Religious Fundamentalism And Public Education Essay

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Contemporary tensions in the relationship between religious fundamentalists and the public schools can be understood only within the historical context of the relationship between the schools and religion in general in the United States. It is also important to note that the debate, as defined in the United States, is limited almost solely to Protestant Christian fundamentalism. Although the current debate is often seen as a relatively recent move by powerful Christian conservatives to remove long-established church-state barriers, religion has been intimately connected to American education from its beginnings and was key to the early expansion of the public school system. In contrast, although the principle of a strict wall between church and state was established at the beginning of the nation, the enforcement of that principle is a somewhat recent phenomenon. Following some key definitions and a brief historical context, the focus of this entry will shift to the role that the courts have played in shaping the current relationship. The entry concludes with a description of the issues and trends that characterize the current relationship between the two institutions.

Historical Review

Christian fundamentalism is usually associated most closely with Protestantism and had its beginning—as a theological school of thought and active movement—in the 1880s. The movement’s beginnings were in the urban North; its more familiar association with the rural South came about only after the Scopes trial of 1925. Fundamentalism is characterized by its often dogmatic theology, assertiveness, and a sense of constantly being under siege by secular forces. What fundamentalists see as concerted, secular attacks on religious freedoms and the place of God in the school curriculum might be seen by others as gradual, inevitable cultural shifts.

For nearly 300 years, the religious influence on anything that could be defined as public schooling in the United States, while pervasive, was general in nature. Protestant in its leanings, the religious emphasis in public schools was on general biblical literacy, moral conduct, and the instillation of uniform values and identity. So the charge by fundamentalist Christians that public education has taken a secular turn away from religious values is, to a limited extent, an accurate one. It would be more difficult to support the charge that the change is due to the attacks of special interest groups such as secular humanists, the American Civil Liberties Union, or the Communist party—all of which have been labeled as the source of the problem at one point or another—against the wishes of the general population.

Instead, the shift was due more to societal changes brought about as a result of massive immigration, pragmatic and progressive philosophy, urbanization, growth in public education, and a growing faith in science and technology. The merging of these influences, especially at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth, made any consensus of religious values nearly impossible and even resented by many in the nation. What became more prominent in public education was a sort of civil religion that emphasized ideals such as the importance of individual character in social mobility; the relationship between personal industry, moral rectitude, and merit; and a determined effort to unify America’s diverse population through education.

These same changes that many perceived as progress or signs of modernism were accompanied by a lack of certainty and stability to which fundamentalist theology was one response. Two phenomena especially revealed what has now become a familiar, issue-oriented attack response by fundamentalist Christians. One was the fear of communist influence after World War I. The second was the growing influence of Darwin’s theory of evolution. The need to respond to those perceived threats to the United States’ spiritual welfare set the stage for the fundamentalist activism that is still powerful today.

In 1925, John Scopes was put on trial in Dayton, Tennessee, for teaching evolution in his high school biology class. The dramatic and flashy trial ended with the jury finding Scopes guilty of violating the letter of the law and fining him $100. The judgment was later overturned due to a technicality. Legally, the impact of the decision was minimal. The same cannot be said for its educational and cultural impact. On one hand, Clarence Darrow, Scopes’s defense attorney, succeeded in creating a national stereotype of fundamentalism and southern culture in general as ignorant and anti-intellectual. Nonetheless, the fundamentalist position won a clear victory in terms of future curriculum decisions. Immediately after the trial, Ginn and Company, the publisher of the textbook used by Scopes, dropped all references to evolution and downgraded the status of Darwin in the field of biology. Evolution did not return to textbooks until the 1950s, and textbook publishers remain cautious regarding controversial topics to the present day.

Over time, three issues in particular have motivated fundamentalist activism in public education: teaching of evolution, school prayer, and disputes over the teaching of values. Among the tactics used to fight curriculum battles have been boycotts and protests of text and library materials, election of sympathetic members to local school boards in order to influence curriculum policy, and use of the courts. It is the latter, especially when cases have made it to the Supreme Court, that have had the most influential or public impact on church/state issues in the schools.

Court Rulings

Over the past sixty years, the extent to which fundamentalism has accomplished its goals in relation to public education has been determined largely by the courts. Since 1940, there have been no fewer than forty Circuit Court of Appeals and Supreme Court decisions related to public schools and religious liberty. Although the courts have been fairly consistent in ruling in favor of the freedom of individual religious expression, they have been equally consistent in ruling against any policy or practice that might impose a specific religious perspective on students within a school setting.

More specifically, in two of its key areas of interest—teaching evolution and school-led or required prayer—the fundamentalist position has been ruled unconstitutional in every major Supreme Court decision. The other major issue—values-oriented curricula—has typically been settled before reaching the courts. One case that did reach the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (Peloza v. Capistrano) in 1994 was related to a school district’s use of the Impressions reading curriculum. In that case, the Court ruled that the curriculum did not, in fact, constitute a promotion of witchcraft and denigration of Christianity, as charged by various evangelical fundamentalist groups.

A lack of influence through the courts, however, has not limited the real or perceived influence of fundamentalist activists on day-to-day decision making in public education. After the Scopes trial, the next major period of activism for fundamentalist Christians came in the post–World War II era as school reform efforts such as progressive education and life adjustment education came under fire from a number of critics. Groups such as the Christian Nationalist Crusade claimed that along with low academic standards, godless communism had found its way into the schools and was trying to destroy American and Christian values.

The 1970s and 1980s proved to be the next, and perhaps most influential, periods of fundamentalist activism. A string of court-based setbacks throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s did not deter the more grassroots tactic of censorship and protest. Between approximately 1974 and 1985, there was a dramatic jump in the number of challenges to textbooks and library acquisitions, and according to some reports, nearly half of those challenges resulted in the removal of the challenged materials. Some of the debates during this period were so emotionally charged that they sparked acts of violence. One of the earliest challenges, in 1975 in Kanawha County, West Virginia, resulted in strikes, fire bombings, destruction of property, and even shootings and beatings. A few years later, in 1977, fundamentalist groups in Warsaw, Indiana, publicly burned copies of Sidney Simon’s book Values Clarification.

From its beginnings in the 1880s, fundamentalist Christianity has sought to influence public education, as well as other public institutions, but for much of the time, it was not generally well-organized or unified by any nationally coordinated groups. Therefore, most efforts were local in nature and limited in their influence. That began to change in the late 1970s and especially during the “Reagan Revolution” of the 1980s, at which point the movement came to be known more commonly as the Christian or religious Right. Early leaders of the movement, such as Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, found a sympathetic and compatible ear in Ronald Reagan as he ran for president, and they put their efforts into helping to elect a number of conservative candidates in 1980, including Reagan himself. In return, many of Reagan’s educational and social policy proposals were heavily influenced by those fundamentalist groups. This pattern has continued to varying degrees since that time and has recently been reinvigorated by ties to the George W. Bush presidency that are even closer than those during the Reagan era.

Current Status

Some issues remain the same for fundamentalists— school prayer and concerns over the teaching of evolution. A relatively new issue that may pose the greatest threat to public education, however, is the issue of education vouchers, which would allow parents to send children to private and parochial schools at public expense. If successful, this movement would not attempt to change the content of public education but instead would, according to some observers, undermine the schools by draining them of much needed funding and active, concerned parents. Local court decisions have been mixed, and there has not yet been a definitive Supreme Court decision regarding the constitutionality of vouchers.

At present, a number of conflicting cultural and political trends make it difficult to determine the extent to which fundamentalist Christianity will find more or less success in its efforts to change public education. The movement has never had a more sympathetic presidential administration, and a strident conservatism in many areas of the country has attempted to bring religion more directly into public institutions. Perhaps more importantly, recent Supreme Court appointments have given the body an apparently conservative bent. But even there, the past has shown that a judge’s previous rulings and writings are not always indicative of high court behaviors. Moreover, there is little evidence that the country as a whole has experienced any type of wide-scale religious awakening that would lead to greater acceptance of the imposition of a single religious perspective in the public schools.

There is also some evidence that even though conservative Christians still make up a significant voting bloc, the national cohesion provided by groups such as the Moral Majority has weakened, and more progressive evangelical spokepersons such as Sojourners’ Jim Wallis are gaining influence. Other fundamentalist leaders are encouraging parents to simply homeschool their children rather than fight battles in the public schools. Finally, there is some movement among liberal Christians and Democratic politicians to consider the role of religious faith in the lives of Americans more seriously in future policy decisions. Some observers suggest that, if that occurs, it could diffuse the siege mentality and perceived hostility that fuels the fundamentalist reaction to schools and thus lessen the power of the movement.


  1. Alley, R. S. (Ed.). (1999). The Constitution and religion: Leading Supreme Court cases on church and state. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.
  2. Ammerman, N. T. (1991). North American Protestant fundamentalism. In M. E. Marty & R. S. Appleby (Eds.), Fundamentalisms observed (pp. 1–65). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  3. Fraser, J. W. (1999). Between church and state: Religion and public education in a multicultural America. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.
  4. Kliebard, H. M. (1995). The struggle for the American curriculum, 1893–1958. New York: Routledge.
  5. Provenzo, E. F., Jr. (1990). Religious fundamentalism and American education. Albany: State University of New York Press.

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