stephanie jones

God, Politics, and Public Schooling: Interrogating the Separation of Church and State

In American Dream, anti-bias teaching, critical literacy, films for teacher education, inquiry, justice, politics, teacher education resources on September 10, 2008 at 3:27 am

This is such a hot issue in the media lately…perhaps we can all take advantage of it and help our students explore what the separation of church and state means on paper and how messy things play out in practice. A bit of personal commentary then onto some great resources to use with students, family, friends, and foes:

For several years folks have been telling me that right-wing Evangelicals were getting themselves into strategic positions to influence federal policy. Call me slow, but I shrugged a lot of this crazy talk off. We have a separation of church and state in our nation, right? Don’t most people respect that separation? Didn’t people flee to our country to escape religious persecution? Isn’t this the land that is open and respectful of all religious beliefs (including the belief that there is no God)?

Religion and national politics, however, seem to go hand-in-hand nowadays. Obama was practically bullied into outright separating himself from his church because of comments made by the leader of that church, and now there are videos all over the web of Palin giving a speech in her former church talking about “God’s Will” and “God’s Plan” regarding such things as the Iraq war, the pipeline in Alaska, and the need for Alaskans to be right with God in order for good things to happen there. Really? Really?? And is it God’s Will that our society be so devastatingly unequal that little children are going to bed hungry tonight in all of our cities? Is it God’s Will that Cubans are fighting for their lives tonight because of the devastation they’ve experienced this hurricane season? And what about those innocent Iraqis and Pakistanis that suffer because of world politics?

I’ve been thinking a whole lot about the hypothetical separation between church and state, and I offer some food for thought in the following resources – some of which I’ve used in courses and others I consider in the privacy of my own home:

An excerpt from Our Spirits Don’t Speak English – a brilliant film about Indian Boarding Schools and the explicit intentions to civilize and Christianize U.S. indigenous people from the 1600s through much of the 1900s while stripping them of their native languages and forcing English-only policies and practices. I have used sections of this film in a course to consider whether and how these three purposes of education still operate in public schools today.

An excerpt from Jesus Camp – another terrific film documenting the inner tensions of Christianity in the United States between what I would call “radical” God-fearing right-wing Christians and Christians who strongly disagree with the former group’s teaching of hatred, fear, and even violence to young children. Connecting such radical beliefs to advocating for right-wing policies (including appointments to the Supreme Court) and “preaching” in church that tells members of the church what they should do with their personal votes is clearly action against the separation of church and state. I particularly enjoyed the insightful comments of the Christian radio talk show host in this documentary as he tries to make sense of how the roots of Christianity has bred such hate. Disclaimer: I have not used this in any course…I’ll let you know if I decide to.

And “Shouting Across the Divide” from This American Life A heartwrenching audio story of a Muslim family’s experience with a public school teacher, principal, and system following September 11, 2001. I have used this in a course (thanks to my colleague Amy Parks!) and it provoked lots of important discussion around religion, politics, public education, and Christian-based public school curricula.

I’d love to know what you folks do with students around these issues…


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