WACO—Public schools in the United States offer the “meeting place for widening diversity” where students learn to live with others who hold different views, a Baptist preacher and advocate for public education told a Baylor University gathering.
Charles Foster Johnson, executive director of Pastors for Texas Children, addressed “Religious Liberty, the Public School and the Soul of America” at the G. Hugh and Beverly C. Wamble Symposium, presented by Baylor’s J.M. Dawson Institute for Church-State Studies.
‘Proving ground for religious liberty’
“I contend that public schools are the proving ground for religious liberty and church-state separation,” Johnson asserted.
In public school classrooms, students learn that their own religious beliefs are not to be given preference over the beliefs of their classmates, nor are their classmates beliefs to be preferred above their own, he said.
In an increasingly pluralistic society, understanding and honoring religious liberty may be more important than ever, he stressed.
“Our neighbor of another faith is right next to us now. … We share this absurdly small space called planet Earth, and we’ve got to learn to love each other,” said Johnson, former pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in San Antonio and Second Baptist Church in Lubbock. “One of the ways we do that is to accord every human being the freedom to follow God by the mandate of conscience.”
He decried any attempt to coerce compliance to any religion or compel religious expression.
“All faith in God is voluntary. If it is not voluntary, it is not faith,” he said.
Liberty of conscience
On the one hand, Johnson rejected any undue overemphasis on autonomy that focuses only on the individual without the influence and importance of community. A narcissistic fixation on self produces the kind of “severe psychological and spiritual dysfunction on display today” in high office, he said.
However, he affirmed “the irreducible and inviolate freedom of the human conscience” and called for “a new assertion of individual rights and responsibilities that inculcates individual decision-making power.”
Freedom of religion is a “core component” of individual liberty, and the individual—not the state—is the only entity competent to make a religious decision, he asserted.
Public schools—alongside homes and houses of worship—preserve and protect liberty of conscience in a polarized and pluralistic society, Johnson said.
“The public school is the building block of American democracy. It is the cornerstone of our national life,” he said.
Public schools are ‘a public trust’
In Texas, 90 percent of children attend public schools, and more than 60 percent of the state’s schoolchildren are economically disadvantaged, he noted.
“Universal education is a moral mandate,” he said. “It’s a public trust safeguarded by everyone in the public.”
Johnson framed competing visions regarding education—one that views education as a public trust provided by the public and the other that promotes a privatized approach serving only those who can afford it—as a battle for “the soul of America.”
He contrasted public schools that are open to all students with “corporate chain charters” that are not accountable to local elected officials and private school voucher proponents who treat students as commodities and classrooms as profit centers benefiting only a few.
“The great equalizer in American life is the neighborhood public school,” Johnson said.