When I was in high school, I joined a religious student organization. I will never forget one particular conversation in which we were trying to parse out a complex ethical question. After a good deal of struggle and pressure, our faculty advisor finally stepped in to suggest a solution. His comments were helpful, but brief, and he asked us not to tell anyone of his interjection. It was against the law.

Until the last few decades, speaking about faith in public school was common, not controversial: the very small percent of Americans who were not Christians still lived by a Christian-like philosophy of life, and the purpose of schools was much simpler. A system of public education was exactly that—basic education of the general public. Children were taught by their neighbors, parent-teacher associations were the norm, and moral instruction was a part of everyday life wherever children and adults should meet.

Starting in the mid 1900s, education took on a stronger state purpose, and became politicized into a vehicle of social change. In the landmark case Emerson v. Board of Education (1947), the Supreme Court provided a new—and misguided—interpretation of the First Amendment. Drawing from one of Thomas Jefferson’s letters, they declared a “strict wall of separation between church and state.” A casual letter from Jefferson, the most atheistic and radical of the founders, is hardly appropriate for such a sweeping interpretation, but nonetheless, this enabled the schoolhouse to be seen as the secular alternative to the community church. It was there that legal debates could be won, traditions challenged and worldviews shaped.

Illustration of a stork carrying aged parents ...
Illustration of a stork carrying aged parents in a moral education textbook for children.

Surely, most of those pushing for change had benign intentions. While there were militant atheists among the ranks, most were simply calling for justice. They believed education could help address racism and close the opportunity gap between blacks and whites. And they were mostly right. But the greater call for equality also took on a project to erase religious “oppression.” If the state can have nothing to do with the church, they argued, then education run by the state can have nothing to do with moral or biblical instruction.In short, public education must be secular education.

When people think of “secular education” they interpret this to mean that it does not push a dogmatic religious perspective. That’s correct, but this does not mean it does not push a perspective or dogma all its own. The question becomes: what is that dogma? The answer: a secular one, of course. There is no God, therefore man has no inherent purpose and there are no eternal or universal values. It is important to understand that secular education does this by default.

When people think of “secular education” they interpret this to mean that it does not push a dogmatic religious perspective. That’s correct, but this does not mean it does not push a perspective or dogma all its own.

Secular education does teach a kind of right and wrong, which is essentially the Golden Rule. And it suffices to an extent, as all major moral philosophies tend to center around its dictum. But while it may be a good rule of manners and basic kindness, it is rather hollow as a coherent and holistic guide to real life.

The public education system has become a 13-year program of secular indoctrination, centered around a concept of “political correctness” by which we are taught never to cast judgment, and never to speak of faith. The vast majority of a public school student’s time is spend in a social environment in which no one acknowledges a divine power, morality is diluted down to simply being nice, and the only eternal truths are math and science. School is where one goes to learn about the world from educated people; where one becomes enlightened. Since no one speaks of religion, it is quickly dismissed from public discourse, and we become comfortable with our silence.

Considering that evenings and weekends are spent in the temples of Hollywood and New York, it is no surprise why our culture has become increasingly unable to express a coherent value system. We talk of human dignity, but glorify pornography. We praise hard work, but demonize the success. We speak of humility and sacrifice, but worship abusive celebrities. Our comedy is more degrading, our drama is more sexualized and our family sitcoms are a thing of the past.

If I may digress for a moment, did anyone catch the Oscars this year? If not, you missed Seth MacFarlane’s stellar performance of We Saw Your Boobs. Yes, in this little number, Macfarlane sings about all of the women who have bared all for their art. Certainly, this is what the women had in mind when they created these films. Surely, they appreciate someone of their own echelon admitting to the world that it’s not really art, just a little light pornography so males have a reason to watch, and we all know it, so we may as well laugh about it.  Watch the video of the song here, and pay special attention to the faces of the women as they are mentioned. What is that? Betrayal? Humiliation? Disgust at Macfarlane’s cheap and degrading idea of entertainment at their expense? This kind of mindless and self-absorbed garbage is what comedy has become.

What’s so wrong with a guy jumping on stage in a tux and singing about boobs at an awards ceremony?

Ok, back to education. What’s so wrong with a guy jumping on stage in a tux and singing about boobs at an awards ceremony? A lot, really. But how would we know? If public schools teach us that girls are really no different than us, why shouldn’t we just treat them like one of the guys? And if there’s nothing especially sacred about nudity, sex or marriage, why can’t we have fun with it all? If life is about having a good time and sharing a few laughs before we die, aren’t people just being uptight for no reason? Why can’t we sing about boobs at an awards ceremony, or a wedding reception for that matter?

The Victorian era was all about manners and decorum. To the extent that a person’s worth was wrapped up in shallow outward appearances, it is good that we broke free. And the unprecedented rights and opportunities available to men and women of all races in America is a testament to a truly great nation. But in pursuit of political correctness we lost something important. Today, people are less confident in their faith, and place less value in marriage and parenthood. They remain like children in many respects well into their twenties, and mock the traditions of their grandparents. Yet, they still yearn for community, belonging and purpose.

We are in desperate need of a moral renaissance in education, and we are seeing it emerge in private, charter and home-based schools. People are recognizing that we have failed generations. In order to embrace perfect equality, our public school system had to forgo casting judgment; treating all things as deserving equal respect. Intentionally or not, it marginalized religion and debased humanity. We no longer have the language of truth, and have therefore lost the definition of goodness and beauty.

Over at Values and Capitalism this week, I commemorate Constitution Day with a reminder of the importance of the Constitution, not only in American history, but as a teacher of political principles.

“The center stage of contemporary political debates seems dominated by questions of economics and entitlements, as though government’s role is to simply decide which levers to pull and how far. Were Americans better educated in the history and philosophy of the U.S. Constitution, we might be better equipped for this discussion. Regrettably, our culture has largely relegated the Constitution to the realm of patriotic folklore, denying most Americans the intellectual tools for understanding our own institutions and political principles.”  READ MORE…

Since my last post supporting a possible name change for Houston Baptist University, a number of arguments have surfaced to which I have yet to see a thorough public response. To some extent they were addressed in last week’s “town hall” meeting, but I wanted to offer a few follow-up comments of my own.

1. We’ve already put 50 years into our name, why start from scratch?
The frank reality of HBU’s situation is that, even after 50 years, it has very little reputation among the general public. Moreover, what most people assume—that it is a school for Baptists in Houston—is inaccurate. Part of this is because HBU has done very little advertising and has been content with its small size and relative insignificance in academia or even its own community. That statement is bound to offend, but an honest evaluation is sometimes painful. It was, at one time, touted as “Houston’s best kept secret.” Thankfully, those days are over and HBU is looking toward national prominence. With an effective advertising campaign and a more welcoming brand name—not to mention improvements across the board—the University can do more for its reputation in five years than it has in 50. Certain programs, like nursing, that have enjoyed a good reputation should be able to retain this as the University grows and improves.

2. Shouldn’t we have a name that lets people know we are at least Christians?
There is no correlation between whether a university’s name sounds Christian and whether it has an actual reputation of being so. Compare Wheaton with Southern Methodist University, for example. People will know HBU by its fruit, and if those matriculating from it do not represent Christian values, having “Christian” in the name isn’t going to help. Besides, the idea is to eliminate unnecessary barriers, not lower them. If it is a University for all people, the name should not imply otherwise.

3. If we name it something like “Morris University” no one will know what that means!
According to the Board of Trustees, no person in HBU’s history is more deserving of such an honor than Dr. Stewart Morris, so the idea is being floated as a possibility. But, it’s true, most people have no idea who he is. But how much do people need to know about Mr. Pepperdine, Mr. Baylor, Mr. Wheaton or Mr. Brigham Young? A name is what you make of it, provided that you have some control over the “brand” of that name, which is impossible with words like “Houston” and “Baptist.”

4. If we want more worldly approval, what is to keep HBU from following the path of so many other universities and moving away from Christianity altogether?
First, approval is not the point. The ultimate goal is impacting more lives and making a bigger difference, but that necessarily requires a certain degree of credibility and amiability with those we are trying to reach. To be “in the world and not of it” is not to live in a bubble, it means we should hold strong to our values while making every possible effort to engage in meaningful dialogue with the world. So how do we remain strong in our values? Only two things will keep HBU on track: 1) the preamble of the school’s by-laws, which can only be changed with a unanimous vote of the Board of Trustees, and 2) leaders who have strong convictions in line with the University’s values. In short, there are no promises, but the future leaders of the University are far more important than its name.

5. We should not be ashamed of our religious heritage!
See my last post. Those who say the University is running away from Christianity should spend more time listening and less time reacting. Perhaps fulfilling the University’s mission by taking “Baptist” out of the name sounds paradoxical to some, but shouldn’t the point be whatever works? I liked HBU senior Andrew Richardson’s comment from the last town hall: do you think Brigham Young would have been as successful if they had insisted on Provo Mormon University?

6. I came to HBU in spite of—or because of—the name, so what’s to stop others?
You’re not the one the University is concerned about. The question is whether HBU, in the long run, can better situate itself for maximum support.

“Houston Baptist University” does represent what HBU is in terms of its geography, values and institutional association. None of those will change. What it does not tell the world is what the school does and who it is for. HBU is for anyone seeking an education in which issues of moral or theological significance are part of the dialogue, and where one’s professors understand not just their academic field, but Christian faith as well. True, HBU is not for everyone—some prefer a purely secular environment—but too many potential students and supporters never take the steps to learn why HBU is right for them.

The fact that HBU’s name has constricted its growth and success is indisputable. While in some cases the name has attracted support, the opposite appears to be the most common. So the question is not whether HBU will be able to grow and build a positive reputation without the change; what we will be left wondering in 50 years is just how much potential we missed.