Every year around this time the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) issues a memo asserting that public school officials can teach about the religious aspects of Easter in class.
Can public schools actually do this? Yes and no. Like any other discussion of religion in public schools, it all depends on what is being said in the classroom.
A lesson about Easter from an objective standpoint is fine. In a class that examines religion from historical and cultural perspectives, Easter’s importance to Christians can be discussed, just as any other religious holiday can. Passover is this weekend as well. Public schools can teach about that just as they would Easter – objectively and non-dogmatically.
But that’s as far as it goes. Public schools can’t get into matters of dogma. Questions about whether Jesus really rose from the dead and other doctrinal matters must be left to the home and church.
Public schools must absolutely stay out of the proselytizing business. Even the ADF should want it this way. After all, how can the organization be certain its fundamentalist view of Easter will be espoused in the classroom?
When I attend Religious Right meetings, I often hear nothing but scorn heaped on the hard-working people who teach in our public schools. According to the Religious Right, most public schools teachers are wild-eyed leftists determined to convert America’s children into free-loving, atheist Marxists. (OK, I’m exaggerating somewhat – but not much.) Yet these are the people the Religious Right expects to impart the conservative Christian view of Easter?
Let’s face it, this “teach about” religion business is a lot easier to do on paper than in real life. Why? Because people don’t agree about this stuff. It’s one of the reasons we have so many religions.
The ADF, a legal outfit founded by right-wing TV and radio preachers, acts as if there is a coherent, linear “Easter story” that everyone accepts. There isn’t. Just about everything is in dispute. Even the four gospels don’t agree on what happened. And some people think it’s all made up. Recently, a squabble has erupted among some agnostics, atheists and Bible scholars about whether Jesus even existed. (The ADF would have no problem bringing that view into the classroom, right?)
Some people who accept the historical Jesus still hold beliefs about him and the crucifixion that I’m sure would rile the ADF. A writer named Holger Kersten has penned several books arguing that Jesus survived the crucifixion and went on to travel in India, where he adopted Buddhist teachings. This belief is not as esoteric as you might think. Many members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim sect embrace it, and I’ve encountered followers of “New Age” doctrines who also believe it.
This is heady stuff. What are the chances that Jimmy’s sixth-grade History teacher is ready to sort it out? I can guarantee you that the first time any teacher tells the class that some scholars doubt Jesus existed or that some say he didn’t die on the cross, the marshmallow Peeps are going to hit the fan big time.
I’m trying to imagine how the ADF would behave if a teacher brought up any of this while “teaching about” Easter. I can see the smoke coming out of Alan Sears’ ears from here. What the ADF really means when it says “teach about” Easter is “teach our fundamentalist view about Easter.” That’s not appropriate for public schools.
Our friend Don Byrd at the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty raises a good point. Byrd observes, “[W]e Christians should not assume that any and all religious discussion of Easter would be a winning proposition for our faith. The religious significance of our most holy day is properly taught in our churches and our homes.”
Continues Byrd, “When students inevitably ask probing questions about the resurrection of Christ, who would you rather have answering them: the child’s parent, or his Social Studies teacher? Do you want his English teacher noting, truthfully, that some devout Christians do not interpret the resurrection story literally? Or would you rather him have that discussion in Bible study with a minister? Or at home?”
Preach it, Don! Easter is an important holiday to hundreds of millions of Christians worldwide. But even among that community there is disagreement about what happened and what it means. Churches are the proper places to sort this out, not public school classrooms.