Education and the Secularization of America: How We Got Here

There is no doubt about it. The United States has been completely secularized. There are plenty of people who can be faulted for allowing this to happen. However, much of the blame has to be laid at the doorstep of the church. 

In order to understand how this took place, we need to look at what the church was like in its beginning. In the Book of Acts, we find that the church was meeting daily and the church had a close relationship with the home. It appears that the church operated throughout the week, teaching God’s Word to believers and maintaining close fellowship with its families. 

This same pattern was prevalent when towns and villages were established prior to the founding of the United States. The church played a significant role in almost all of the newly formed colonies. The home and the church shaped the culture of the day. Of course, this is the best way for Christians to fulfill the Great Commission, which is to make disciples of all nations.

In fact, when the Founding Fathers were establishing our constitutional republic, the home and the church were key players in shaping this new form of government. The Bible played a significant role in how this new country was to operate. From the Scriptures, the Founders established the three branches of government and the basis for the country’s legal system to name just two of the many influences the home and church had on society at the time. 

The home and the church continued to be the major influencers on society until the early to mid 1800s. Something took place at that time that changed the course of history here in the US: The formal education of children moved from the home and church to the government or the state. This was in the form of common schools which are now referred to as public schools. 

At first, this shift did not appear to be very dangerous. This was because the home and church still had a significant influence on the government and society in general. However, this occurrence marked the beginning of the secularization of the country. 

There were voices who sounded warnings about the danger of this transfer of the formal education of children from the home and church to the state. One such voice belonged to Dr. Robert Dabney. Dabney foresaw how society was going to be secularized and the church privatized due to this move:

If the state in America becomes the educator, education must be secularized completely…there is therefore a great risk that the education of youth will be perverted to serve an ideological faction. This will occur by the hateful means of filling their minds with error and passion in place of truth and right. 

Dabney knew that when schooling was separated from the control and influence of the church, education would ultimately drift toward secularization. We only have to look at the country’s first colleges to understand that this is the inevitable result when education is separated from the church.

With the formal schooling of children moving from the home and church, another significant social change took place. The home broke away from its close tie to the church and became more aligned with the government school. The end result was that society became secular and the church or Christianity became privatized.

For many, today’s churches are merely a box of programs that are conducted on Sundays and, at times, on Wednesday nights. It is fine for the church to operate inside its four walls every once in a while, but many don’t want to see it leave its buildings and attempt to have any influence on society. All the while, the secular government schools (public schools) became the worldview shapers of the younger generations.

With much of the unrest that spread across the country in the 1960s, some churches became very concerned with what public education was doing to the children and to society, in general. It was during this time in our country’s history that the Supreme Court ruled that prayer and Bible reading should not take place in the government’s schools.

In response to these happenings many churches started Christian schools. However, the biblical model of schooling mentioned earlier in this article was not followed. Instead, Christians adopted the secular model for schooling and tried to ‘Christianize’ it with such good things as Bible classes and chapels.

 Even though churches started these schools, the schools were never integral ministries of the church. The Christian schools were not considered to be the church operating throughout the week. The church remained defined as a box of programs that were done on Sunday and Wednesday nights. 

This separation of the church and school led to inevitable conflicts over church calendars, budgets, and facilities. When the Christian school grew in numbers, it often became a threat to the church and one would hear how the “tail was wagging the dog.”

As a result, the church has fallen short of fulfilling its God-given mission to “make disciples of all nations” by abandoning the education of children. The Great Commission was truncated into evangelism instead of disciple making. The secularization of society advanced while the influence of the church on society continued to decrease. We have seen generation after generation of young people taken captive by the false philosophies of this world and not by Christ. 

How do we right the ship? The answer must include the home, church, and Christian school. These three entities must come together and address the issue of education biblically. Then, parents, pastors, church leaders, and Christian educators must unite under a biblical philosophy of education, what I call Kingdom Education, and provide it to future generations.

But instead of church leaders leaping to start a Christian school, they should begin to pray and see if God wants their churches to expand ministry to include schooling. By doing this the church will once again operate all week long. Then, by partnering with parents, the church can fulfill the Great Commission and make disciples of all nations. It is our only hope!