The Secularization of American Public Schools

Most education in early America was private. The exception to this was the public schools in New England. However, even these were run by the local community. They were founded by Christians, and teachers prayed in class and used the Bible for instruction. But today in our much larger public school system, prayer and religious instruction are not allowed. So what happened? Local schools came under increased state control in the mid-1800s and were proclaimed to be religiously “neutral.” But in reality, Christian education had been replaced with agnosticism, and the schools would be thoroughly secularized within 100 years. The Supreme Court put the final nail in the coffin in the 1960s by federally banning prayer and the Bible in the schools.

The Rise of the Common School

The secularization of the American school system began in 1837 when Horace Mann, considered the father of American public education, became the first secretary of the Massachusetts State School Board. Mann organized universal education for the entire state of Massachusetts, and these were known as “Public” or “Common” schools. These were not religious schools like those set up by churches before (which were still tax-funded), but these were schools set up by the state that would be religiously “neutral.” As Mann said,

The very terms, Public School, and Common School, bear upon their face, that they are schools which the children of the entire community may attend. Every man, not on the pauper list, is taxed for their support. But he is not taxed to support them as special religious institutions; if he were, it would satisfy, at once, the largest definition of a Religious Establishment. But he is taxed to support them, as a preventive means against dishonesty, against fraud, and against violence; on the same principle that he is taxed to support criminal courts as a punitive means against the same offences.[1]

In discussing taxation for public schools, Mann is clear that the public schools were not formed as religious institutions but were to provide a religiously “neutral” education. American public schools were intended to provide an education that had no ties to any particular church or denomination, yet Mann still insisted that such schools taught “Christian morals.”[2] Mann knew education could not be separated from moral instruction, and he therefore intended for public schools to teach a Christian morality. Unfortunately, it seems impossible to accomplish such a task. How could schools teach Christian morality when the schools themselves were supposed to be religiously neutral?

It is therefore no surprise that Mann in his day had to deal with opposition and the charge that the public school system was anti-Christian. Mann’s response is fascinating, as he argued that the public schools were not anti-Christian because they used the Bible: “It is still easier to prove that the Massachusetts school system is not anti-Christian nor un-Christian . . . The Bible is in our Common Schools, by common consent . . . and if this Bible is in the schools, how can it be said that the school system, which adopts and uses the Bible, is an anti-Christian, or an un-Christian system?”[3] Mann’s argument was that the public schools were not anti-Christian because the schools used the Bible—yet this argument no longer works today because the Bible was banned from public schools by the Supreme Court in 1963.

Mann’s “Common School” model was soon adopted by other states, and by 1870, every state had publicly-funded elementary schools in urban areas. States began passing laws in 1852 (Massachusetts) for compulsory education, and every state had such laws by 1918 (Mississippi). Public and private high schools were then set up, and by the 1930s, almost every American was attending some sort of school.

Federal Control of the Schools

Initially, oversight of the public schools was left to the states, and many of these schools still prayed and used the Bible. But the federal government got its hands in education in the 20th century. This began with major Supreme Court decisions that prohibited any sort of religion in the schools.

In the 1962 decision Engel v. Vitale, the Supreme Court ruled prayer in public schools to be unconstitutional. The New York Board of Regents had approved a generic prayer to “Almighty God” for its use in school, but the Court ruled this violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. In the 1963 decision Abington School District v. Schempp, the Supreme Court ruled Bible reading in public schools to also be unconstitutional. Pennsylvania at the time had a state law requiring teachers to read 10 Bible verses to start the day. Both of these cases by the Court involved a flawed interpretation of the Constitution, as the First Amendment prohibits “Congress” from making a law “respecting an establishment of religion.” Nothing in the Constitution bars prayer, the Bible, or religious belief from the public sector, and this is an issue that should have been left up to the states.

Regardless, the states acquiesced to the Court's ruling, and it had a major impact on the public school system. By banishing religion, the Court effectually declared America’s state religion to be atheism (instead of the prior agnosticism) and sealed the secularization process begun years before. Fast forward 50 years from the two rulings, and we have public schools teaching a full-fledged secular worldview. Many public schools teach Darwinian evolution as scientific dogma, immoral sexual practices in sex education, egalitarianism, and a progressive political agenda. The Supreme Court failed to understand that humans are by nature religious beings, and when God is kicked out of the classroom, schools will worship another god and adopt another worldview. In other words, it is impossible to expunge religion from the classroom

Federal control of the schools further increased in 1965 when Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. This gave federal funding (Title I) to schools with a high percentage (at least 40%) of students from low-income families, all part of President Johnson’s proclaimed “War on Poverty.” In 2002, the ESEA was reauthorized by Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush under the new name, No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Under NCLB, Title I funding was only given to schools with at least 35% of children from low-income families. Yet Title I funding is currently received by more than 50% of American public schools, with the funds increasing 61% since 2001—a total increase of $5.6 billion. That brings the yearly federal funds given to schools to $67.1 billion. 

No Child Left Behind requires all schools that receive funding to administer a statewide standardized test to their students—showing that there are always strings attached to government funding. The federal government gives public schools money for all sorts of programs, but this means more federal control. As J. Gresham Machen said, “Every lover of human freedom ought to oppose with all his might the giving of Federal aid to the schools of this country; for Federal aid in the long run inevitably means Federal control, and Federal control means control by a centralized and irresponsible bureaucracy, and control by such a bureaucracy means the death of everything that might make this country great.”[4]

We are seeing the continued federal control of public schools with a majority of the states adopting the Common Core State Standards Initiative. Common Core is a federal set of standards for what students should know at each grade level in English and math. Its advocates claim the standards still leave individual school districts with the responsibility for choosing the best curriculum to meet these standards, but its end results are yet to be seen.

The Engine of Atheism

Education shapes how one views the world, and it is therefore not an overstatement to say that the American educational system has been the engine behind the progressive changes in America­ over the last 150 years. Theologian A. A. Hodge predicted this secularization of the American educational system in 1850:

It is capable of exact demonstration that if every party in the State has the right of excluding from the public schools whatever he does not believe to be true, then he that believes most must give way to him that believes least, and then he that believes least must give way to him that believes absolutely nothing, no matter in how small a minority the atheists or agnostics may be. It is self-evident that on this scheme, if it is consistently and persistently carried out in all parts of the country, the United States system of national popular education will be the most efficient and wide instrument for the propagation of Atheism which the world has ever seen . . . A comprehensive and centralized system of national education, separated from religion, as is now commonly proposed, will prove the most appalling enginery for the propagation of anti-Christian and atheistic unbelief, and of anti-social nihilistic ethics, individual, social, and political, which this sin-rent world has ever seen.[5]

R. L. Dabney, writing later in the 19th century, also saw this coming: “We have seen that their [the schools’] complete secularization is logically inevitable. Christians must prepare themselves then, for the following results: All prayers, catechisms, and Bibles will ultimately be driven out of the schools.”[6] Hodge and Dabney were not prophets—they were men who saw the logical outcome of the centralized and secular changes being made to the educational system.


The American government education system has masked itself under the label of neutrality, but it has actually propagated atheism and the immoral ethics that come along with it. Government schools have now indoctrinated generations of Americans into a secular worldview, and we are seeing the fruit of such education politically and socially. Politically, America has adopted immoral laws, granting no-fault divorce, protecting abortion on-demand, redefining marriage, and redistributing wealth through heavy taxation. Socially, America has destroyed the family unit, reaping astronomical rates of divorce and fatherlessness (around 40%), and a birth rate (1.9 children per woman) below even that of stabilization (2.1). All of this is a recipe for societal disaster

The effects of the public school system on this country are evident. Yet Christian parents continue to send their children to government schools. They hand them over to secular teachers for 13 years and then wonder why their kids stop going to church once they get out of college. Spiritually-negligent parenting and entertainment-based youth group will not do much to counteract the secular worldview inculcated from government school (which continues in and is even worse in the public university). Our children do not belong to the state, as Plato taught in his Republic. If we give the state our children, what more can we give them?  


[1] Horace Mann, “Twelfth Annual Report of the Massachusetts State School Board,” (1848) in The American Nation: Primary Sources (ed. Bruce Frohnen; Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 2008), p. 248.

[2] Mann, “Twelfth Annual Report,” p. 248: “But our system earnestly inculcates all Christian morals; it founds its morals on the basis of religion; it welcomes the religion of the Bible; and in receiving the Bible, it allows it to do what is allowed to do in no other system,—to speak for itself.”

[3] Mann, “Twelfth Annual Report,” p. 250.

[4] J. Gresham Machen, “The Necessity of the Christian School” in Education, Christianity and the State (ed. by John Robbins, Unicoi, TN: The Trinity Foundation, 2004), p. 74.

[5] A. A. Hodge, Evangelical Theology (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1976), p. 281, 283.

[6] R. L. Dabney, Discussions, vol 3 (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1982), p. 289.