I got the question last Saturday night. I suppose I should have known it was coming, but I have to admit that it caught me off my guard. If anything, I would I have more likely expected it from our twelve year old son than from our eight year old daughter, but she was the one who asked. I was putting her to bed, and in her sweet, innocent voice, she asked it.
What made it so uncomfortable was that I should have been more prepared to answer it. After all, I am a well-educated man and a teacher myself. I have even written and spoken on the topic, albeit in circumstances of my own choosing. Perhaps that is what threw me off. I was like a general whose success had always been based on his choosing advantageous ground. This was more like an ambush. In the blink of an eye I had to come to grips with the fact that my little girl was old enough and aware enough to ask the question and that I had to sort through the torrent of responses that flooded my brain to find one that was accurate, was at her level of comprehension, and that would serve her well in the future. It is not easy being a dad these days, especially when his sweetie pie asks,
"Daddy, why do public schools not talk about Jesus?"
I stumbled at first and tried to buy myself some time by asking why she had come up with such a question. She said that some of her friends had told her that you can't talk about Jesus in public schools, and since she is used to prayer, to say nothing of the thoroughly Christian curriculum at the tutelage school she attends, she could not understand why this would not be the case at a public school.
Where, oh where, to begin? One of my favorite quotations from Montaigne is what he said in, of all essays, his On the Education of Children. "It is the mark of a strong and lofty soul that knows how to come down to a childish gait and guide it. I walk more firmly and surely uphill than down." This was not the time for a rant, a fulmination from the pulpit denouncing the evils of a godless system of education. It was not the place for high-flown discourse on the Bible, St. Augustine, Plato, Horace Mann, John Dewey, and Dorothy Sayers. My nanosecond of space for thought, which is about the limit in decent conversation lest the other person think you a mute or a halfwit, was about to expire. What could I say?
I have no doubt that my inability to recall my precise words is that my words were not precise. In fact, if I could remember them, I would likely paraphrase or re-state them so they sound better here. My confession is that I stammered something about how some people do not believe in God and think it is wrong to talk about Him, even though they are wrong for doing so.
Groan. What an ugly, flat, clunker of a response. Perhaps this post is my attempt to write my spoken wrong.
I could begin by filling it with links to books and articles that have something to say on the matter. For more than fifteen years, I have been reading, writing, thinking, speaking, and acting on this very issue. I could give you great resources that clearly delineate the historical development of our current, godless system of public education, that lay out the details and consequences of such a system, and that provide historical, faithful, and philosophical support for as well as plans for constructing God-honoring, academically rigorous alternatives.
Instead, let us return to an eight year old girl's question by considering the context of her life. She has been reared by two parents and a brother for whom the fulness of God as revealed in Jesus Christ is a daily, living reality. The adults in her life, from relatives to leaders at church to teachers, all share the conviction of a Christian life. Prayer is as common in and around her life as are the McDonald's arches in her hometown. She is as likely to hear Mommy and Daddy talk about Jesus as about Indiana University basketball. In short, while not isolated from the secular culture around her, her life is interwoven with the stories, beliefs, and practices of the Christian faith.
Another way to say this is that our children have been brought up in a Christo-normative environment. For a Christian, there really can be no other. Father Richard John Neuhaus once wrote, "If what Christians say about Good Friday is true, then it is, quite simply, the truth about everything." Of course, what Christians say about Good Friday is derivative of what they say about God. If He is indeed the Alpha and Omega; if He really is the way, the truth, and the life; if no one comes to the Father but through Jesus Christ (and, it should be noted, Christians are only saying what God Himself has said), then the truth about God and our relationship with Him must be the truth about everything. This truth has as much to say about our dealings at the auto repair shop as it does about our activities at church. It does not have a right to be in the public square, if a right is something that may or may not be extended to something that is not logically necessary, but rather it cannot be excluded from it without the slipping of the public square into falsehood.
This is something that our daughter, age eight, already knows. For her, there is no distinction between the secular and the sacred, for the sacred pervades all aspects of her life in this age. It is no wonder, then, that she would wonder how anyone could rend that which God has created as one.
And in asking this question, she passes condemnation on such a divisive model of life and education. Once again, the emperor parades without clothes, and it takes a child to notice. We adults campaign and get elected on educational reform. We pass state and federal legislation ad nauseam to improve our schools. We pose for photo ops to celebrate our latest program and the funding for it. Yet as we congratulate ourselves for initiating reforms that will last only until the next election, we miss a simple truth. We cannot hope to educate successfully in anything if we reject out of hand the One Who is the truth about everything.