Public schools will soon be hosting graduation ceremonies for their students. In some communities, student speakers may want to express their faith or even offer a prayer from the podium.
It is vital that students learn how their world is a better place because of Christianity's influence.
The Declaration of Independence famously asserts that "all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights." What isn't so well known is how Reformation thinkers, two hundred years before America's founding, saw the Ten Commandments as the basis for these rights.
John Witte, Jr., Professor of Law at Emory University, points out in his essay, "Calvinist Contributions to Freedom in Early Modern Europe," that Reformers saw the Ten Commandments (also referred to as the Decalogue) as more than merely laws about what not to do. The commandments logically assumed certain rights from the Creator. Witte points out:
"While the First Table of the Decalogue anchored each person's religious rights...the Second Table anchored each person's natural social rights and correlative duties."
While "You shall have no other gods before Me" did not allow much freedom (without consequences) for Israel, Reformation leaders believed the commandment implied that people must have the right to religious freedom. If people throughout the world are to fulfill this command they must have freedom from government coercion. They cannot be made to violate their religious conscience and worship another god. (Think of Daniel and his friends in Babylon.)
Right to Life and Self-Defense
Reformation thinkers understood the command, "you shall not murder," to also mean that people have the right not to be murdered - a right to self-defense, as well as a right to care for and protect life.
Right to Property
Reformers saw, "You shall not steal," as affirming the right to own things--property rights. This also means that, in order to afford property, people have the right to be paid for their labor.
Right to Reputation
"You shall not bear false witness" also means that everyone has the right to a good reputation and protection from slander and defamation.
Protection of Marriage and Family
Reformers saw, "You shall not covet your neighbor's wife; and you shall not covet your neighbor's house..." to also mean that their household should be respected and protected by the government and from the government (as in, the Fourth Amendment's protection against unlawful search and seizure).
Johannes Althusius (pronounced alt-housus) was a lawyer, a Calvinist, and a leader in the new Dutch legal system developed in the late 1560s and 1570s. Witte comments that Althusisus expanded on other Calvinist thinkers' ideas and more fully developed...
"the ideas that the republic is formed by a covenant between the rulers and the people before God; that the foundation of this covenant is the law of God and nature; that the Decalogue is the best expression of this higher law...that violations of these rights and liberties or of the divine and natural laws that inform and empower them, are instances of tyranny that must trigger organized constitutional resistance."
The Pilgrims were Calvinists who carried these ideas to America which ultimately led to the Founding Fathers' thinking about ordered liberty and revolution against tyranny.
Where This Can be Taught in Public Schools
This history lesson can be taught in any class that addresses subjects such as the ancient Israelites, the Reformation, the Puritans, the Pilgrims, America's founding, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.
Conflict in North Carolina
In North Carolina, the Cumberland County Board of Education recently voted 6-3 to keep the Ten Commandments posted in some of its schools. The Ten Commandments have been part of "Freedom Walls" which display a variety of historical documents including Magna Carta, the Mayflower Compact, and the Declaration of Independence.
Educators in Cumberland County as well as all of North Carolina need to look beyond the symbolism of "Freedom Walls" (which few students will even read). I urge them to also teach about how the Ten Commandments impacted Western Civilization and, indeed, the world. Here are just three examples of where public school students in North Carolina are EXPECTED to learn this:
Sixth Grade Civics & Government - "The student will know: The basic tenets of major world religions and philosophies such as ...Judaism ...Christianity...; Examples of how ...Judaism... Christianity... transformed various societies."
High School World History - "Students will know: How written laws such as ...the Ten Commandments reinforced the belief that government had a responsibility for what behaviors were acceptable in a society and the consequences of unacceptable behaviors."
High School American History 1 - "Student will know: How the Protestant Reformation impacted European exploration and settlement of North America. How the social and religious movements (e.g., Great Awakening) impacted religions in the colonies, family and educational practices. How and to what extent specific factors such as ...religion... helped lead to the political, social and economic development of North American colonies."
Symbolism has its place. But symbolism is only valuable when those who see it understand the substance behind it.
"Calvinist Contributions to Freedom in Early Modern Europe," Chapter eight in Christianity and Freedom, Volume 1: Historical Perspectives, Edited by Timothy Samuel Shah and Allen D. Hertzke; Cambridge University Press, 2016, NY, NY
- Book: Christianity and Freedom, Volume 1
- Essay: Calvinist Contributions to Freedom in Early Modern Europe, John Witte, Jr.
Education leaders from around the country recognize the importance of students learning about the Bible. For example, a California sixth grade academic standard expects students to learn about "the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth as described in the New Testament" (see p. 26; standard 6.7.6)
In Massachusetts, seventh graders are to "describe the origins of Christianity and its central features: A. monotheism; B. the belief in Jesus as the Messiah and God's son who redeemed humans from sin; C. the concept of salvation; D. belief in the Old and New Testament; E. the lives and teachings of Jesus and Saint Paul." (see p. 47; standard 7.41)
In Florida, sixth-graders are to "identify key figures and the basic beliefs of early Christianity." In Texas, sixth-graders are expected to explain "the significance of religious holidays and observances" including Easter. (scroll to 113.18.B.19.B)
It is important when teaching students about a religion that you remain objective. The best way to achieve this is by attribution. For example, when introducing a lesson on the Resurrection, explain to students that it is from Luke's account of the life of Jesus. Use phrases such as, "Luke wrote that...," or "The Bible says...".
When referring to beliefs about the story, use phrases such as "Christians believe...," or "Martin Luther King, Jr. believed..."
Your goal should be to introduce students to the story and help them understand the influence it has had on history, literature, art, and music. The lesson is not designed to prove the story is true, nor question whether the story is accurate.
According to the U.S. Department of Education's guidelines on students' religious liberties, your students have the right to freely express themselves regarding their personal beliefs. However, as moderator of a class discussion on this topic, you should emphasize that every student be respectful regarding their classmates' comments. No student should be made to feel excluded for expressing belief or disbelief in the story.
As a teacher, you can be confident in addressing this topic. This story has had significant influence in world history and should be understood as such. You are not teaching Sunday school; you are teaching a subject that has impacted history, social movements, politics, literature, art, and music.
You can request a copy of our Easter Lesson Plan for Public Schools by CLICKING HERE. It adapts Luke 22-24 into a textbook-style lesson with pictures, vocabulary, culture facts, and discussion questions.
St. Patrick's Day is coming up and I'm sure your schools are going to be recognizing it with green and shamrocks and leprechauns. That's always fun. But I would encourage you to also teach your children and your students the real story of who Patrick was.
As a young boy he was captured and became a slave for the Irish. He then escaped after six years, became a priest, and went back to share the Gospel with his captors. The consequence of his life was 120,000 Irish converted to Christianity and 300 churches and monasteries were started. It's a fascinating story. St. Patrick's Day is the commemoration of the impact of a Christian missionary not only on the Irish, but on European and Western civilization. As Thomas Cahill writes in his book, How the Irish Saved Civilization:
"[A]s the Roman Empire fell, as all through Europe matted, unwashed barbarians descended on the Roman cities, looting artifacts and burning books, the Irish, who were just learning to read and write, took up the great labor of copying all of western literature-everything they could lay their hands on."
"These scribes then served as conduits through which the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian cultures were transmitted to the tribes of Europe, newly settled amid the rubble and ruined vineyards of the civilization they had overwhelmed. Without this Service of the Scribes, everything that happened subsequently would have been unthinkable."
"Without the Mission of the Irish Monks, who single-handedly re-founded European civilization throughout the continent in the bays and valleys of their exile, the world that came after them would have been an entirely different one--a world without books. And our own world would never have come to be."
Below are some resources for you to use in your home or in your classroom.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
An inspiring sermon America needs to hear,
"Rediscovering Lost Values" (1954)
This Monday (January 15) is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Tuesday (January 16) is Religious Freedom Day. The two are related. The Rev. King, motivated by his Christian faith, stood, marched, and spoke to advance civil rights. While many people know about his "I Have a Dream..." speech, few have heard the inspiring sermon he delivered in Detroit in 1954 - "Rediscovering Lost Values."
His message, then, is just as relevant for America today:
"My friends, all I'm trying to say is that if we are to go forward today, we've got to go back and rediscover some mighty precious values that we've left behind. That's the only way that we would be able to make of our world a better world, and to make of this world what God wants it to be and the real purpose and meaning of it. The only way we can do it is to go back and rediscover some mighty precious values that we've left behind."
To read the sermon, click here.
For a more powerful experience, read the printed text while listening to Rev. King deliver his 1954 message by clicking here or watching below.