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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
(more on the Journal)

Vol. 31 No. 1  Spring 2004

Evangelical Students in Public Schools:
They Donít Stand Out, But Donít Fit In

Michael W. Firmin and Amanda Burger

1 reports that the courts have been generally favorable toward individual student-initiated expressions of their personal faith when in public schools, so long as they remain within parameters that neither cause duress to other students, nor subject others to undue religious influences against their wills. A review of the literature, however, showed a dirth of studies exploring this phenomenon. This paper reports the findings of a study examining the experiences of selected evangelical Christian children attending public school.

Zineísstudy of Muslim youth in Canadian schools was difficult to generalize directly to American children, given the degree of religious tolerance embedded in the U.S. Constitution and the local, rather than national, nature of American public education. Zineused an ethnographic research protocol in studying ten Muslim students attending Toronto public schools. They related experiencing negative peer pressure, racism, and Islamophobia. Zine also found core factors of ambivalence due to perceived low teacher expectations, intimidation, and ESL placements as being particular challenges for students in his sample.

Using the qualitative research method, McEwen and Robinsonstudied twenty evangelical Christian students living in Northern Ireland. We restate the preceding caveat regarding external validity to American children due to the strong Roman Catholic and Church of Ireland influences which permeate that particular society. There are also salient differences in the educational systems of the two countries as well as governmental-Constitutional disparities as it relates to public education. That said, the researchers found evangelical Christian students to view their academics in terms of "confidence that I will do well because I trust that God will bless my efforts" compared to non-religious counterparts who were conceptualized as "my success in academic achievement is not influenced by my belief in God."

In addition, McEwen and Robinsonreport in their expansion of the study that students in their evangelical sample selected job vocations mostly based on what they believed to be Godís will for their lives. They scored high on conscientiousness scales, viewed their beliefs as setting them apart from others, and were less collaborative in working with other students. There was a strong tendency toward academic success, and the concept of "fellowship" with other evangelical Christians was noted as being particularly important to them.

Bourke and Francis7 studied personality variables and religious attitudes among music students (N=422) in Wales, Great Britain. They utilized the Francis Scale of Attitude Toward Christianity to assess responses relating to God, Jesus, Bible, prayer, and church on a Likert-scale. Elevated scores on these domains showed correlations with low scores on the Psychoticism scale of the Revised Eysenck Personality Questionnaire (cold, impersonal, hostile, unemotional, unhelpful, paranoid, and tough-minded). Religiosity was psychometrically found to be independent of extraversion and neuroticism.

Research by Norman, Richards, and Bear8 assessed a sample of eighty-three fourth and eighth graders who attended an evangelical church-sponsored Christian school relative to Kohlbergís stages of moral development.9 They found, as expected, that the overwhelming majority of elementary students in their group used stage two moral reasoning. However, they also found that students with strong religious training were more prone to abandon stage two thinking during the late elementary years. The researchers interpreted the findings as stage two morality (in classical Kohlbergian constructs) being antithetical to evangelical Christiansí world-and-life views, which they believed may explain their tendencies to move towards higher stages, such as law-and-order morality.

What of evangelical Christian students by the time they reach college? Dodrill10 found, in his sample, few personality differences between them and non-Christians using the Guilford-Zimmerman Temperament Survey. The most significant difference was that they reported having fewer social contacts than their secular counterparts. They also viewed themselves, however, as being more friendly and good-natured. Bennet11 describes fundamentalist Christians in public universities as possessing convictions which they are not willing to violate, even at the cost of course grade reductions at times. Authors such as Nelsen,12 Smith,13 and House14 have addressed the notion of how evangelical Christians function in public school milieuóbut only from philosophic, personal experience, or anecdotal standpoints. Specifically, they addressed the issues of how Christians deal with post-modern and humanistic ideology in public school classrooms. The experts believe that evangelical Christian students are prone to face hostile challenges to their faith from unregenerate curricula and teachers alike.

Gladin15 indicates that evangelical parents who choose to home school their children often cite the concern of having their children being unduly influenced by secularism. This is a significant reason for pulling their children out of public schools from their own perspectives. Daniel16 relates the same concern in his research of evangelical parents, Christian school teachers, and Christian school administrators. Weigand and Gladin17 cite particular problems for evangelical parents placing their children in public schools as being atheistic curricula, anti-biblical world views, New-age philosophies, evolution, and values clarification.

These parental concerns notwithstanding, researchers evidently have not focused on empirical investigations relating to how evangelical Christian children who do attend public schools view their experiences. Given the hostile theoretical literature, we queried among ourselves at the studyís outset whether these young people might feel persecuted for their beliefs or might they view themselves as lay-missionaries to their public school peers? How do they come to understand their place in a secular public school, given their personal religious beliefs and indoctrination by their parents? Using the qualitative research method of Banister, Burman, Parker, Taylor, and Tindall,18 we endeavored to study how these children come to view their worlds.

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