When faith went to school

David Epps

Back in the days before God got expelled from the public education system, the attitude toward religion, and the Christian faith specifically, was much different than it is today.

In Mrs. Willis’ first grade class at Dickson Elementary School in Kingsport, Tenn., there were three rituals that started each day.

First, the teacher led the class in standing and saying the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag that was prominently displayed in the class room. Then Mrs. Willis taught the children the 23rd Psalm which we recited every day. Finally, we ended the morning liturgy with the praying together of the Lord’s Prayer.

No one thought it unusual, no one objected, and it seemed to help us make the transition from wherever we lived in our homes and neighborhoods to the world of the classroom.

While going through a storage box the other day, in preparation for an anticipated move to another house, I came across an old scrapbook. To my surprise, I discovered two certificates I earned for participating in Bible classes offered in this same public school.

Both classes were under the heading of “Adventures in Christian Living” and were sponsored by the Greater Kingsport Council of Churches whose stated goal on the certificates was, “to promote the teaching of the Bible in the public schools.”

As far as I can remember, these classes were once a week for an hour each time and lasted the entire school year. The first certificate was awarded in May 1962 when I was 11 years old. I would have been ending the 5th grade. The teacher, who was not a school employee, was Marjorie F. Read and the subjects taught that year were, “How Our Bible Came to Us,” and “The Life of Christ.”

The next year, at the end of the school year and finishing up 6th grade, the teacher was Margaret S. Deck and the two subjects taught were, “The Early Hebrews Learn to Know and Live with God,” and “Prophets … Spokesmen for God.” So, the 5th grade course focused on the New Testament and, the next year, we were in the Old Testament.

When I think about how normal that was back then and how radical that would be considered today, I just marvel. No child had to participate in any of these exercises. If any parent wanted their child to opt out all they had to do was make a call or send a note.

I do remember that one boy in the first grade sat during the Pledge. The teacher explained that he was a Jehovah’s Witness and their church didn’t participate in the Pledge. It was explained in such a way that we all just accepted it. After all, I was a Methodist and we didn’t baptize by immersion as did the Baptists, so it did not seem odd at all.

What all this did do was normalize patriotism and faith. The school taught math so math must be important. The school taught kids how to read and write so that must also be important. The school even taught good manners and civility, which was something that a few kids had evidently not been taught at home. So, manners and civil behavior were important.

So, if the school and the teachers taught the Pledge of Allegiance, led us in prayer, had us memorize a Psalm, and offered Bible classes in school, all of that must be important, too.

I have said to people that, “There has never been a day in my life that I didn’t believe in God.” I credit that to two primary sources: the first being my mother who frequently read Bible stories to me from my earliest days. The second is the public school system. The Church came in third and came along later.

We weren’t always regular church-goers and were very sporadic in attending the Golda Memorial Methodist Church near our home. I credit my parents, Mrs. Willis, Mrs. Reed, Mrs. Deck, and the Kingsport Public School System for laying a foundation of faith and love for this country.

Later, at Ross N. Robinson Junior High, my football coach, Cecil Puckett, denomination unknown, led us in the Lord’s Prayer before a game and in the post-game prayer.

At Dobyns-Bennett High School, head football coach Tom Brixey, an Episcopalian, led us in the pre-game Lord’s Prayer and added his own prayer before we left the locker room. It went something like, “Lord we don’t ask you to give us victory, but we do ask you to help us to play our best. Protect us from injuries. Amen.”

The coach believed that if we played our best, victory would come. Besides, the players in the other locker room were likely praying too. And, of course, there was the obligatory prayer by a visiting minister that quieted the crowd and led into the National Anthem.

It’s not that way any longer. My newly discovered certificates represent a way of life that no longer exists in the American public school system. We are told that all that is now unconstitutional.

It’s not, of course. Back then, people believed in the U.S. Constitution but believed that the Founding Fathers wanted to insure freedom OF religion, not freedom FROM religion.

My children grew up in an educational system that was, more or less, indifferent to faith. My grandchildren were educated by a system that could be downright hostile to matters of faith. It is no small wonder that the current generation is less patriotic and often sees faith as nonessential or even foolish. They have been taught well.

But are we better off? I think not. I think that good manners are practically non-existent, civility is a rarity, and the nation is far more atheistic, pagan, and immoral (in biblical terms) than ever before.

Having not been taught the realistic results of capitalism and the benefits of democracy (as I was in junior high), the nation is lurching toward socialism.

It was people of faith who eventually pressed for the enactment of child labor laws, fought against child abuse, and ended slavery. Without those people advocating and making decisions, we have become a culture of death where 55 million babies have been exterminated before they ever looked into their parent’s eyes.

Some things are far better now than in the world of my childhood. Institutional racism has been practically eliminated, women are able to follow their dreams instead of being locked into a stereotype, many diseases have been nearly eliminated, the poor of today are far better off than the poor of back then, and life is easier, though much more complicated, because of technology and gadgets.

Young men are not being drafted, more opportunities are open to more people, the handicapped have more resources and pathways open to them, and the list goes on.

Time will tell what the full impact is of removing faith from the public square … from the minds and thoughts of our most impressionable citizens. It is, after all, the children who will eventually shape the future. And faith no longer goes to school.

[David Epps is the pastor of The Cathedral of Christ the King (www.ctk.life). He has been an opinion columnist for The Citizen since 1996, He may be contacted at davidepps@ctk.life.]