To be sure, that is not entirely accurate; students are taught to explore “values.” But the values and morality they discuss originate from their inner worlds and not from the religious history of mankind. Rather than learn about reality and their place in it, they are taught that their personal realities are all that matter, that their moral conclusions are all legitimate and valid, and that no choice is better than any other choice. Personal happiness matters more than goodness.
The removal of God from the classroom has trickled up to the rest of society, including society’s leaders. For more than thirty years, American courts have mostly railed against the presence of the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms, and prohibited its posting in schools and in many public buildings.
What was previously perceived as objective evil soon became a matter of personal choice. The rest of society was then admonished not to “judge” those personal choices, except insofar as other people were harmed, but even that was circumscribed. It is inarguable that, even without formal religious instruction in the public schools, there is a huge difference between the child who daily sees a sign on his classroom wall beginning “I am the Lord thy God,” and the child who is taught that he or she is the center of his or her moral universe.
Much has been made of a study that purported to show the difference in disciplinary problems in public schools in 1940 and in 1990. In 1940, the school authorities had to deal primarily with such outrages as talking out of turn, chewing gum in class, making noise, running in the halls, cutting in line and violations of the dress code. What miscreants!
Compare that to the problems of 1990 that have only been exacerbated in the interim: drug abuse, alcohol abuse, pregnancy, suicide, rape, robbery, and assault.
While some have questioned the accuracy of the findings – typically, those who are enamored with today’s amorality – anyone who went to school then can certainly testify to the greater innocence, wholesomeness and propriety that existed in a society in which God’s word and morality permeated its formal institutions. Boys and girls had more respect for each other, and both had more respect for teachers and adults. The removal of God from the nation’s schools weakened their ability to inculcate any sort of decency. It is not a great leap from that sorry state of affairs to the quaint game of knocking out old women on the street for sport.
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The longer that God has been forcibly removed from the public domain, the more presidents and other officials have shied away from invoking His name in public except in platitudes (and some, indeed, were wholly unworthy of being taken seriously even if they had spoken of God in a substantive context). And the more God has receded from being perceived as the Source of all morality, the less our young people have been raised with any semblance of ethics or values that derive from anything beyond their desire for self-gratification.
That, then, is the other dimension present in the decline of religion as a meaningful factor in American life. Religion itself has been perverted to become an instrument designed to make people feel good about themselves and their choices in life. It is a tool – distorted, to be sure – that is fashioned and re-fashioned to pander to the latest moral fads. Eternal law is subverted to conform to fleeting whims. A recent poll showed that Pope Francis is almost twice as popular as the Catholic Church that he heads. How can that be? Because the new pope seems like a nice guy, while his church still has rules, makes demands on people’s lives, and inhibits their choices.
About the Author: Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is the spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun of Teaneck, New Jersey, and the author most recently of “Judges for Our Time: Contemporary Lessons from the Book of Shoftim” (Gefen Publishing House, Jerusalem, 2009). His writings and lectures can be found at www.Rabbipruzansky.com.
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