Disestablishmentarianism is an amusingly long word that people like to say and spell to impress others. It is also a principle that has had a large impact on schools and other public institutions. The term (popularly known as “the separation of church and state”) refers to the idea that the government cannot establish a specific religion for its citizens. It originates from the first amendment which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

As one might imagine, the two points of this statement—non-establishment and the free exercise of religion—often conflict with one another. In many people’s eyes, allowing the free exercise of religion amounts to a government endorsing and thus establishing a specific religion. If a leader lets a certain group of Christians preach the gospel to others, he thereby tacitly approves of them and their mission, consequently putting those outside this group in a less favored category.

However, this logic is flawed. Permitting people to practice their faith and tell others about it (i.e., tolerating them) does not automatically amount to endorsement, nor is endorsement synonymous with establishment, seeing that other people do not necessarily suffer any disadvantage from having Christians practice their faith freely. By law, both public and private employers cannot discriminate against anyone on the basis of their faith or lack thereof.

Despite these assurances, secularists and non-Christians will still employ the argument that allowing any kind of religious expression or practice in a public space is unconstitutional. For them, the only way to resolve this issue would be to eliminate the presence of religion altogether. Courthouses with Ten Commandments statues on their lawns must remove them; schools that host yearly Christmas musicals must cease doing so; public workers who pray together before a lunch must stay silent—all because this may offend someone who does not share their faith.

In large measure, these objectors have succeeded in effacing religion completely from any public organization. Hence, what started as the prevention of establishing religion has ended in removing every trace of it. A few valiant souls have opposed this trend, citing the obvious faults in logic and restrictions on free speech and winning a few legal battles, but ultimately losing the culture war. Sadly, most people, including people of faith, have accepted the absence of religion in the public sphere. They think that public places like schools and city halls are just being neutral and respectful of all religions.

Like equating tolerance with endorsement, and endorsement with establishment, it is also a great mistake to equate absence with neutrality. By denying the presence of religion, public institutions, particularly schools, now effectively oppose religion. In its place, they have either imposed a secular belief system with doctrines like multiculturalism, environmentalism, and socialism, or they leave a moral vacuum usually filled by various forms of nihilism and hedonism.

Ignoring the Infinitely Large Elephant in the Room

How does this degeneration happen and why does it matter? The current situation of public schools answers both these questions. It begins by making religion something shameful and taboo. As they grow into adulthood, young people in public schools adopt a language and worldview that completely ignores God and objective morality.

In science, truths that suggest a higher power, like the rational capacity of human beings or the emergence of life out of nonliving matter, are carefully cut out of the curriculum or answered blandly with a one-word response, “Evolution!” And if science cannot provide an answer, the question is usually dismissed. Thus, early in life, the materialist view that denies metaphysical realities quickly takes root and stifles any nascent spirituality.

Other subjects work out the same way. Social studies curricula have deemphasized the role religion plays in society and have completely relativized the issue. In a typical geography or history class, all religions are equal, from Egyptian polytheism to the Church of The Latter Day Saints. Atrocities in militant atheist states, like Soviet Russia, Communist China, Cambodia, or even contemporary North Korea are almost wholly ignored. By the time the students learn about the modern world, they come to believe that the decline of faith and the ascendency of technology have both made the world safer and happier.

In English class, particularly with the implementation of Common Core, students read and write for purely utilitarian purposes. The goal for most English classes is to turn students into soulless researchers who can cite texts properly and create superficial argument efficiently. On a timed standardized test or a formal assessment on “skills,” profundity of thought, fondness for verbal expression, or richness of imagination become liabilities. Religious beliefs that appear in an essayist’s moral assumptions or a novelist’s themes naturally receive little to no attention. Does it teach a skill that is tested? No, therefore bringing it up only wastes time.

This negative attitude about faith happens beyond the classroom as well. Laws in most states have banned all references to religion in school events and communications. Where the law does not prohibit it, social convention will smother any attempts anyway. Legally, students may assemble and pray or read the Bible together, but a teacher may not join them – by contrast, a teacher can sponsor and support an LGBT or Socialist club. Legally, a valedictorian may mention God in his or her speech, but an administrator can discourage this to keep from offending guests and must disclaim any possible responsibility for the statement. Students technically have a moment of silence, but most classes are so loud, they can never really pray during that time.

All these policies directly and indirectly condition the students to see faith as strange and backward. For so many days each year, for twelve years, God does not exist for most kids. Far from leaving religion free and open for them to believe or not, this complete absence rather leads them down a path of atheism or agnosticism where God and questions of His existence are irrelevant. As Screwtape tells Wormwood, this ignoring the question of God is the precise way to de-convert an individual rather instead of trying to refute it honestly.

Keeping One’s Faith Amid Ubiquitous Faithlessness

Students and teachers who hope to keep their faith and make it meaningful can attest to the strong pressure to conform to this godless mindset. Fear of losing one’s job (for teachers) or losing one’s credibility and personal appeal (for students) force religious believers into silence. Left uninterrupted, this prolonged silence can cause them to drift away from their faith permanently.

Although other factors easily contribute to young people leaving the church in droves, the anti-religious environment of public schools plays a large part. A couple of hours of worship on Sunday stand little chance of changing a young person’s spiritual life when pitted against against forty-plus hours of public school for the rest of the week.

Parents may try to combat this by sending their kids to private schools, but many cannot afford this. Even those who can afford it have little guarantee that their children may keep their faith. Many religious private schools treat religion in a trivial complacent manner and only succeed cultivating a shallow moral and financial snobbery in the students, directly contradicting genuine faith.

In the absence of other options, this leaves it up to parents to create a counter-culture at home to oppose the secular culture at school. They should not fall for the common misconception that they can outsource this responsibility elsewhere—faith formation classes, occasional church retreats, or awkward discussions with a pious aunt or uncle. The habits, conversations, and surroundings of the home should daily fill a young person’s heart and let them know that his faith matters. If the family never eats together and spends much of their leisure in front of a screen, going to church and praying will never make sense to him no matter how well a person explains it.

Only by living in a truly faithful home can a person’s soul survive the flood of nonbelief. He will finally have something substantial to overcome something hollow. Even if the state has inadvertently established a non-church, and even if this deception ensnares most others, Religious families can avoid this pitfall if they stop depending on the state and start fulfilling their vocation to become part of the Church — thus effecting a true separation of church and state. As with most things in life, such change starts at home.

Photo Credit: Gwenda Kaczor for The Chronicle Review