“The greatest threat to religious liberty in America today,” said former U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr in a recent speech, is “the increasingly militant and extreme secular-progressive climate of our state-run education system.”
Barr, whose high-profile career has demonstrated a deep commitment to the U.S. Constitution as written and intended, spoke to the religious liberty legal defense organization Alliance Defending Freedom. The legal lion put together a strong argument that a half-century of Supreme Court decisions combined with the left’s long march through American institutions have pushed U.S. public schools so far from religious neutrality that many now comprise a government-established preference for the atheist religion. Government preferences for some religious views over others are unconstitutional under the First Amendment.
“The heavy-handed enforcement of secular-progressive orthodoxy through government-run schools is totally incompatible with traditional Christianity and other major religious traditions in our country. In light of this development, we must confront the reality that it may no longer be fair, practical, or even constitutional to provide publicly-funded education solely through the vehicle of state-operated schools,” he said.
Government Schools the No. 1 Anti-Religious Force
While many American adults believe U.S. public schools keep religion out of the classroom, that era ended with their childhoods, Barr says. Too many Americans are dangerously unaware that today’s public schools forcefully instruct children in specific religious and political beliefs that openly undermine Christianity and, therefore, the private self-government necessary to preserve the United States’ foundational natural rights regime.
The evidence for this is strong, both in data and personal testimony. “[Ex]pansions in government service provision and especially increasingly secularized government control of education… can account for virtually the entire increase in secularization around the developed world,” writes sociologist Lyman Stone in a 2020 review of research on this topic.
A few weeks ago, conservative pundit Dennis Prager cited constantly encountering some of the “millions — yes, millions — of Americans whose children have contempt for America, for free speech and for their parents as a result of attending an American college or even high school. I meet such people at every speech I give, and I speak to them regularly on my radio show. Ask these parents, if they could redo their lives, whether they would keep their child in school.”
I’ve seen and heard this myself countless times, both politically and religiously, usually when it is too late to do anything. One mother active in conservative politics recently described to me the trend of her friends’ young adult children losing their faith and conservatism in high school as “like an invasion of the body snatchers.”
Her fellow conservative parents are scared for their college-age kids, she told me, and with good reason. Much data and human experience back up parents’ worries that secular-progressive schooling converts conservative Americans’ kids away from their deepest religious and political beliefs.
How U.S. Government Schools Became Anti-Religion
Barr explains how U.S. public schooling, which used to be explicitly Christian, became the strongest antagonist to religion in American life. He detailed a brief history of American education to make his case, in three historical phases. In the first phase, “the advocates of public schools agreed that religion was integral to such an education. You could not separate moral education from religion,” he said. Thus, in America’s founding era, taxpayer-supported schools were explicitly religious.
In the second phase of American education’s history, Barr said, “the Left embarked on a relentless campaign of secularization intent on driving every vestige of traditional religion from the public square. Public schools quickly became the central battleground.” This was the era when the Supreme Court cooperated with the political left to eradicate Christianity from publicly supported education, for example by banning prayer in schools.
Since it is impossible to educate someone without passing on religious beliefs — Is there a God? Does he care about what we learn, or is he irrelevant to learning? What is right and wrong, and how do we know? — this myth of a religiously neutral education quietly cleared American education of Christianity. This prepared the way for complete secular progressive dominance of U.S. education institutions. That’s Barr’s “third phase” of American education history, occurring today.
“It is hard to teach that someone ought to behave in a certain way unless you can explain why,” Barr explained. “…[P]urging schools of any trace of religion created a vacuum by eliminating the explanatory belief system undergirding moral values. Now, we are seeing the attempt to push into the schools an alternative explanatory belief system that is inconsistent with, and subversive of, the religious worldview.”
The New Government-Sponsored Religion: Cultural Marxism
While many parents want to believe that secularist propaganda in their kids’ schooling is an infrequent occurrence, the truth is that anti-religious materialism saturates most government and many private schools, right down to content and teaching methods. For example, the neutral-seeming act of keeping Christianity off-limits in schooling teaches children that their faith is a private, side matter, instead of the most important thing in human existence and without which no one can learn anything. Barr gave other examples.
“What is taking shape is a full-blown—may I say ‘systemic’—subversion of the religious worldview,” Barr said. “While the secularist may view each lesson, such as transsexualism—as dealing with a discrete subject, those lessons embody broader ideas that are fundamentally incompatible with the religious viewpoint. Telling school children that they get to choose their gender—not just male or female, but anything else—and that no one else has anything to say about it—does not just contradict particular religious teachings on gender and the authority of parents; it is a broadside attack on the very idea of natural law, which is integral to the moral doctrines of a number of religious denominations.”
Barr noted that one-fifth of Americans live in states that require public schools to teach LGBT ideology, all the way down to kindergarten. Many more Americans live in localities that do the same, all often with no opt-out allowed and with LGBT ideology often marbled into all curricula, so that this anti-Christian ideology is as inseparable from public education as Christianity ought to be from a Christian education. This, he said, appears to be an unconstitutional infringement on the free exercise of religion.
“As the Supreme Court has recognized, nothing is more fundamental than the right of parents to pass religious faith to their children. It is monstrous for the state to interfere in that by indoctrinating children into alternative belief systems that are antithetical to those religious beliefs,” Barr said.
This dynamic doesn’t only involve violating Americans’ constitutional right to freely exercise their faith, but also appears to include unconstitutional government establishment of a preferred religion, Barr said.
“When we are no longer talking about simply stripping religion out of school curriculum, but now talking about indoctrination into an affirmative belief and value system—a new credo—resting on materialist metaphysics and taking the place of religion, then the question is whether this involves establishment of a religion. I am not the first to observe that the tenets of progressive orthodoxy have become a form of religion with all the trapping and hallmarks of a religion. It has its notion of original sin, salvation, penance, its clergy, its dogmas, its sensitivity to any whiff of heresy, even its burning at the stake,” he said.
No More Leftist Monopoly on Education Funds
Barr said the courts have subjected taxpayer funding for schools to a religious double standard, whereby “secularism has been afforded the protection of the Religion Clauses, [but] it has generally not been subject to the prohibitions of the Establishment Clause…If secular-progressivism indeed occupies the same space as a religion–as by all appearances it does—then how is it Constitutional to have a state-run school system fervently devoted to teaching little else? And how on earth can these same institutions be allowed to use the state to punish traditional religious doctrines as hate speech?”
The only way to resolve these major difficulties, he said, was for states to resort to full school choice so anti-religious government K-12 education does not maintain an unconstitutional monopoly on the religious formation of American children.
“If the state-operated schools are now waging war on the nation’s moral, historical, philosophical, and religious foundations,” Barr argued, “then they would seem to have forfeited their legitimacy as the proper vehicle to carry out the mission with which the American People have charged them.”