The media flared up over reports last week that Karen Pence, wife of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, is now teaching at a Christian school that upholds traditional biblical views of sexuality and marriage. Before long, #ExposeChristianSchools became a trending hashtag on Twitter. The Covington Catholic episode last weekend — in which the media over-hastily accused boys from the school of harassing a Native American — pushed Christian education further into a critical spotlight.
The shock-and-horror response toward Pence’s job from mainstream media was unwarranted: Immanuel Christian School, where Pence teaches, is much like other Christian schools of good reputation and is consistent with standard biblical teachings ascribed to by many churches. And Christian schools hardly form an underground cult; nearly 8 percent of American students go to religiously-affiliated schools, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
But many Christians’ responses in defense of Christian schools fell short, or even smacked of self-righteousness. On Twitter, some responded with counterexamples of their own good Christian-school experiences. Others simply scathed the media for its ignorance of Christian culture and beliefs.
The knee-jerk response is a shame and a missed opportunity. For good or ill, the public eye is on Christian schools, and it’s offering a chance for them to educate the public on what they do well — and present Christian philosophy in a kinder light. It’s also a chance for self-reflection on their education methods and the tendencies to extremism that any close-knit culture can fall into.
Even from a secular standpoint, Christian schools have much to offer. A 2017 Gallup poll found that 63 percent of American adults gave church-related schools an “excellent” or “good” rating, compared to 44 percent for public schools. Students at private religious schools score much higher on standardized tests than those at public schools, and religious schools excel with behavioral outcomes and narrow achievement gaps, according to the Council for American Private Education.
With smaller class sizes and teachers who supposedly share a faith that preaches loving your neighbor before yourself, Christian schools also — ideally — cultivate warm and even deep relationships among students and faculty.
Christian school employees and graduates can tout these qualities, if true. But they can also take a moment to listen. Like any community caught in its own echo chamber from time to time, Christian schools are liable to fall to extremes. Sometimes these extremes are harmless or even funny, but sometimes they become abuse.
On Twitter, the “expose” hashtag elicited responses ranging from uniform complaints (the skirt was an inch above my knee!), to bullying over sexual orientation, to no civil rights coverage in history class. These complaints aren’t verified — nor widely applicable, necessarily — but they’re not unbelievable from schools that do uphold traditional views of marriage and focus on the Judeo-Christian heritage.
Christian schools would do well to listen and evaluate, insofar as they may be at fault. How do you deal with the kid who comes out of the closet, or the girl who gets pregnant? How do you teach other students, who are young and foolish and judgmental, to approach these peers? Do you give students an understanding of cultures and people unlike them?
The portion of Immanuel Christian School’s “Essentials of the Faith” statement so abhorrent to the media proclaims the school’s right to refuse admission to an applicant whose home environment opposes “the biblical lifestyle the school teaches,” including “participating in, supporting, or condoning sexual immorality, homosexual activity or bi-sexual activity.”
Of course this is repulsive to mainstream culture — though for Christians, marriage between a man and a woman is a commonly-held point of doctrine. It is also not the only point of doctrine they hold; in the same paragraph, even, Immanuel Christian emphasizes that “contumacious behavior” and “divisive conduct” are also not part of a biblical lifestyle. Those are much more acceptable to our culture.
Somehow, schools must uphold rigid and culturally-unpopular principles without degrading those who break them. Some have succeeded at this balance, but many have not.
Christian schools should take pride in their biblical principles and academic strengths, but be wary that such an emphasis can destroy humility and push students’ identities into the wrong places. While holding a strong stance on sexuality, they must guide students away from self-righteousness and pride and teach them to recognize their own sin. They should teach God’s providence but acknowledge the mental and physical hardships that some students face, which can be overlooked in private-school communities.
From the Christian school I attended K-12, the most lasting impact came from teachers who demonstrated kindness and self-sacrifice toward me and my peers. They care about our lives still. But I know that this counter-example does not negate all the complaints about Christian schools. And not all of my peers felt the same way about the school I went to — sometimes because of their own faults, but sometimes, perhaps, because the school could have tried to better understand them.
The greatest asset that a truly Christian school has is Christ and his love. Focusing on him in the midst of antagonism and scrutiny might soothe those who smell a cult and redirect those Christians who have gone astray.
Nicole Ault is a senior studying Economics.