First, we must recognize that young people–and all people–are spiritual beings. They have an innate awareness of, and curiosity about, God and spiritual reality. They cannot, as Christ taught, live by bread alone. If this is so, then surely our public schools–if indeed we are meant to have public schools–should somehow contribute to the spiritual development of youth. For if schools do not fulfill that role, we may be sure that in the case of many youth an increasingly destructive popular culture will.

Secondly, we need carefully to define what the spiritual responsibility of our schools really is. Most emphatically, it is not, in our pluralistic society, spiritual training or indoctrination. That role belongs to parents and clergy. The public schools can, however, play a supportive role, encouraging a generic faith in a Supreme Being, objectively exposing students to various ideas about Him, and preparing them for a life of tolerance, respect, and mutual inquiry vis-a-vis people of other faiths.

Such a posture must, of course, acknowledge the presence of agnostic or atheistic students in the classroom. Specifically, it must allow for the expression of their views, and guard against any violation of their conscience. On the other hand, the presence of a minority of atheists cannot become the grounds for abandoning a robust commitment to theism, as in fact we see occurring in the schools today.

Thirdly, we will need to become convinced that the incorporation of non-sectarian theism into the fabric of public education is fully constitutional. Seeing this will be relatively easy (the Colorado Board of Education, which recently commended the motto “In God We Trust” to schools, has definitely caught the vision); implementing it in the present legal environment will be very, very hard.

Fourthly, we will need to develop specific policies that reflect our commitment to “God-friendly” schools. These might include:

1. A moment of voluntary silent prayer or meditation at the beginning of the day (and at major school events), acknowledging God’s existence and seeking His blessing.

2. Ten or fifteen moments at the beginning of the day dedicated to voluntary spiritual reading, the materials to be chosen by parents and students.

  1. Enthusiastic support of religious clubs and release-time for spiritual training.4. The inclusion of a course in Comparative Religion in the high school curriculum, based upon the premise that the quest for spiritual truth is a vital part of the meaning of life and a quality education.5. The selection of text-books and supportive materials that include theistic (and not just naturalistic) perspectives on science, history, government, etc. In particular, this will mean giving proponents of creation/intelligent design a voice in any discussion of the crucial topic of origins.6. Improvement of libraries to include a well-rounded sampling of primary and secondary texts from the main religious traditions.7. Creation of a school-based chaplaincy, staffed by clergy of different traditions who could assist in counseling those students (and parents) who desired their services.8. Weekly, voluntary chapels led by each of the chaplains.

In today’s cultural and legal environment these are, of course, controversial proposals, so that any community serious about implementing them must prepare itself for a long and difficult fight.

But lest we shrink from the task, it is wise to consider the alternative. The poet Yeats described it well in these sobering images:

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
After the events of Columbine, and in the face of all they represent, I cannot help but fear that such a day is fast approaching. Moreover, I do not believe that any amount of money, technology, or mere academic restructuring can keep it at bay. If the poet is right, then there is only one way to recover “the lost ceremony of innocence,” and that is for us all somehow to find our way back to “the center.”

To me, this means a life-long quest to find, know, serve, and enjoy the great mystery that we call God. And this means, within the limits determined by our Constitution, that we enthusiastically encourage the students in our public schools to undertake this great quest for themselves.

Unless, of course, we really are atheists.