Commentary Magazine


God's Choice, by Alan Peshkin

Inside a Christian School

God’s Choice: The Total World of a Fundamentalist Charistian School.
by Alan Peshkin.
University of Chicago Press. 349 pp. $24.95.

Some good ideas never catch on. The American people, for example, have consistently failed to show serious interest in an educational voucher system. The reason for this is obvious. Despite the seemingly general sense of dissatisfaction with our public schools, relatively few parents in America now opt for such private alternatives as currently exist.

The numbers tell the story. Of the roughly 48 million schoolchildren in America, only 5.3 million attend private schools of any kind, religious or otherwise. As of 1981, nearly 3 million of these children were attending Catholic schools, while another 450,000 were enrolled in “Christian schools,” those primary and secondary schools which are run by fundamentalist churches. Though enrollment in private school continues to increase, we are still a long way from anything remotely approaching the market-driven privatization of American schooling.

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Why, then, have Christian schools had such a profound effect in recent years on the public consciousness? One suspects the answer has something to do with the censorious attitude implied by their methods. Though not all Americans send their children to religious schools out of conviction, the majority of parents who send their children to a Christian school do so solely because they want them to study in a social environment consistent with their religious beliefs. The hostility with which liberal groups like People for the American Way or the National Education Association (NEA) view such schools becomes a good deal clearer when seen in this light. For anyone who accepts the pluralistic assumptions on which American public schooling is based, the mere existence of Christian schools, like the existence of Amish or Mennonite communities, is the moral equivalent of a slap in the face.

Not surprisingly, the American public knows as little about Christian schools as it does about fundamentalism in general. But the political events of the last few years should by now have convinced even the most stubborn pluralist of the need to come to grips with fundamentalism. Since Christian schools are (in Erving Goffman’s phrase) “total institutions” where the operational consequences of fundamentalist doctrine are dramatized with singular clarity, they are perhaps as good a place as any to start, and anyone looking to find out exactly what goes on inside a Christian school would do well to read Alan Peshkin’s God’s Choice: The Total World of a Fundamentalist Christian School.

Peshkin, a professor of education at the University of Illinois, spent eighteen months observing “Bethany Baptist Academy,” a Christian school located in “Hartney,” an Illinois town of 50,000, in preparation for the writing of God’s Choice. (Peshkin uses disguised names throughout.) His task was a difficult one. To describe the insular world portrayed in God’s Choice requires a degree of sympathy and detachment that is given to few observers, professional or otherwise. “Never before,” Peshkin says at one point,

had I known true believers, possessors of Truth, who are convinced beyond my imagination of the certainty of God, heaven, hell, Jesus Christ, and salvation, and of the unqualified authenticity of the Bible as God’s word.

The fact that Peshkin is a Jew undoubtedly complicated matters still further. (“No matter how good a person you are,” one uncooperative pastor told him, “you will misrepresent my school because you don’t have the Holy Spirit in you.”) Indeed, three Christian schools turned down his initial approaches before he finally met with success at Bethany.

Needless to say, Peshkin was not converted to fundamentalism by his experience at Bethany Baptist Academy. His conclusions are as skeptical as his observations are sympathetic. But God’s Choice is nonetheless an unusually objective attempt to convey the flavor of life in a Christian school, and it has the equally admirable virtue of being written in plain English rather than some obscure sociological argot. A poor index notwithstanding, Peshkin’s efforts have been successful in every way. God’s Choice is by far the single most satisfactory discussion of the Christian school movement to date, scholarly or otherwise.

Given the course of current political events, God’s Choice also takes on a further degree of interest beyond the merely scholarly. Much has been heard recently to the effect that the Reagan coalition will not hold together in 1988 unless some kind of rapprochement is achieved between mainstream conservatives and the religious Right. Though Peshkin obviously had other agendas in mind when he wrote God’s Choice, his book has much of value to tell us in this important connection. He notes that

the legality of [Bethany Baptist Academy] is not in question, nor, indeed, is the wisdom of the judgment that established the legality. There remains, however, the question of what kind of alternative the fundamentalist Christian school offers and the highly pertinent question of what consequences the Christian schools hold for American education and American society.

Bethany Baptist Academy is in a very real sense “what the fundamentalists want.” Peshkin’s book is particularly valuable for the forthright way in which it asks the key question: should we want it for them as well?

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The leadership of Bethany Baptist Church began considering the possibility of building a church-run private school as early as 1968. “William Muller,” the church’s pastor, told Peshkin that

when the Vietnam war was on, I saw the American flag being insulted. I saw colleges opening up their dormitories to coed living. I saw the products of the schools of education, who were going to be the teachers in the public schools. . . . [T]here was some evolution being given to my daughter. I went over [to the public school] at parent-visitation time and I saw the stuff around the walls. When I saw these things, I said that this is the time.

Pastor Muller’s dismay at the worldliness he observed in the public schools of Hartney ultimately led to the founding of Bethany Baptist Academy, which opened in 1972 and soon grew to its present enrollment of 350 boys and girls in kindergarten through twelfth grade.

Bethany Baptist Academy is a member of the American Association of Christian Schools (AACS), a nationwide organization which seeks to “rescue our Christian youth from the brainwashing socialistic, amoral, and often atheistic public-school system.” The AACS requires member schools to “subscribe without reservation” to a three-paragraph statement of faith which contains the basic tenets of the fundamentalist creed: biblical inerrancy, creationism, separation from the world, substitutional atonement for original sin, salvation by grace, rebirth in the Holy Spirit. Membership in the AACS is not open to “those associated with, members of, or in accord with the World Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches, the Modern Charismatic Movement, or the Ecumenical Movement.”

Each school day at Bethany Baptist Academy begins with a meeting of all teachers. “Tom Mc-Graw,” the headmaster, reads and discusses a Bible verse, and this is followed by announcements, prayer requests, and the regular morning prayer. Though the teaching of Christian doctrine is unsystematically “integrated” into most classes, the curriculum is fairly standard for a school of Bethany’s size: four years each of English and physical education, three years of social studies, two years each of math and science, one year of speech. Junior-high and high-school students attend chapel three times a week. High-school students are required to take a four-year Bible course. A course in “soul-winning” is optional. Interracial dating is not permitted, and women are not allowed to hold student leadership positions.

These latter facets of the program would no doubt attract the unfavorable attention of the federal judiciary were it not for the fact that Bethany Baptist Academy, like most Christian schools, receives no government funds. (“To Christian educators,” Peshkin correctly notes, “government money denotes government control.”) The high school charged an annual tuition of $900 in 1981. Additional contributions from Bethany Baptist Church and other private donors, plus revenue derived from candy sales, keep the school more or less in the black.

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In certain ways, Bethany Baptist Academy may resemble a typical small-town public school, but the similarities are for the most part superficial ones. It is the differences that are crucial, and they begin with the way in which Bethany defines its function as a school:

Students are exhorted to know and obey what God enjoins them to do. In this way, the Holy Spirit will encompass them and enable them to live a spiritual life, a life whose actions communicate a resolve to reject the world, Satan’s enticing domain in which secular humanism extols man rather than God as the measure of all things. Christians must be and must remain separate from the worldin it but not of it. . . . Separateness in dress, language, belief, and general conduct should be strikingly clear.

These rigorous assumptions permeate the daily life of Bethany Baptist Academy, a place where students are expected to bring their Bibles to every class except gym; where gifted students are firmly encouraged to shun the godless colleges of the Ivy League in favor of fundamentalist institutions like Bob Jones University or Maranatha Bible College; where the school librarian carefully censors each book entrusted to her watchful care (“I found a double page of monkeys developing into man and, of course, we don’t approve of that at all, so I just sealed the pages together and it didn’t bother the reading on either side”).

Bethany enforces a rigid dress code and an even more rigid code of behavior. Moreover, it expects students to live up to these codes at all times, in or out of school. Students are not permitted to go to movies or dances, and Headmaster McGraw occasionally shows up without warning at private student parties in order to check for unacceptable conduct. When watching television at home, Bethany students are expected to “turn from those programs which have vulgar jokes, immorality, and activity prohibited by the school.” They must “refuse to listen to music that creates a reckless spirit or words that suggest immorality or a turning against authority.” (This means rock-and-roll.) And they are not permitted to use “obscene language,” a catchall which includes such “minced oaths” as “gee whiz” and “gosh” as well as the more widely recognized vulgarisms. Students are strongly encouraged to turn in peers who break the rules, and it is almost always socially acceptable for them to do so.

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The seriousness with which Bethany Baptist Academy views its myriad rules of conduct cannot be overstated. They are, after all, moral imperatives, and they are unhesitatingly enforced with corporal punishment and the threat of expulsion. “Our job,” Headmaster McGraw says confidently, “is teaching the truth.” What this means in terms of actual classroom practice, according to Peshkin, is that

when teachers have pronounced what is true, students may not question the teachers’ authority to do so. For the essence of the proper student response to authority is submission, total and unqualified, as long as the person in authority is not violating scriptural doctrine. . . . [A]ll teaching efforts must be directed to shape students’ minds to Christ.

“We are extreme in our belief,” Pastor Muller says. “In essence we negate all the other religions of the world. OK. They’re wrong. There is no way of getting into heaven except through Jesus Christ.” On this point the faculty of Bethany Baptist Academy is in unanimous agreement. All twelve of the teachers in the high-school division are “born again” Christians, this being a condition of employment. Eight of them attended fundamentalist colleges. Their favorite magazines are U.S. News and World Report and Reader’s Digest, their favorite television show Little House on the Prairie. Their politics are conservative and they do not hesitate to voice them in the classroom. (“When it gets down to it,” one social-studies teacher told his class on the eve of the 1980 elections, “Carter’s anti-American.”) And they have all made considerable financial sacrifices in order to teach at Bethany Baptist, where the base salary in 1980 was $5,900.

Pastor Muller and Headmaster McGraw see Bethany Baptist Academy and its sister schools as the last redoubts of Christian morality in a country shot through with the dry rot of “secular humanism.” They expect ultimately to become victims of frank religious persecution, and their interest in politics, as Pastor Muller readily explains, is a direct outgrowth of this expectation:

[W]e’re draining off a few dollars of support from public schools. As long as it isn’t too much, there won’t be too many rules against us, but as soon as it begins to affect pocketbooks, you can rest assured that there will be suppression. There will be laws and there will be regulations. I guess the point is that if we’re to have enough power and clout to withstand, then we must get more involved in political issues. We’re not asking for anything other than our freedom.

The realities of life at Bethany Baptist Academy, of course, are a good deal more supple than one necessarily gathers from this bald account. In his eighteen months there, Peshkin copied down graffiti from the bathroom walls, plucked mash notes out of classroom waste-baskets, overheard students eagerly discussing last week’s Saturday Night Live and gossiping about the love lives and musical tastes of their peers. (Only 28 percent of the students, he found, claim “never” to listen to rock-and-roll.) “Within the framework of the special school Christian educators have established,” he concludes, “there is an ordinary school, as ordinary as acne and McDonald’s yellow arches.”

But while the students of Bethany Baptist Academy are not the mindless, glassy-eyed religious robots of hostile caricature, they are also markedly different from their counterparts in the Hartney public-school system. Even those “rebels” who make fun of overly pious peers do so within the context of a powerfully spiritual environment, one which shapes their attitudes to a startling degree:

Is interracial marriage OK? Yes, say 61 percent of [Hartney] public-school students; yes, say only 30 percent of Bethany students. Should books written by Communists be available in public libraries? Yes, say 73 percent of public-school students; yes, say only 29 percent of Bethany’s. Is it good that America has so many different religious groups? Yes, say 73 percent of public-school students; yes, say only 27 percent of Bethany’s. And, finally, should homosexuals have the same rights as heterosexuals? Yes, say 58 percent of public-school students; yes, say only 26 percent of Bethany’s.

Peshkin’s conclusion is that “the academy—abetted by its parental and church allies—communicates its beliefs and values to a considerable extent. . . . [At Bethany] one’s behavior becomes molded—not necessarily programmed, but at least predictably disposed.” After reading God’s Choice, it is hard not to agree.

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One of the most interesting things about God’s Choice is the clarity with which it conveys the author’s ambivalence toward Bethany Baptist Academy. Peshkin acknowledges that its students are for the most part “loyal, honest, hard-working, punctual, and reliable.” He lauds the dedication and commitment of its staff. He is remarkably candid about the positive feelings evoked by his stay at Bethany, comparing it at one point to life in a kibbutz. (“When I left Bethany each Friday night to go to my own community, I felt I had left order for disorder, harmony for dissonance, and absolutism for relativism.”) And he recognizes that the Christian school movement is an altogether logical response to the vertiginous decline of our public schools as agents for the transmission of traditional values.

But Peshkin nonetheless finds certain aspects of the Christian school movement disturbing, and his thoughtfully expressed concerns revolve around the problem of fitting Christian schools into the larger framework of a pluralistic society. To be sure, Bethany Baptist Academy preaches Christian tolerance. (The “love the sinner, hate the sin” formulation common among fundamentalists turns up with some regularity in God’s Choice.) And it is the beneficiary of tolerance as well; schools like Bethany exist because American society permits, if it does not actively encourage, diversity. There is, however, a distinct difference between theoretical and practical tolerance, a difference which Pastor Muller suggested in a conversation with Peshkin:

I can think of Christians taking over political life and pockets of power in certain communities. . . . If on the city council of my town the majority were members of Bethany Baptist Church and committed Christians, well, what would we do about liquor and liquor ordinances? I’d vote against them all the way. . . . I guess I wonder if I’d be very tolerant of a non-Christian position. I would hope to believe that I’d be very understanding, but when my Christianity affects my whole life, it has to affect my politics.

The fact is that schools like Bethany Baptist Academy, whatever their officially expressed positions, are not seriously committed to the maintenance of pluralism. How could they be? Fundamentalism is as intransigent and absolute a religious doctrine as exists in American life today. Its adherents believe that theirs is the truth. Consistency requires them to proselytize and, ultimately, to impose their beliefs on the fabric of our society if they possibly can. “The more vigorously groups like Bethany’s Christians thrive,” Peshkin observes, “the more we know that American pluralism is healthy. Yet the more successfully such groups proselytize, the more pluralism may be endangered.”

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There is no trace of paranoia in Peshkin’s concern over the absolutism of the Christian school movement. His conclusions, all things considered, are almost miraculously evenhanded:

The potential for abuse . . . does not establish the state’s compelling interest to abolish either the political or the educational arms of absolutist Christian groups. . . . [T]heir institutions must not be slandered, their leaders must not be vilified, their students and teachers must not be taken to task for what they may do. Their right to thrive is inviolable, at least until they overstep the line between safe and unsafe. . . . Not soon, or ever, I trust, will we deem that the time has unmistakably come to fight fundamentalist Christian schools.

For Peshkin, the problem is not yet (and may never be) serious enough to warrant action. For others, however, and perhaps in particular for mainstream American conservatives, it must be confronted at once. Conservatives, after all, will almost certainly have to contrive some kind of meaningful alliance with the religious Right if they are to continue on the road to majority status in American politics. A sufficient number of common goals exists to make such an alliance appear natural. But no one who reads God’s Choice: The Total World of a Fundamentalist Christian School can make the careless mistake of assuming that mainstream conservatives and fundamentalists are anything but two very different groups indeed.

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About the Author

Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street JournalSatchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.




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