Religion Today

Frustration with public education seems to be growing among the nation's Southern Baptists, with supporters of Christian schools and home schooling arguing that if God is absent from the classroom then their children should leave, too.

"What has happened is not so much that the Christians are leaving the public schools as that the public schools have left the Christians," advocate Ed Gamble said.

Gamble is executive director of the Southern Baptist Association of Christian Schools, an Orlando, Fla.-based group that supports the more than 600 Southern Baptist schools created in the past eight years.

"As the public schools have become increasingly secular and increasingly intolerant of things Christian, people who are openly Christian have said, 'I guess they are not part of our team anymore,'" Gamble said.

The number of conservative Christian schools grew by nearly 11 percent between 1999-2000 and 2001-2002, to 5,527, according to the U.S. Department of Education's latest statistics.

At that rate, Christian schools are growing faster than private schools as a whole, and have increased their share to nearly 1 in 5 private schools in the country.

Earlier this year, a resolution proposed at the national meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention - which guides the nation's largest Protestant denomination - urged parents to withdraw their children from "officially Godless" "government schools" in favor of religious education.

While the measure was rejected, interest in faith-based schools has continued to spread among Baptists at the state level, particularly in Tennessee, Missouri, Florida, South Carolina, Illinois, Texas, Virginia, North Carolina, California and New England, according to Exodus Mandate, a Columbia, S.C., group that promotes private, Christian and home-school education.

A recent resolution promoting Christian schooling easily passed the Missouri Baptist Convention but was quashed in committee at the Tennessee Baptist Convention meeting in Sevierville last month.

The Missouri resolution talked about the "inherent dangers of secular educational philosophies that now permeates America's public education system" and affirmed "the importance of systematically training ourselves and our children in the ways of authentic, biblical Christianity."

"What we are saying is that God has given us some very specific commands that we are to train our children in the ways of the Lord, not in the ways of the world," said the Rev. Roger Moran, of Troy, Mo., the resolution's author and a member of the Southern Baptist Convention's executive committee.

That means teaching creationism over evolution, that life begins at conception, and that homosexuality is immoral, as is sex outside of marriage. But it is more.

"It hits everything, when you realize the reality of life is (that) life was created by God and the entire universe is his creation. Therefore, everything has meaning and reflection on his nature, whether it is math or history or science. Two plus two equals four because God created them that way," said Glen Schultz, who heads the Baptists' LifeWay curriculum program for church-based schools and homeschoolers.

The Tennessee resolution came one step short of asking Baptist parents to pull their children from public schools.

"I wanted to be positive in promoting Christian education. I didn't want the resolution to be portrayed as attacking public education," said the Rev. Larry Reagan, of Dresden, who wrote the measure.

But the Rev. Mike Boyd of Knoxville, outgoing president of the 1 million-member Tennessee Baptist Convention, worried about the divisiveness of the issue.

"It was not wise, is all I am saying," added the Rev. Grover Westover, of Whiteville, chairman of the resolutions committee.

Reagan's resolution would have promoted more "Kingdom education" schools following LifeWay's lead. Schultz said the program has reached some 150 churches since 1996.

"We encourage our members to pray for this ministry and we encourage the promotion of an adequate system of Christian schools," Reagan said.

Boyd agreed there were "some serious issues in the public schools" to resolve but said the focus should be on supporting the teachers working in them, including many Baptists, and parents.

"Historically, Baptists have been pretty staunch supporters of the public school system, and they still are," said Gamble, who was not surprised to see the convention resolutions fail.

"But this is a bottom-up movement, as it is a bottom-up denomination. This is not a movement that is being led so much by pastors as it is being led by moms and dads who are frustrated."

"And some day, I don't know how long it will be, most of the kids will be educated in Southern Baptist schools or in their homes."