As the Southern Baptist Convention convenes in Nashville next week, the issue of public education is once again at the center of potential controversy. For the second year in a row, proposed resolutions have been submitted to the denomination’s Committee on Resolutions, calling for Christians to reconsider support for the nation’s public school system.

Last year, retired Air Force General T. C. Pinckney and Houston attorney Bruce N. Shortt submitted a resolution calling for Southern Baptists to remove their children from “government schools.” In explaining the proposed resolution, Pinckney said that public schools “now must be in the United States officially godless,” adding: “This amounts to an artificial compartmentalization of life.” An influential conservative leader and former SBC second vice president, Pinckney had urged the Convention to pass the resolution. “We believe it is time for the SBC to take a biblical stand on this issue,” he said.

The Committee on Resolutions did not agree, and turned back all six education-related resolutions that had been submitted for its consideration. Pinckney later attempted to address the issue from the floor of the convention, but failed in an attempt to amend another resolution in order to make the same essential point.

Some within the denomination were adamantly opposed to any resolution that would call for Christians to leave the public schools. Others seemed to think that the language of the resolution was intemperate or harsh. In my judgment, the whole debate was mostly ahead of its time – at least in terms of SBC understanding.

The passage of another year has brought some level of change. This year, at least two resolutions dealing with the public schools have been submitted. The proposal that has attracted the most public attention has been submitted by Bruce Shortt once again, this time along with evangelist Voddie Baucham.

This resolution identifies the issue of homosexuality as the critical issue, pointing to the public schools as the context for the indoctrination of children toward the normalization of homosexual behavior and relationships. The proposed text states that “homosexual activists are devoting substantial resources and are using their political influence to shape the curricula and institutional rules of public schools to promote acceptance of homosexuality among schoolchildren as a morally legitimate lifestyle.”

The convoluted text eventually calls for the convention to urge its churches to investigate local schools in order to determine the extent of homosexual influence and then, if objectionable material or involvements are found, to “inform the parents of this fact and encourage them to remove their children from the school district’s schools immediately.”

The proposal has already had a polarizing effect within the denomination. Some hesitate to address the issue at all, while others are organizing to push for the resolution’s passage, even if this means an effort from the convention floor. Within the last few days, a coalition of family organizations, home school advocates, and public policy organizations has emerged as an advocacy base for the effort. Others are determined to prevent the issue from reaching the point of public debate and divisive controversy on the convention’s agenda. Behind all this is the fear on the part of some that any resolution that calls the public school system into question will be seen as extreme and will frighten some Southern Baptists. Who’s right?

In some sense, both sides have a point. Those who fear that a resolution calling the public schools into question would be seen as extreme have a powerful argument behind their concern. After all, Southern Baptists have been eager advocates for the public schools in the past, and thousands of faithful Southern Baptists serve as public school teachers, administrators, and board members. Beyond this, millions of Southern Baptist families send their children to public schools each year. A resolution perceived as opposed to the very idea of public education would offend many active Southern Baptists, some of whom would scratch their heads in amazement that the convention would even venture into this territory.

On the other hand, the momentum is clearly on the side of those pushing for this resolution. Every week, new reports of atrocities in the public schools appear. Radical sex education programs, offensive curricula and class materials, school-based health clinics, and ideologies hostile to Christian truth and parental authority abound. These reports are no longer isolated and anecdotal. Forces opposed to what Southern Baptist churches and families believe dominate the public school arena–especially at the national level where policies are made and the future is shaped.

There is more to this, of course. The crisis in public school education has prompted some to reconsider the very idea of public education. Some now argue that Christian parents cannot send their children to public schools without committing the sin of handing their children over to a pagan and ungodly system. Fueled by a secularist agenda and influenced by an elite of radical educational bureaucrats and theorists, government schools now serve as engines for secularizing and radicalizing children.

A look at the historical background is instructive. The public school system in America has been controversial at various turns in our national history–but never as now. The government’s early involvement in education was part of the young nation’s effort to create an educated citizenry that would be truly democratic. Education was not to be limited to an elitist group of wealthy Americans, but was to be made available to all.

In the early twentieth century, another purpose entered the picture. Vast waves of immigration, primarily from Europe, brought millions of Irish, Italian, German, and other European families to America. Educational leaders like John Dewey saw the public schools, often called the “common” schools, as the mechanism for indoctrinating children into a new democratic faith. The worldviews and eccentricities of the various ethical and national backgrounds would be erased and a new melting pot of Americans would emerge. Dewey, the most influential shaper of the public schools in America, understood that the success of his effort would require children to be liberated from the prejudices and values of their parents.

In his book, A Common Faith, Dewey advocated a radically secular vision for the public schools and the larger public culture. His concept of a humanistic faith, stripped of all supernatural claims, doctrines, and theological authorities, would replace Christianity as the dominant culture-shaping worldview. “Here are all the elements for a religious faith that shall not be confined to sect, class, or race,” he claimed. “Such a faith has always been the common faith of mankind. It remains for us to make it explicit and militant.”

It has taken longer than Dewey expected, but this secularist faith is certainly explicit and militant now. Of course, this is not equally true in all places and in all public schools. As a rule, schools in more rural areas, with local political control more concentrated in the hands of parents, the effects of this educational revolution are less evident. In some school systems, the majority of teachers, administrators, and students share an outlook that is at least friendly and respectful toward Christianity and conservative moral values.

In other places, the situation is markedly different. In many metropolitan school districts, the schools have truly become engines for the indoctrination of the young. This process of indoctrination pervades, not only the more recognizable aspects of radical sex education programs and so-called “health education,” but other aspects of the curriculum as well. Unless something revolutionary reverses these trends, this is the shape of the future.

With control over the public school system increasingly in the hands of the courts, educational bureaucrats, the university-based education schools, and the powerful teachers’ unions, little hope for correction appears. Federal mandates, accreditation requirements, union demands, and the influence of the educational elite represent a combined force that is far greater than the localized influence of many school boards, not to mention parents. Those who doubt the radical commitments of groups such as the National Education Association should simply look at the organization’s public statements, policy positions, and initiatives.

The breakdown of the public school system is a national tragedy. An honest assessment of the history of public education in America must acknowledge the success of the common school vision in breaking down ethnic, economic, and racial barriers. The schools have brought hundreds of millions of American children into a democracy of common citizenship. Tragically, that vision was displaced by an ideologically-driven attempt to force a radically secular worldview.

How will Southern Baptists respond? We do not even know if any education-related resolutions will reach the convention floor. As a former chairman of the Committee on Resolutions, I understand and respect the responsibility assigned to that committee. Its charge is to recommend to the convention those resolutions it considers most urgent, most important, and most representative of the common concern of the denomination. That committee fulfills an essential function, ensuring that the convention looks carefully at any initiative, even as every Southern Baptist has an opportunity to propose a statement. Messengers to the convention in Nashville will receive the committee’s report on Tuesday. The committee’s recommendations will be considered during a business session on Wednesday.

Whatever happens in Nashville, this issue will not go away. We have no reason to believe that next year will not bring even more urgent concerns related to public education. What will this mean?

I believe that now is the time for responsible Southern Baptists to develop an exit strategy from the public schools. This strategy would affirm the basic and ultimate responsibility of Christian parents to take charge of the education of their own children. The strategy would also affirm the responsibility of churches to equip parents, support families, and offer alternatives. At the same time, this strategy must acknowledge that Southern Baptist churches, families, and parents do not yet see the same realities, the same threats, and the same challenges in every context. Sadly, this is almost certainly just a matter of time.

The Southern Baptist Convention is a deliberative body, and it will certainly deliberate in Nashville. There is much work to be done, many reports to be given, and many issues to be confronted. This denomination has matured greatly in recent decades, understanding the demands of the times and the urgency of the issues we confront. I am convinced that Southern Baptists will find their way toward a common understanding of the public school challenge. The only question is when.