker , J.D., Ph.D., is the dean of arts and sciences at Union University, a fellow of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and an affiliate scholar of the Acton Institute.

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