The Battle Over Religion in Public Schools

How school prayer, intelligent design, and Bible classes faded from the conservative agenda.

Jonathan Zimmerman January 31, 2023

In his 2002 book, Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools, historian of education Jonathan Zimmerman recounted a century of struggle over how race, sex and religion would be taught. At the time, he worried that religious debates in particular would prove impossible to overcome.

But in an updated edition published in 2022 from University of Chicago Press, he shows that in recent years, the most contentious questions have been over how to teach race and history (see, e.g., the debates over The 1619 Project and critical race theory). By contrast, religious issues from school prayer to intelligent design have reached some level of compromise—tending to favor the secular.

This is partly, Zimmerman explains, because many on the religious right took their kids out of public school altogether, often opting for homeschooling. And of course, this country’s religious debates are far from dead—look no further than the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade. But in the excerpt that follows, Zimmerman looks at Bush-era religious conflicts from rural and small-town school districts to show that, in public schools at least, parts of the culture war were beginning to wane.

There was always a thin line between teaching about religion and proselytizing on its behalf. The early 2000s also witnessed a spike in elective Bible classes, which often crossed that line. Arising in the wake of the 1963 Schempp decision, which barred devotional readings from the Bible, these classes had enjoyed a burst of popularity in the 1960s among conservative Christians who openly aimed to continue religious practices in schools. Bible classes declined after that—in part because of challenges from civil libertarians—but revived during the presidency of George W. Bush, a born-again Christian who repeatedly cited the Bible, God and Jesus Christ in his public pronouncements. (When asked if he had consulted his father before deciding to invade Iraq in 2003, Bush famously replied that he had appealed to a “higher Father” than former president George H. W. Bush.) Evangelicals were inspired by Bush’s devout displays of faith and especially by his reelection victory in 2004, when—unlike his 2000 contest against Al Gore—he won more popular votes than his Democratic opponent, John Kerry. The quest for Bible courses picked up steam during Bush’s second term, when nine states considered laws to encourage such classes and three states passed them. The National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools (NCBCPS) reported that the number of districts teaching courses with its material rose from 294 in 2005 to 475 in 2009, when Bush left the White House. Its main competitor, the Bible Literacy Project (BLP), expanded from 88 to 282 districts in the last two years of Bush’s presidency alone.

The differences in the two curricula spoke to larger divisions in American religion and politics. As one newspaper headline noted, the BLP aimed to “circumvent the culture war” by avoiding sectarian claims: analyzing the Bible as a literary and historical artifact, it won endorsements from liberal organizations like the American Federation of Teachers, the Council on Islamic Education, and People for the American Way. But most evangelical Christians favored the NCBCPS, which taught a conservative Protestant worldview under the guise of history and science. One lesson cited a NASA study indicating that the Earth had stopped twice in its orbit, which allegedly supported the Bible’s claim that the sun had stood still on Joshua’s command; other passages asserted that the United States had been founded as a “Christian nation,” which would become a centerpiece of evangelical doctrine in the ensuing decade. Examining 25 Texas school districts that had offered Bible classes between 2001 and 2006, religious historian Mark Chancey found that only three of these courses “could be reasonably described as nonsectarian.” Regular school personnel taught the courses in 20 of the 25 districts, but only five of those instructors had taken any university-level courses in Biblical or religious studies; when asked about teachers’ qualifications, districts typically cited the instructors’ experience teaching Sunday school. All but one of the remaining Bible courses were taught by local Protestant ministers from conservative churches. 

Predictably, these courses came under fire in Texas and—eventually—around the country. The first controversy centered upon the small town of Brady, which called itself the “Heart of Texas” thanks to its proximity to the geographic center of the state. It also proudly showcased its NCBCPS Bible course, which it advertised to other districts that might wish to adopt it. That caught the eye of the Texas Freedom Network (TFN), an organization dedicated to church-state separation, which commissioned Mark Chancey to write a detailed report on the Brady course. Chancey found that the curriculum approached the Bible as “an inspired book and as literal history.” That was perfectly fine by Brady’s mayor, who replied that the schools “couldn’t teach too much of the Good Book”; meanwhile, a county judge charged that the TFN report was “the work of anti-religious outsiders, bent on imposing their views on a God-fearing public.” The local school superintendent admitted that he hadn’t read Chancey’s report, and that he was in “no hurry” to do so. “We don’t have a problem,” he categorically declared. “There’s nothing to correct.” But when the larger and more religiously diverse Texas city of Odessa adopted a Bible elective in 2005 inspired by the Brady curriculum, eight citizens sued the district on the grounds that the course aimed to promote a particular faith. Rather than fight the suit, Odessa agreed to drop the curriculum. 

Widely reported in the national press, the Texas dustups served notice that Bible courses could not run roughshod over the First Amendment’s ban on establishing religion. So did several highly publicized battles over school-sponsored prayer, which had continued in many districts despite the Supreme Court’s 1962 ban on it. In Hardesty, Okla., a self-described atheist was kicked off her high school basketball team in 2005 after refusing to join a post-game prayer circle with her teammates. Her father confronted the school principal at his house, where the two came to blows; acquitted of assault, the father sued the school district. Likewise, Jews in rural areas still struggled with school-sanctioned Christian prayers and—especially—with how to respond. For years, Jewish parent Mona Dobrich bit her tongue when officials led prayers at school events in her small Delaware town. But after a minister at her daughter’s 2004 high school graduation described Jesus Christ as “the only way to truth,” Dobrich complained to the school board—and triggered an angry backlash. “Stop interfering with our traditions, stop interfering with our faith and leave our country the way we knew it to be,” a local talk radio host thundered. Fearing for her safety, Dobrich moved with her children out of town. She also joined in a lawsuit with a second family—known only as “the Does,” to protect their anonymity—against the district, eventually winning monetary damages. Meanwhile, several national evangelical leaders announced that they had reversed their former commitment to school-led prayer. According to Frances Fitzgerald, a prominent chronicler of modern evangelicalism, the prayer issue was “essentially dead” by 2007. One well-known conservative minister told her that the majority had no right to impose its faith on the minority, sounding every bit like liberals who had long contested school prayer.

Some conservative Protestants tried to invoke a similarly liberal spirit in the still-simmering debate on evolution instruction, insisting that it should not be presented as unalloyed truth; schools should also allow alternatives like the theory of “intelligent design,” which claims that the scientific record suggests a divine Creator. Inspired again by George W. Bush, who endorsed the teaching of intelligent design (ID) alongside evolution, conservatives converged on state school boards and legislatures to press for this “both-sides” approach. Thirty-one states witnessed 78 different clashes by late summer in 2005 over evolution instruction, which one journalist called the “biggest battlefield in a spreading culture war.” But here, too, court challenges and changing public sentiment would spell defeat for the Christian Right. In December 2005, a conservative federal judge appointed by Ronald Reagan ruled that intelligent design aimed to promote religion and hence did not belong in the public school science classrooms of Dover, Penn., which had included ID as a competing theory. Advocates for ID promised to fight another day, predicting that the Dover decision would rally their troops. Instead, the issue waned. Ohio’s state board of education removed critiques of evolution from its science curriculum in February 2006, signaling what one observer called a “reversal of the national culture war” on the subject. Most importantly, younger evangelicals steadily abandoned the hard edge that had marked their forebears on questions like school prayer and evolution, as a Florida religion reporter observed. “Suburban families trying to get their kids into college didn’t believe that the earth is only a few thousand years old,” he wrote. And even if they did, they weren’t willing to put their necks out for it if that might hold their kids back.

Excerpt reprinted with permission from Whose America?: Culture Wars in the Public Schools (Second Edition) by Jonathan Zimmerman, published by The University of Chicago Press. © 2022 by The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved.

Jonathan Zimmerman

Jonathan Zimmerman is professor of history of education and the Judy and Howard Berkowitz Professor in Education at the University of Pennsylvania. He is considered one of the foremost education historians working today. His work examines how education practices and policies have developed over time, and the myths that often cloud our understanding of teaching and learning. He has a particular interest in how political and social movements come to shape education. A former Peace Corps volunteer and high school teacher, Zimmerman has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Chronicle of Higher Education, The New York Review of Books, and The Atlantic.

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