How Can Christianity and Education Dance Together in a Pluralistic Society?

Do you remember the post from last fall in which I included this quotation by Dr. A.A. Hodge, first published in 1887?

“I am as sure as I am of the fact of Christ’s reign that 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.”

Irises pleasantly sway in our front lawn. “Consider the…irises.” (I have no lilies blooming now to consider.)

It is capable of exact demonstration that if every party in the States 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 the 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 reader inquired:

“Regarding the quote from Dr. A. A. Hodge, “I am as sure as I am of the fact of Christ’s reign that a comprehensive and centralized system of national education, separated from religion…”, what religion might he be referring to? Or perhaps to any religion or a group of religions? If he meant a particular religion, and if that particular religion was Christianity, I would love to hear your understanding of how Dr. Hodge says this works in a pluralistic society. And, if it doesn’t work in a pluralistic society from his perspective, does he advocate theocracy?

I responded with a long response (for the comment section), and the reader responded again:

“I currently struggle to see how his ideas are actionable let alone defensible in a pluralistic society so I really look forward to hearing this unpacked and learning where I may be misunderstanding things (which may simply be a term or two!).”

So today, I’ll do some unpacking.

(For context, check out the post from October 20,2021, “Look at What I’ve Found in my ‘Tell-File’ “.)

The above extended quotation was from a page of notes from a graduate course I took  in around 1985 entitled “History and Christian Philosophy of Education”, taught by Dr. William Male at Grace Theological Seminary in Winona Lake, Indiana, when I was working on my Master’s degree in Christian School Administration.

I responded to the reader with the following:

Fret not. Have you read Dr. Kirk’s The Roots of American Order? (Obviously, our new grandchild is already a deep thinker.)

“Ahh. Thank you for your carefully considered inquiries. I’ll give a first level, general response. I’ll address some of your concerns more specifically in future posts…” [While I’m just now getting back to this, I think that Dr. Russell Kirk and his tome that I reviewed, The Roots of American Order, speak to my reader’s concerns.] My blog response continues,

“That said, Dr. A.A. Hodge (1823-1886) lived in a culture and society in America where the term, ‘religion’ was generally thought to reference Christianity (via many denominations and sects, expressed diversely) or a Judeo-Christian framework from which to interpret life. In connotative usage during that era, if someone was described as ‘religious,’ the common assumption was that the basis of that ‘religiousness’ was the Christian religion. Over the coming century, the usage of the term, ‘religion’ changed.

Next, the primacy of individual liberty (based upon a biblical view of personal conscience and individual responsibility before God) enshrined in our founding documents shaped a country where theocracy was not an option. Why? Theocracy, divine rule via a priestly class or group– a theocratic oligarchy of sorts, does not fit the design of our Constitutional Republic. I believe that Dr. Hodge supported our Constitutional Republic.

The belief of Dr. Hodge and others of his day was that an educated citizenry was needed to maintain this Republic. Such education included as its core a religious education based upon biblical teaching. Citizens were to be respected as the source of governmental power and social order. A theocratic oligarchy was not their answer. The USA has no monarchy, but if there is any royalty, it would be “we, the people.” Hodge saw no sacred-secular division, so the spheres of education and government would fluidly feel the moral shaping stemming from its religious people. But people ignorant of their religious base cannot be influenced by that historical foundation nor provide such influence on its culture or government.

The pluralism of Dr. Hodge’s day is different from the pluralism of our day, partly because of the absence of (or anemic presence of) that religiously moored foundation in our day that was more present in his day (as well as other dynamics we have no time or space to address now). This is a first and general response to your important questions.”

I pick up from here by framing some questions that stem from the reader’s comments and questions.

  1. What is pluralism and what is a pluralistic society? 2. According to the U.S. Constitution, what is the role of government in education? What/who is responsible for education? 3. In our Constitutional Republic, how are individuals nurtured, and how is our culture nurtured? 4. What are the roles of the Bible and a “Judeo-Christian” heritage in our current “pluralistic society”?

Well, we can see that I have now started another series that must interrupt the “Roaming Reader” series. Such is life! Life is a dance, and you see, if you write to me, you may re-direct my train of thought (to mix metaphors), and mine is a slow moving train now days. You’ll note that the dates of the above post and comments are from last October and November. The reader wrote to me rather recently to ask me when I was going to follow up with a fuller response. So, I’ll put my oar in this stream (another metaphor!) and make a few waves, yet so much more can be said than I can contribute!

Today, let’s only consider the meaning and nature of pluralism and a pluralistic society.

We know that “plural” means more than one; not singular. When we add “ism” to it, we form a name for a theory or practice having distinctive characteristics.*  Examples: stoicism, baptism, cannibalism, modernism, capitalism, communism, and so on. The connotation can be positive or negative.

Pluralism in a society: a pluralistic society.

Society: Living in association, company, and interaction with others of the same species. A community living under the same organization or government. *

A pluralistic society is a society that has room for more than one worldview, religion, and way of living. A pluralistic society cannot exist openly or comfortably in a highly centralized or totalitarian social order. A free, pluralistic society requires individual liberty, local control, and a decentralization of authority, as in our own country’s federalist system. Federalism divides governmental powers between local, state, and national governments. The national government’s powers are also divided between the three branches: the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Decentralization aids in preserving our freedoms.

The following article describes the difference between pluralism and multiculturalism. If you have time, this is a fascinating read. Interestingly, my 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language (Noah Webster’s original version) does not include the term “pluralism” (although it includes plural, plurality, and such), while my 1955 Oxford Universal Dictionary does include “pluralism,” but it recognizes only ecclesiastical and philosophical usages of the term. “Pluralism” as we use it today follows the changes in our own culture. (Click on the following article to access it.)

What is the Difference Between Multiculturalism and Pluralism

In The Roots of American Order, Russell Kirk does use the term “pluralistic society” to describe America from its very founding. In chapter three which is about the Greek world and its contributions to American order, Kirk concludes with a contrast between the order of the Greek city-state and America.

“The Greeks’ conviction that religion and culture must be bound up inseparably with the city-state went against the grain of American individualism. A pluralistic society even in its beginnings, America could agree on no national establishment of religion; the Greeks would have been astounded that such a nation-state, unconsecrated to the gods, could endure for a decade” (page 94).

Kirk balances American pluralism where religion and state are not united with Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation that, as Kirk worded Tocqueville, “America was held together by a religious bond stronger than any the Greeks or the Romans had known: by a Christian faith that worked upon individual and family, rather than through a state cult” (94). In the 19th century, smaller elements of other faiths as well as agnosticism and atheism also existed, but a Christian faith was dominant. This “Christian faith” was pluralistic: many expressions of the faith based upon individual conscience. Today, American pluralism is more diverse than in the 19th century, but it is still based upon individualism, and the rights expressed in the Bill of Rights in our Constitution.

So, how does all of this relate to education as Dr. A.A. Hodge was expressing his concern for the nature of education if American were to develop (and in some sense it did) a full scale system of public education, separated from religion?

We must next look at what the Constitution has to say about education, and who is expected to be in charge of education, and what is education, anyway? What is the relationship between education, religion, and government?

You and our questioning reader will need to follow the next few posts to discover anything from me that may help to answer her concerns or others I’ve raised. Is there any relevance and application for today? I think there is.

To Be Continued….


The following PDF is a 15 page article by Dr. Hodge entitled “Religion in the Public Schools”, the last article he wrote before his death, published in The New Princeton Review 3:1 (1887). Please note that the long quotation by Hodge presented in this blog post is taken from Hodge’s work, Popular Lectures on Theological Themes published in 1887 (page 283). The PDF article puts historical context to the above Hodge quotation. 

Click to access PDF-A.-A.-Hodge-Religion-in-the-Public-Schools-1887-5-11-2016.pdf

* Meanings gleaned from my old Oxford Universal Dictionary (1955). The Oxford gives historical contexts and sample usages over the centuries.

Paul recently had his birthday and I will soon have mine. Paul loves sunflowers. He poses here with some of his presents. “The grass withers and the flower fades [and so do we], but the word of our God stands forever.” Isaiah 40:8.

Categories: Christian Reader, Dr. A.A. Hodge, Education, Government, Perspectives on Culture, The Roaming Reader | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “How Can Christianity and Education Dance Together in a Pluralistic Society?

  1. Louis Mann

    Well organized and well written (as always). I’m running just a bit behind in reading this but enjoyed your opening salvo. Hodge, bring back memories of my class with Dr. Male. It would be fun to sit and talk through this topic and how it relates to education as seen through the culture of the day. Education in our pluralistic society of today is removed from the understanding of the educational system of even my day (1952-1964), much more the difference of perspective and understanding in Dr. Hodge’s day.

    I look forward to following your thought processes in upcoming blogs.


    • Karen Thomas Olsen

      Thanks, Louis! Yes, I’d love to talk with you about your observations gained over the many years that you spent in private, Christian education. You were the first principal under whom I taught, and you had a major impact upon me as you guided me and even corrected me! God has given you wisdom and a gracious spirit — an excellent combination. I am grateful.

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