Recently, Fayette County School Superintendent Manny Caulk drew fire from Kentucky Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown.
A new law by the state legislature requires public schools to display the national motto “In God We Trust” in a prominent place.
Caulk, the superintendent, told Fayette County school officials they could meet this requirement by posting the back of a dollar bill, which says, “In God We Trust.” After all, the motto was designed specifically to be printed on U.S. money.
Thayer, the senator, found this solution offensive. The Herald-Leader reported that he called the posting of dollar bills in schools as “a complete slap in the face of the motto of the United States of America.”
Which, of course, begs the question: Mottos have faces? (I’d never really thought of mottos that way.)
But the more important question that’s begged is: Why is it politicians, especially conservative Christian politicians, always seem so wrought up about getting religious statements displayed in public schools?
Surely you remember the brouhaha some years ago about hanging the Ten Commandments in schools. Now it’s a drive to put the national motto there — another way of sneaking God in.
The Ten Commandments date back several thousand years and are in the Old Testament.
The national motto didn’t come along until the mid-1950s when, during the Cold War, Congress declared that “In God We Trust” would be printed on all U.S. coins and currency to distinguish our godly faith in our money from the Soviets’ heathen faith in theirs. In God we trust — and you don’t, Commies.
But either the Ten Commandments or the national motto will suffice, politicians feel, as long as we return some mention of the Lord to public schools.
Here’s what that really means.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1962 and 1963 that officially sponsored prayer and Bible reading in public schools were unconstitutional.
A peculiar sort of Christian mythology has grown up around those decisions.
In this mythology, American society in general and public schools in particular were veritable Edens until the early 1960s.
As one Christian website claims, using an often-cited but rarely documented factoid, from 1940 to 1962 the top five complaints of American schoolteachers about their students were “talking, chewing gum, making noise, running in the halls and getting out of turn in line.” But since 1963, the website says, the top five teacher complaints have been “rape, robbery, assault, burglary and arson.”
As the myth goes, when God was taken out of public schools, the schools careened straight into the pits of hell, where they’ve remained.
God was ejected and insulted by the U.S. Supreme Court, the myth says. In his pique, God in turn abandoned teachers and their students to reprobate hearts.
To save schools and the country itself, we must return God to our educational institutions, if it’s only by posting something nice about him on the walls.
Then he’ll be placated again. Then he’ll cancel his vendetta.
This narrative, of course, is bad social science. But it’s even worse theology.
By some measures, education has improved in the past half-century, not declined. And although troubled schools do exist, a great many schools are flourishing.
In those places where you do find large numbers of students flailing, their problems tend to correlate with external issues — poverty, the breakdown of their families, drug abuse by the adults around them — rather than with any curse on schools themselves.
But anyway, I’m not a social scientist. I’m a preacher. The theology of this myth bothers me more than the science.
The God this narrative conjures appears to be a tyrant with a vindictive streak. He’s usually furious.
Oh yeah, think you’ll kick me out? he seems to say. I’ll rain fire and brimstone on your heads, you ingrates! I’ll boil your schoolchildren in oil!
Ancient priests used to toss virgins into volcanoes to appease such gods.
Posting a motto on school walls is less extreme than flinging virgins into lava, but it’s the same idea: We’ve got a bitter god here, and we’d better placate him before he spins out of control.
But the God I find in the gospels, the God I worship, doesn’t operate that way.
In his mercy, he causes nurturing rains to fall on the just and unjust alike. He’s kind to disobedient and ungrateful people. He’s full of grace, the embodiment of unconditional love. He lays down his life for those who reject him. He forgives seven times 70.
Surely he must also love teachers and schoolchildren and those paraprofessionals who push the wheelchairs of disabled kids down the hallways and the bus drivers who vigilantly watch for kindergartners to make it safely across the road and the lunchroom workers who know every child in their line by name.
After all, so many of these folks are disciples of his, doing his work.
I’ve never thought God hates public schools. He’s there every single day, if you just look.