Public schools were created explicitly to reinforce the dominant religious beliefs of American culture. Those beliefs used to be Protestant, but are now secular. Both are religions.
Religious indoctrination is an important function of American public education. The main reason most Americans don’t know this is that the religion of the public schools reflects the religion of the wider American culture. It has been this way from the beginning.
In the decades leading up to the Civil War, the mainstream of American culture was actively and devoutly Protestant—much more so than it had been at the time of the founding. The eighteenth-century Enlightenment had somewhat tamed American colonial devotion to Christianity with an emphasis on reasonableness.
Then the revivals of the early nineteenth-century Second Great Awakening placed piety front and center again in American religious life. The faith preached from the pulpit became woven with the American spirit.
Public Schools Were Created to Reinforce Protestantism
During that time, numerous American cities began supporting “common schools,” another name for public schools. One of the goals of the movement was to counter the budding influence of Catholic schools formed to educate the growing populace of Catholic immigrants from Europe.
American Protestants saw Catholicism as anti-freedom and anti-American. Catholics were not trusted, and neither were their “sectarian” schools. So the common school movement received eager support in part to maintain Protestantism’s dominance.
Common schools included “nonsectarian” religious exercises, which essentially meant Protestant exercises. These included Bible readings (which Catholicism then taught should not take place without the interpretation of a priest) from the King James Bible (a Protestant translation). Protestant exercises were nonsectarian only in the eyes of a culture dominated by Protestantism.
The American Religion Becomes Secular Atheism
The religious tenor of the country shifted in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Secular beliefs, such as naturalism and especially progressivism, gradually penetrated the culture. At the same time, Protestant exercises in public schools slowly began to be removed because they were seen, rightly, as sectarian. We may see this as a victory for religious freedom, but it was mainly just a reflection of cultural change.
After World War II, as secular progressivism became dominant among the elite in our halls of justice and education, secular beliefs were labeled “neutral.” Of course, those beliefs were neutral only in the eyes of secular culture, in the same way that Protestantism had been seen as nonsectarian by Protestant culture a century before.
The Supreme Court even , because it noted that secularist atheism teaches certain things about the ultimate purpose of man and existence of God, which are religious beliefs that can never be proven by science or any other mechanistic means of knowing. Such religious beliefs directly contradict other religious beliefs, and affect teaching methods, curricula, and school policies. Schools simply cannot function without teaching some sort of cohesive set of belief, since this provides the context and direction for every human life and every child’s maturity.
If You Don’t Share Public Schools’ Religion, Do Something
That trajectory has continued to today. Secular progressivism has metastasized into an absolutist worldview with a religious fervor that brooks no compromise. Gay history, transgender locker rooms, social justice crammed into every aspect of the curriculum, great thinkers from Aristotle to Madison despised as nothing more than dead white males—all of this comes courtesy of progressivism. It is the dominant worldview of the most dominant institutions in our culture. Our public school children are, quite simply, the objects of a mass movement of progressive worldview indoctrination. That is, religious indoctrination.
American conservatives simply cannot afford to let this happen to our children. America’s future is truly at stake. When choosing a school for our children, we must take into account not only the quality of the education our children will receive, but the worldview in which they will be immersed.
Private schools and homeschooling can be great alternatives, but they’re costly and aren’t necessarily for everyone. Charter schools and vouchers for private schooling can help. There are also short courses and books designed to expose progressivism for what it is. By whatever means we can afford, we must protect our children’s minds from the religious indoctrination of our nation’s public schools.
Dr. Russell Dawn is associate professor of history and political thought at Concordia University-Irvine. Follow him on Twitter .