Are Religious Schools in America Losing Their Religion?


In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI said, “The spiritual crisis overtaking the West is the most serious since the fall of the Roman Empire near the end of the 5th Century.” Two hundred years ago, 85 percent of the population regularly attended church. That number has dwindled to about 20 percent today. It doesn’t take a proclamation from the Pope to recognize the place we find ourselves as a nation. Our seemingly accelerated moral decay is no longer the elephant in the room no one wants to talk about. It’s the elephant in the room everyone (including some Christians) seems to be embracing as the new normal.

The cultural morass parents must navigate in this new normal is not the culture in which most of them expected to raise their children. This is especially true of Christian parents. Not only must they instill Biblical values such as the sanctity of human life, and marriage between one man and one woman, they must instill it while being accused of raising haters and bigots. In that respect, religious schools are a sanctuary for Christian parents now more than ever.

What many parents don’t perceive, however, is how proactive they need to be when it comes to being informed about what’s happening within the hallowed halls of their children’s Christian schools. The question they need to ask is if a religious worldview can be maintained when the schools, whether by choice or circumstance, are becoming increasingly secular?

The student population in private and parochial schools has been in a dribbling decline, from 12 percent in 1995-96, to the current 10 percent, or 5.4 million students. The projected data indicates a decline to 9 percent through 2025-26. While it’s not a catastrophic decrease, it’s a trend downward. Some dips in enrollment numbers are a result of competition from publicly-funded, privately-owned charter schools (which saw an increase in student populations from two percent to four percent between 2004 and 2014).

In response, school administrators have felt pressure to stay “relevant” when it comes to retaining enrollment levels. But staying relevant also opens the door for greater secularization especially when combined with our cultural propensity to make sure religious beliefs don’t hurt anyone’s feelings. For example, a Catholic school in California recently removed and relocated a number of religious symbols so as to avoid offending people of other faiths. A representative of the Board of Trustees said, “If you walk on the campus and the first thing you confront is three or four statues of St. Dominic or St. Francis, it could be alienating for that other religion, and we didn’t want to further that feeling.”

The quest for relevance has led many religious school administrators to voluntarily embrace the national Common Core Standards. And while it would be presumptuous to lay secularization entirely at the feet of the Common Core, it’s behemoth footprint has had negative implications for Christian education, having been inspired, designed, and funded by people and groups with no shortage of religious animosity.

Adoption of the Common Core has resulted in a narrowing of curriculum. Publishers released new editions of textbooks and online resources that aligned with these new “more rigorous” academic requirements. Unless a Christian school has taken a position, as a matter of policy, to choose curriculum created uniquely for religious education, the current national standards are an example of how easily modern secular culture can assimilate and become embedded in products and resources used at Christian schools.

For example, Common Core aligned history texts have replaced the historical time references BC (before Christ) and AD (anno domini, in the year of our Lord), with the identifiers BCE (before common era) and CE (common era), so as not to offend secularists and non-Christians. The new Next Generation Science Standards teach evolution as dogma. TCI’s History Alive! The Medieval World and Beyond — a textbook my 6th grade daughter used at her Christian school —  contains an entire unit devoted to the study of Islam, with no corresponding unit on the study of Christianity, much less a single chapter. The text is so blatantly pro-Islam, William J. Bennetta, author of The Textbook Letter, and a fellow of the California Academy of Science, called it “vividly promotional.” A Pearson digital math text also used at my daughter’s school provides links to topics such as gay pride, transgender rights, and same-sex marriage. In California, the state board of education recently approved new textbooks they expect to be models for other states across the nation — history and social sciences texts that provide “inclusive” representations of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

In a school full of secular education material, a Christian worldview is impossible to maintain. Sprinkling a little religion here and there will only serve to cover up the stench. It will not eliminate it.

As Dr. Denise Donohue, deputy director of K-12 programs at The Cardinal Newman Society, said, the Common Core standards “fail miserably” at keeping Christ as the true core and focus of Christian education. Dr. Donohue went on to say, with respect to Catholicism:

Catholic education is much more than the limited focus of Common Core standards and the required instructional approaches to ‘deliver on the promise’ of them. Catholic education was designed to address the needs of the whole man so that he might reach the eternal destiny for which God intended him. The (religious) curriculum is intentionally imbued with teachings of the Catholic faith so as to form students to become saints and not simply ready for college or career.

Religious schools leaders would be wise to acknowledge the incongruous nature of national education standards and the secular curriculum with which they are accompanied — the end product of the standards being the development of human capital trained for the workforce, and the end product of the curriculum being a secular humanist worldview incompatible with religious education.

In contrast, in his book The Christian Philosophy of Education Explained, Stephen Perks wrote that the direct product of a Christian education “….is a good mind, well disciplined in its processes of inquiring and judging, knowing and understanding, and well furnished with knowledge, well cultivated in ideas.” Any other education is a disservice to the faith and the children in whom we hope that faith will be inspired.

Lisa Hudson

Lisa Hudson is a founding member of Arizonans Against Common Core and an advocate of classical Christian education and the protection of student privacy. She graduated from Michigan State University School of Law in 1996 and is an active member of the State Bar of Michigan.

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