America’s schools, and much of our nation, have become God-free zones

Published in The Orange County Register

The Valentine’s Day massacre at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida was the latest in a series of mass school shootings dating back to the Columbine, Colorado shooting in 1999. Evoking shock, these tragedies inevitably prompt a call to pray for the victims and their families.

Calls for prayer are natural and appropriate after such wanton evil acts, but the question begs: What about prayers invoking protection in advance of danger? That’s not likely following two Supreme Court decisions in the early 1960s–Engel v. Vitale and Abington School District v. Schempp — which declared school-sponsored prayer unlawful. The fact is that the departure of God from public schools combined with schools being soft targets as gun-free zones has been an invitation to evil — an invitation that has been answered repeatedly by the deranged prone to violence.

But it is not just public schools that have become God-free zones. Increasingly since the 1960s we have been crowding out God and His teachings about love, kindness, compassion and morality from the public square. Increasingly over the years, Americans have been bombarded by the entertainment industry’s non-stop output and celebration of deprivation and violence in music, video productions and video games. Is it really any wonder why so many have become desensitized about the value of life?

The breakdown of standards and values has brought on confusion, unrest, alienation and a loss of the sense of caring community. In the midst of this cultural devolution and disintegration, some might hope for a government fix. But the is little evidence that public sector programs can fix social and moral problems.

Most large American cities experienced a marked decline after “Great Society” war on poverty welfare programs were introduced in the 1960s. Welfare programs such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children decimated poor families — creating perverse incentives to have more children out of wedlock — undermining and devaluing fatherhood and the two-parent nuclear family. Without the role model and discipline provided by a father, many kids run wild and are unable to focus and learn. No wonder so many inner cities became urban poverty plantations, while school failures and social pathologies proliferate — often leading to crime and violent behavior.

The Parkland, Florida school shooting should be a wake-up call for the nation. Parkland is an affluent city and the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is considered one of the best public schools in the state. Yet federal and local government agencies were no more effective in stopping this shooting than their counterparts’ have been in stopping wholesale murder in poor Chicago neighborhoods. Despite nearly three dozen reports to and interventions by law enforcement regarding the unhinged Parkland shooter — including his statements of intention to kill people and become a professional school shooter — the FBI and Broward County law enforcement utterly failed to protect the Parkland students.

In some ways, this local failure and dysfunction is related to that of other government agencies with larger mandates. The Department of Veterans Affairs has been failing to take proper care of veterans for decades, resulting in many preventable deaths. Politicians and Social Security administrators doom future generations by staying the course to certain insolvency. The Drug Enforcement Agency seems to be in a perpetual losing battle to interdict and stop the smuggling of illegal drugs into the U.S. And of course, so long as user demand remains high there will never be a victory in that war.

A growing number of Americans recognize that there is limited success and frequent unexpected harmful consequences to public sector programs, particularly when they discourage people from taking personal responsibility and encouraging voluntary good works or when they have no intersection with religious organizations whose primary purpose is to thwart evil and provide care for and meaning to people’s lives.

What led to the Parkland, Florida tragedy were a series of missed opportunities that are so mindboggling and numerous that one can only hope that the magnitude of these failures will result in the immediate upgrading of on-site school security systems, and more importantly a lasting societal awakening and hunger for cultural and spiritual renewal.

In thinking about what that would that look like, consider insight from Darrell Scott — the father of one of the victims of Columbine, Colorado school shooting — who testified to U.S. House Judiciary Committee in 1999. First, he noted that men and women are three-part beings, consisting of body, soul and spirit, and “[w]hen we refuse to acknowledge a third part of our make-up, we create a void that allows evil, prejudice, and hatred to rush in and wreak havoc.”

Second, Mr. Scott said that “[w]e have refused to honor God, and in so doing, we open the doors to hatred and violence … We do need a change of heart and a humble acknowledgment that this nation was founded on the principle of simple trust in God!”

The First Amendment explicitly says that it is not the role of government to establish any specific religion. But isn’t it time for a government of the people, by the people and for the people to reestablish venues in schools to provide voluntary opportunities to learn about and connect to the source of all that is good? Similarly, in the public square if we started with frequent acknowledgment of what is inscribed on every coin and bill used in commerce — that we trust in God — we could silence much of the hate that has come to fill our airwaves.

Scott S. Powell

Senior Fellow, Center on Wealth and Poverty
Scott Powell has enjoyed a career split between theory and practice with over 25 years of experience as an entrepreneur and rainmaker in several industries. He joins the Discovery Institute after having been a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution for six years and serving as a managing partner at a consulting firm, RemingtonRand. His research and writing has resulted in over 250 published articles on economics, business and regulation. Scott Powell graduated from the University of Chicago with honors (B.A. and M.A.) and received his Ph.D. in political and economic theory from Boston University in 1987, writing his dissertation on the determinants of entrepreneurial activity and economic growth.