J. Gresham Machen is perhaps best remembered for his stringent opposition to the rising tide of liberal theology in the 1920s. In his academic works, such as The Origin of Paul’s Religion and The Virgin Birth of Christ, as well as in his more popular writing, such as Christianity and Liberalism, Machen took a flame-thrower to the so-called liberality of the liberals of his era, and ours as well.
Less well remembered is Machen’s opposition to the creation of a federal Department of Education––roughly fifty years before such a federal department was established. Machen wasn’t known for pulling his punches, and he certainly didn’t on this subject:
A public-school system, if it means the providing of free education for those who desire it, is a noteworthy and beneficent achievement of modern times; but when once it becomes monopolistic it is the most perfect instrument of tyranny which has yet been devised…Place the lives of children in their formative years, despite the convictions of their parents, under the intimate control of experts appointed by the state, force them then to attend schools where the higher aspirations of humanity are crushed out, and where the mind is filled with the materialism of the day, and it is difficult to see how even the remnants of liberty can subsist. Such a tyranny, supported as it is by a perverse technique used as the instrument in destroying human souls, is certainly far more dangerous than the crude tyrannies of the past, which despite their weapons of fire and sword permitted thought at least to be free.
Machen understood something that most of us don’t. The fact is that a public school cannot possibly serve all of the values of its community. A public school, if it is funded by all of the citizens in the area, cannot use those funds to put up any religious displays because it is a public school; it is impossible for that organization to please everybody. But since they are taking money from everybody, it is their obligation to please everybody who funds them. This is the inherent contradiction inherent in the very notion of a public school.
Schools are discriminatory by nature, in that they must make value judgements about what should be taught in the classroom. Since we don’t live in a culture that has a uniformly Christian outlook where values are concerned, some of the value judgements public schools make will be, in the nature of the case, non-Christian––which is really the same thing as saying that they will be anti-Christian.
In fact this cuts both ways; even in the smallest town in the smallest county of the American South, eventually you will have somebody whose taxes are being spent in a community with residual Christian values, who is opposed to the teaching of those values with his money. He will take that school to court, and he will win. Not only will he win, I think he should win, because he is right. He shouldn’t be forced by the government to fund my religious expression.
The converse is true as well, however. I should not be forced by the government to fund the indoctrination of my children into values that are blasphemous and teach what is a loose view of ethics at best and perversion at worst. Because my children are my responsibility before God, I cannot in good conscience and without sin allow them to be taught anti-Christian values.
This is the reason that I oppose government-run schools; frankly, they are an impossibility. They simply cannot do what they are obligated to do because of their funding––they can’t please everybody.