This is “Religion in the News,” a program of non-sectarian comment on items of religious significance that have appeared in the press during the past week.
The welfare of the rural church has been a matter of concern to many people for a long time. This week the Town and Country Department of the National Council of Churches issued an estimate that 20,000 country churches have closed during the past 25 years, an average of almost 1,000 a year. To find why this is true and what can be done about it, 1,000 ministers and laymen from 250 communities in 30 states met recently in Salina, Kansas. These delegates, representing 20 Protestant denominations, agreed there are four major reasons for decline of the country church. These are:
- Shortage of ministers. Only about half the rural churches have full-time pastors.
- Uneven distribution of funds and leadership. Rural people are less able to support churches than are urban people.
- Wasteful competition among denominations. Many rural communities have from two to a half-dozen churches when the community is able to support only one.
- Steady migration of rural people to the city.
As for remedies for this situation, some reported programs to pep up their ministry to get them interested in revitalizing the country church; others suggested a single community church to be attended by all denominations on an equal basis; still others reported that two or more churches of the same denomination were consolidating.
The number one conclusion of the Salina conference was that rural churches should get rid of their “excessive denominationalism.” In the words of one congregationalist, “In the country, denominationalism is an anachronism. The whole community is the important thing to think about.” It might be well for all of us to think about this too.
From Germany comes announcement of a plea that Protestants and Catholics pray for and work toward overcoming the division in Christianity. At a church congress in Berlin, 150 Protestants and Catholics agreed that, in their words, “Human sin has been responsible for the split among Christians…. We have sinned in not following Christ’s command for unity…” This congress came about as part of the activities of the Una Sancta movement, started in 1916 to bring both groups together for joint talks to promote better understanding. At this congress, Professor Lortz, of Mainz, said that what we have in common is more important than what separates us. We could all do well to remember this when we find ourselves putting undue emphasis upon denominationalism.
Many Protestant churches are still observing the 1954 Festival of the Reformation. It began last Sunday, October 31. On this same day 437 years ago Martin Luther posted his famous 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. That action began the Protestant Reformation. An official of the National Council Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. notes that the number of Reformation observances this year is some 100 over the figure for 1953. This official, the Rev. Barlyn Farris, adds that this indicates increased consciousness among Protestants of their heritage and tradition.
The Synagogue Council of America will mark the 300th anniversary of Jewish settlements in America with a four-day general assembly in New York City beginning next Friday. This Council is the central national Jewish organization representing the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Rabbinical and lay movements in the U.S. today. The oldest Jewish synagogue will mark its own 300th anniversary. This is the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, in New York City.
Beginning today, November 7, and lasting through November 13, is American Education Week, a period set aside annually to appraise the work of the public schools of this nation. Hence, our final and feature item today is devoted to a consideration of the very important relationship between public education and religion, a relationship not always understood and appreciated by all of us. Two basic principles have given rise to the American public school as it is today:
- The assumption that each child, irrespective of his background or origin should have an opportunity for a free education.
- That church and state should be separate.
This last does not mean that government is either indifferent or hostile to religion; it merely means that the maintenance and promotion of religion and religious institutions shall be free from governmental authority. In other words, “Government shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
This is a principle that has served us well throughout our history. Yet, during recent years, public education has come under severe attack from individuals and groups who would transform this traditional character so as to divert public funds into church schools and who would use public school classrooms for purpose of instruction in religious doctrine. While these attacks have doubtless come from well-meaning people, in their zeal to promote their religion they have resorted to accusations that our public schools are “irreligious,” implying that these schools are not concerned about religions. That is incorrect.
This reporter is not entirely unacquainted with both the nature of these attacks and of the practices of the public schools. In none of the attacks is any evidence given to support the charges, however, there is plenty of evidence that the schools are concerned about religious and moral values. Let us look at some of that evidence.
Textbooks are perhaps the best indication of what is taught in the schools. “Civics” is commonly taught in the ninth grade, and in one of the most widely-used texts in this field, a very extensive chapter is devoted to the church as an important part of community life. “World History” is usually taught in 10th grade, and, again, in one of the most popular texts, a large unit entitled “Religion Takes Leadership,” indicates the emphasis there. “American History” is taught at both elementary and high school levels, and every text in this field acquaints the student with the important role that religion has played throughout our history as a nation. “Problems of Democracy” is frequently taught, and here too religion is one of the major elements of the course. In no textbooks in our public schools has there been found evidence of prejudice against religion; much evidence is found in all of them as to the importance of religion.
Next to textbooks, “Courses of Study” outlines are perhaps the best place to look for attitudes of teachers and contents of teaching. I have examined many such courses as well as worked with many teachers in several states on them. From neither teacher nor course of study has there been any evidence of an anti-religious bias. Much prejudice has been found in favor of religion. Moreover, many teachers themselves are members of the church and take an active part in its work. This inevitably affects their attitude toward religious values in their teaching.
Again, critics say that public school leaders are guided by purely materialistic philosophy in which there is no room for religion. Now teachers are about as individualistic a group as can be found in any occupation, and to say that they are all motivated by the same philosophy is nonsense, as much so as saying that all farmers think alike. Teachers vary in their views on education, economics, politics, religion, just as do any other group. The nearest consensus as to what teachers think was stated in a recent report by the Educational Policies Commission, made up of people with the widest possible differences of viewpoints. This report, entitled “Moral and Spiritual Values in the Public Schools” agreed that “to omit from the classroom all references to religion and the institutions of religion is to neglect an important part of American life.” The rules and regulations of the Tennessee State Board of Education emphasize that one of the educational needs to be met by the schools of this state is the “acquisition of spiritual, moral, and ethical values that will provide sound guides for personal living.”
These are some of the evidence that religious and moral values are being taught in our public schools. These schools believe that they have responsibility of teaching pupils about religion, but that it is dangerous to both religion and the state to violate the principle of separation and teach religious doctrines as such.
These schools must meet their educational obligations to all the children, and many religions are represented in a single class. To illustrate, yesterday I took a poll of a class of 36 college students. Among them I found nine who were of the Baptist persuasion, three belonging to the Christian Church, two of the Church of Christ, two to the Church of God, six who were Presbyterians, one was a Catholic, five Methodists, two belonging to non-denominational churches, some who belonged to one church and attended another, and so on. Probably the same, or greater diversity is to be found in any comparable class. The schools have an obligation to acquaint the students with the facts of religion as occasion arises in history, literature, music, art, the natural and social sciences, etc. They have no right to help determine for the student the faith he is to make his own. As different and contrasting points of view among religions become evident, young people will doubtless appreciate and respect the position of the teacher who makes clear that in matters controversial, the school is the representative of society as a whole, not an advocate of a particular segment of that society.
The public school seeks to discover and make clear to the student those values and principles of morality that all good men hold in common, morality that is grounded in something more important and fundamental to society at large than the doctrines of any one creed or creeds that divine men into warring schools. No definition of religion can be adequate for all purposes and people, but that by Justice Field seems more nearly so when he said that “Religion has reference to one’s views of his relation to his creator, and to the obligations they impost of reverence for his being and character, and of obedience to his word.” The schools recognize that this concept of religion is implicit in all the denominations represented in the classroom, and they respect them all, recognizing that they rest upon basic and common moral and ethical values. The school is uniquely qualified to do this and to promote these values, precisely because of its public and secular nature.
Consequently, were we to yield to the temptation to ground these common moral principles in religious orientation, whether this orientation be a narrow denominational one or as vague and general as the Judaeo-Christian affirmation, we would succeed only in warping the character of these principles and limiting their range of application. As stated by the commission cited before, the role of the school with respect to religion is:
- To display a friendly attitude toward all religious beliefs and practices of students;
- To promote religious tolerance. Get across if possible to all students that one can have a preference for his own religion without at the same time developing a prejudice against religions other than his own;
- To teach as fully as time and circumstances permit and require all the accepted facts about all religions as important parts of our culture.
To venture beyond the solid ground of general acceptance is to run the risk, almost certainly, of becoming mired in the quicksands of religious strife and controversy. This would not only be a departure from our past tradition and principle, it would be suicide for both education and religion as we know them today in America.