As the nation’s schools continue to move down the path paved for them in the Obergefell decision, many Christian parents are pulling their children out of the public schools. Though the exact reasons for doing this vary from person to person, it typically comes back to concerns about schools advancing a pro-LGBT agenda that will prove hostile to orthodoxy on a number of key points. While not entirely wrong, this reading of our situation is at best incomplete and at worst gets the cultural signals mixed.
In fact, the value system that underlies the Obergefell judgment has been in public schools for a long time. To wit, the grounding of one’s identity in subjective dispositions and a corresponding public expression (which “the other” is obliged to affirm) is all the the stuff of yesterday.
Certainly the cultural and now legal payment for this moral habituation is going to be significant in the coming years, but the underlying problem has not changed. As well, the great diversity of contexts and individual teachers within the public school system render it likely that any newfound obligation to get excited and prophetic about the inevitable new bits in the curriculum will be met with some handy passive-aggressive resistance. Resistance to the legal implications of SCOTUS’ decision is already widespread.
This variety of contexts and the inevitable variety of outcomes immediately suggests we are in the land of prudence rather than law—unless one has more fundamental objections to public education (in which case this argument is not for you). However, focusing upon context and legal loopholes is merely to observe rather than to interpret. The more fundamental point to be made is not simply that things have not changed as much as we might think. It is to assert that the most fundamental cultural battles are not predominantly fought in or disseminated by the public school system.
The values of Obergefell are the values we breathe every day.
Rather, the values that undergird SCOTUS are values that we all tacitly imbibe all day long every day of our lives. One can argue against these values as much as they want. But we all shop in stores with a hundred varieties of crackers. We all watch Netflix and have an entertainment, intellectual, and social life in which we are afforded an unprecedented amount of options. We have more clothes than most of our ancestors and can “express ourselves” in more ways than they could probably imagine. We might express ourselves in such a manner as to argue about the SCOTUS judgment, but SCOTUS is us and we are it.
The real battle is a battle that you cannot avoid, and which you swim around in 24/7 and it is a battle in which the whole order of reality is a reality which says that “you” and your desires are the most important thing. If I want to communicate anything else here, it is that this is not predominantly a matter of explicit pedagogy. It is more like cultural “air,” and my bet is that most of it is something we couldn’t even identify if we tried.
Did worldviewism fail?
If I may be permitted a personal aside: I grew up in the Dallas area in the 90s. I was homeschooled and I had culture wars and “worldviews” up to my eyeballs. So did all of my friends. I noticed something by the time we all went off to college. A ton of them lost their faith. I noticed something else. Plenty of my public schooled acquaintances did not. Indeed, I doubt the the percentage was significantly different.
What happened? Did worldview “fail us all”? Not necessarily. Rather, “worldview education” prepared us to fight half a battle (which, to our surprise, very few were even interested in fighting)—and barely noticed a battle that was going on all the while. Its agents can’t be found on the wrong news channel or in Washington D.C. – but they can be located wherever my identity and its expression is told that it is the main story, the end for which I exist.
We can’t escape it. It is all around is. It is us. And even worse, most of its instances are not obviously evil or to be found in objects which are overtly idols. The extent of its hold is manifest in the struggles which each person in my generation has. I can hardly name a Christian below the age of 35 who has not struggled with the doctrine of Hell, with why homosexuality is wrong, with questions concerning the Bible’s teaching on women. I’m not saying that everyone abandons a more or less traditional answer to these questions. I’m saying that no matter what our formation has been (good or bad), the air we breathe in exhales just these tensions. It is inescapable.
Fighting this battle is largely accomplished through the self-forgetfulness that is cultivated in the gospel. On the one hand, the gospel tells us that our identity is not to be found in anything of this pen-ultimate order. Rather, our life is “hidden with Christ in God.” But called by this gospel of the risen Christ, we are also caught up in a narrative which is so much greater than ourselves and our little stories. It is not just “another identity” in the marketplace of expressed selves, but the movement outside of our habituated self-obsession. Taken outside of ourselves in Christ, we can see the gravity of being, God’s vision for the world, and the justice of His wrath against our sin. But most importantly, we experience the forgiveness of our sins even as we are given a new name and a new story. To play the least part in His kingdom is infinitely greater than being the star of our own show. Failing to see this is a failure of habituation and taste.
Spiritual Formation and the Life of the Home
But this is not specific. Let me get specific. The under-shepherds in this battle are parents (and particularly fathers). As I observed my friends and my own family, I can tell you what made an almost “to the person” difference (there are always exceptions): Whether or not the parents lived in the joy of the gospel, had an identity outside of themselves, and loved their neighbors.
No amount of public schooling has ever competed with a gospel-centered home. And no amount of home or private schooling has ever made up for the lack of one.
We are at a crossroads here. There is no room for lack of agency on the part of parents. Not being conscious and active will not be supplemented by a cultural background that makes up for your slack. Not anymore. While I do not think that public or private school should be made an issue of conscience by churches, I do think that parental agency and ownership is increasingly an issue of conscience and obligation.
And here I speak to myself before all others. Men must lead their homes in God’s word and in His gospel. Men must love their wives and love them well. Men must be dignified and invest in their children. Parents must liturgize their family.
This is not predominantly about monitoring television shows. That is fine, of course, but if they don’t get “it” there, they’ll get it in all the places you don’t see. It is not about taking out what cannot be taken out of the air. It is about putting in what will not be there apart from your discipline, ownership, and agency. It is about “husbandry.” This might include weeding and protection (indeed, these are very important).
But the main thing is formation. And this cannot be done in a vacuum. Parents need formation as well. This takes a community, and this means investment in and regular communion with other Christians. We cannot fight his battle alone.
Putting a few of these strands together, it is pastorally dangerous to overly focus on the public school “problem.” This wrongly identifies the chief battle, perhaps fails to attend to context, and can inadvertently bind the conscience.
Beyond circumstantial factors, there is (in fact) an argument to be made that familial investment in public school is important and good. It would be unwise to dismiss those with convictions about such matters haphazardly. One might wonder, in fact, what it would look like if millions of Christians had never pulled out in the first place.
In any case, there is a conviction that we can all share. Whether or not one sends their children to public school, the children belong to their parents and their parents have the primary responsibility for their education and formation. Neither state, “Christian Academy,” or homeschool “co-op” is a surrogate parent. Each are an extension of parental agency – whether they think so or not. This is particularly important to emphasize in a context where educational institutions sponsored by the state conceive of themselves otherwise (rendering the reinforcement of parental agency an uphill battle).
More importantly, our greatest success will come if churches and families focus upon the cultivation of our extra-spective identity in Christ. This is not just having a lot of mini-lessons or talking about “the worldview” that was in the movie we just saw or the song we just heard. That’s tearing the weeds. And make no mistake, it is important. But it is all too common to find instances where it has no effect. The more difficult and more important task is doing whatever it is that makes a child tacitly imbibe the simple fact that the kingdom of Christ is joyful and that being wrapped in Him is greater than rags of identity that we construct for ourselves.
So what if you talked about the “worldview” of “Frozen”, your child plays the violin, and can read Latin? If your child hears you criticize your spouse all the time, watches you frequently complain and worry about where the country is going, whine about how the neighborhood is changing, what the pastor should have said on Sunday (etc)—guess what they learned? They learned that reality is about you.
And they disagree, of course, because you’ll soon learn that they think reality is about them. Because that is what you really taught them. And then all you have raised is a child who speaks Latin and (probably) believes in same-sex marriage at the same time.
But there are plenty of families who never talk about the “worldview” of “Frozen,” whose teenagers enjoy (gasp!) “Katy Perry” songs, and whose favorite food is “Pop-Tarts,” but who see parents that love the gospel, see parents who forgive one another, see a father who is humble before the Lord and moved by His words, hear their father speak with conviction to them about God and His gravity, whose parents sing and pray, who love their neighbors, who care for the orphan and the widow, and whose lives and selves are rooted in Christ and lived in their neighbor. Overlooked weeds will not choke the mighty oak of such a legacy. And so Christians must consider the weightier matters of the law.