a journal of analysis and comment
advancing public understanding of religion and education
Volume 32 Number 2
In The World But Not of It?
Voices and Experiences
of Conservative Christian Students in Public Schools
Joanne M. Marshall
While American schools are ostensibly religiously neutral, surveying both school history and current and past legal cases indicates that the line between religion and schooling is not at all clear.1 Students, teachers, parents, and community members often argue that schools are either too religious or not religious enough.
Separatism – the notion of "being in the world but not of it" – has a long tradition within conservative Christian denominations.2 Parents have had to decide whether to separate themselves from those who do not share their beliefs so that they can maintain the strength of those beliefs, or whether to engage the "other" in order to share those beliefs. Many Christian institutions of the early twentieth century were founded as a result of separatism, and today conservative Christians remain strong proponents of home schooling.3
Glenn has written that for religiously devout students, who take "their faith with them into every significant aspect of their lives…the religious ‘neutrality’ of the school" may be experienced "as an aggression."4 Previous research suggests the value of considering the relationship between conservative Christianity and public schooling in terms of how these students experience their schools. Darnell and Sherkat5 found that conservative Christian belief was negatively related to youth’s educational aspirations, and other researchers have linked conservative Christian denominational adherence to lower adult educational attainment.6 While religious involvement seems to be related positively to youth behaviors ranging from time spent on homework7 to safer driving,8 the relationship between conservative Christian religion and schooling seems to be less positive.9
Given these factors as well as the prevalence of the conservative Christian youth population – by some accounts, more than 26% of American youth,10 it seems important to understand what the experience of these students in public schools has been. This study, therefore, asks, What has been the experience of conservative Christian students in public schools?
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