What Do Religious Parents REALLY Want?

By Wayne Jacobsen

When the pro-life movement calls those who deliver abortions “baby-killers” and when pro-choice advocates say that pro-life adherents want to “control the bodies of women,” the debate is not defined, it is derailed.

In the arena where public opinion is influenced one of the most-used tactics today is to state your opponents position to such an extreme that they can’t even recognize it themselves. That may help win converts to a cause, but unfortunately it leads to a public debate based on misinformation, which turns out to be no debate at all.

One of the problems plaguing school officials in working with some members of the religious community is their conviction that a conspiracy emanates from Washington, D.C. that is designed to destroy the faith and values of the religious community. Many religious broadcasters and authors have painted that picture by quoting the extreme writings of some educational theorists. They see confirmation of that conspiracy in virtually every frustration with public education.

That’s why it is difficult to find solutions together. During the CLASS test protests of last spring one parent group was adamant that their children were not being graded on verbal expression, but on whether or not their values lined up with the secularist conspiracy they feared. One of their own administrators, who had graded many of those tests, tried to tell them that was not the case. Students were not graded on their values, but on their thought, logic and verbal expression. No one believed her, easily dismissing her comments as a part of the conspiracy to identify and punish those who hold to a Judeo-Christian ethic.

But it works both ways. Many educators, relying on extremist writings within the religious camp, are convinced that the agenda of religious parents is to turn public schools into Christian schools with daily Bible readings and mandatory prayer. Most religious parents wouldn’t endorse such an agenda, recognizing that mandated Christianity is no Christianity at all.

Our misunderstanding of each other’s agenda drives the mistrust that explodes in anger during times of crisis. Understanding each other’s agenda will disarm unfounded fears and open the way to renewed trust and cooperation.

So what is the agenda of the so-called religious right regarding public education? Of course a definitive list here is impossible, given the wide diversity of religion tradition in this country. However, best-selling author, child psychologist and radio personality James Dobson represents as much influence as anyone. Let’s take a brief look at his published agenda and how it measures up:

Some of his goals would find broad support even beyond those with religious convictions:

Parents must be in control of schools by electing school board members who are empowered to act and are responsive to the will of the voters.

Character development based on concepts of right and wrong, such as honesty, integrity, selflessness, compassion and self discipline, should be consciously taught to students in grades K-12.

Permit psychological testing only with the expressed written approval of parents.

Parents and teachers need to foster as much inter-cooperation as possible, since most of them share a love for children.

Truth should be honored, not relativism.

Sex-education should emphasize three guiding principles: morality, abstinence and responsibility.

Other pieces of his agenda, however, would not find a solid block of agreement even among religious parents and are actively debated today even within the Christian community:

Curricula must return to educational basics, including math, science, literature, linguistic skills, music, art and history. “Outcome-Based Education” as currently driven by the NEA should be discarded.

School-based health clinics and the distribution of contraceptives on campus should be banned and sex-education classes should be segregated by gender.

Parents should have the right to use their own tax dollars for vouchers in order to choose public, private or home school education for their children.

A constitutional amendment should guarantee that non-sectarian voluntary prayer is allowed in public school classrooms.

Schooling should be a state and local matter, not dictated from the national level. The federal Department of Education should be closed and Congress should withdraw from education policy.

In future issues of BridgeBuilder’s Briefing, we’ll cover many of these issues in greater detail and see how they will affect local school districts in the future.

What is significant from this wish list is that turning our public schools into an extension of the church is not part of the agenda of the vast majority of Christian parents. When someone sits across your desk and tells you other-wise, you can rest assured that they have little support.

In the same way, recognize the fear that many religious parents have that the educational establishment is out to subvert their faith. If you can recognize it, then you can look for opportunities to help disarm it. In the current climate school districts will be well-served to bend over backward to demonstrate that though it cannot promote religious faith, it certainly does value those who have it.

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