FIRST-PERSON: Secretary of Education inappropriately accused

OKLAHOMA CITY (BP)--In an interview published by Baptist Press, Secretary of Education Rod Paige stated he preferred that children have a school setting where there was a "strong appreciation" for values, including those propagated by the Christian community.

The furor that has resulted from his personal expression -- not a policy statement -- has revealed an extreme level of religious bigotry toward Christians. What did he say that was so controversial? Paige responded to a question by a Baptist Press writer Todd Starnes relating to private and public, Christian and secular universities, "Who do you think gets the best deal?"

According to the interview transcript, Paige said, "That's a judgment, too, that would vary because each of them have real strong points and some of them have some vulnerabilities. But, you know, all things being equal, I would prefer to have a child in a school where there's a strong appreciation for values, the kind of values that I think are associated with the Christian communities, and so that this child can be brought up in an environment that teaches them to have strong faith and to understand that there is a force greater than them personally."

So why is his statement a cause for concern? It is not for most Americans. According to a 2001 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), 76.5 percent of Americans (over 159 million) identify themselves as Christians.

But there are self-described liberals who have fanatically chimed in, adding twists to Paige's remarks -- that Christian values should have a place in the nation's educational enterprise -- in order to present their straw man statements of outrage.

The New York Times quoted Representative Nita M. Lowey, D.-N.Y., as calling on Paige to apologize: "It is offensive to those of many faiths in this country to imply that Christian values turn out better kids than do other religious or moral codes."

The question must be asked, "By what moral code does Rep. Lowey adhere?" It certainly doesn't include a value for the life of the unborn or even the newly born. In 2000, she was one of only 15 extremists in the House to vote against the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act. This legislation ensures that a newborn who is breathing when it leaves the mother's womb, even if during an abortion procedure, would be treated as a person under federal law.

What Paige actually said that incensed Lowey was that a religious education has benefits: "Because of the strong value system support. Values go right along with that. In some of our other schools, we don't have quite as strong a push for values as I think we would need. In a religious environment the value system is pretty well set and supported. In public schools there are so many different kids from different kinds of experiences that it's very hard to get consensus around some core values."

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., was quoted by The Times as saying, "By expressing your preference for schools that teach the values of a single faith, you send an unacceptable signal that some families and their children are more favored over others because of their faith.... I urge you to repudiate these divisive comments."

Paige's statements do not embrace religious exclusivity, but Paige obviously has a clearer picture than Kennedy that the blessing of God is on people who honor the Lord with their whole heart, soul and mind. Education cannot be totally divorced from truth, even religious truth. While there is no formal study to verify the obvious, part of the blessing of God on this nation is the result of religiously based value instruction in our homes and schools prior to the 1960s. What happens to a nation, a culture that no longer remembers the living God in the "high places" of education?

Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, also called on the secretary to repudiate his comments. "Religious pluralism has enriched the educational experience in America," Mr. Lynn said. "We should celebrate this achievement, not denigrate it." Funny thing, but this man who uses the title "reverend" (has he ever pastored a local church?), never includes evangelical Christianity among the religious plurality he readily touts in his condemnation of Paige.

In an AP report subsequently carried by The Times, William Bennett, education secretary under President Reagan and author of "The Book of Virtues," cut through the political tripe to get at the heart of the matter. "He'd [Paige] prefer to have a child in a school that has a strong appreciation for the values of the Christian community. Who's opposed to that?" Bennett said.

In the end, the Rev. Lynn, Rep. Lowey, Sen. Kennedy, Sec. of Education Paige and the rest of us will one day face the ultimate act of discrimination. On that day God will declare either, "Well done, my good and faithful servant!" or "I never knew you!"

Regarding this matter, one can sensibly determine that Rod Paige deserves a "Well done."

Yeats is editor of the Oklahoma Baptist Messenger and recording secretary of the Southern Baptist Convention.

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