Report: Christian Schools Instill a ‘Protestant Family Ethic’ – Joe Carter

The Story: A new report finds that students who attend private schools—especially Protestant Christian schools—are more likely to forge successful families as adult men and women.

The Background: A recently released report jointly produced by AEI and the Institute for Family Studies is the first of its kind to analyze the marriage and family outcomes of different school types. The report examines how enrollment in American Catholic, Protestant, secular private, and public schools is associated with different family outcomes later in life.

Overall, men and women who have been educated in a private school tend to be more likely to be married, less likely to have ever divorced, and less likely to have had a child outside of wedlock. According to the report, adults who attended Protestant schools are more than twice as likely to be in an intact marriage as those who attended public schools. They are also about 50 percent less likely than public-school attendees to have a child out of wedlock. Among those who have ever married, Protestant-school attendees are about 60 percent less likely than public-school attendees to have ever divorced.

Being in a Protestant public school appears to have had the most profound influence on students from financially unstable homes. Among religious-school attendees, those who are from financially unstable homes have a higher rate of intact marriage (72 percent) than those who grew up without financial difficulties (56 percent). Those from financially unstable homes were also less likely to have ever been divorced (22 percent) and much less likely to have had a child out of wedlock (6 percent) than religious-school attendees from finally stable homes (19 percent and 15 percent respectively). In comparison, public school students from financially unstable homes were much less likely to be in an intact marriage (41 percent), much more likely to have been divorced (46 percent), and much more likely to have had a child out of wedlock (28 percent).

There are also notable differences in the peer environment of various school communities. When asked about the percentage of kids in their grade who ever had sexual intercourse, 75 percent of students in Protestant schools said almost none of their school peers had ever had sex. By contrast, only 16 percent of students in public schools reported the same. About 6 in 10 students in Protestant schools report that almost all of their peers attend church or religious services regularly, while only about 5 percent of students in private secular or public schools do so.

What It Means: Why would attending a Protestant private school have such long-term effects on family formation? The likely answer is transmission of values.

More than a century ago the sociologist Max Weber coined the phrase “Protestant work ethic” to describe the instillation of values promoted by the Protestant faith traditions, especially Calvinism. The idea was that Protestants believed in the concept that every person has a vocation (the Latinate word for “calling”) and that by the application of Protestant values—particularly hard work, discipline, and frugality—people are more likely to prosper materially.

Most Christians are also called to vocations in the family (e.g., marriage, parenthood), so perhaps it’s to be expected that other values promoted by Protestantism (e.g., chastity, fidelity) would lead to flourishing in family formation. If these values are reinforced by their school, they are more likely have a direct influence on the young. As the report states:

Every school community, for example, possesses its own views of marriage, family, and sexuality. One can easily observe the family backgrounds of members of the school community, as well as different approaches to sex education, official policies on sexual behavior for students and staff, and norms regarding dating, romance, and sex. Not only do the faith traditions of religious private schools explicitly speak to sexual ethics and conceptions of marriage or family but nonreligious schools have their own value propositions and take moral stances on these issues as well. Whatever the views of schools are, they likely impact family formation for their students after they graduate.

None of this is surprising, of course. The report merely provides another data point to support the general principle of Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” But this might be an opportune time to change the way we think about how to educate our children.

For the past several decades, many Christian parents have justified sending their children to public schools as a form of missionary work. We tell ourselves that our children will be a positive and perhaps even godly influence on their wayward neighbors at public school. But we tend to overestimate our children’s moral influence and leadership abilities. Instead of being a role model, our children may be the ones who are enticed to embrace sinful attitudes and habits. In our attempt to be caring and compassionate, we may put our children in relational danger by encouraging them, before they are fully morally formed, to associate with what the apostle Paul would deem to be “bad company.” As Paul said, “Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals’” (1 Cor 15:33).

To avoid such an effect, many parents choose to homeschool. Unfortunately, this is not always a viable choice, even for parents who are willing to make significant sacrifices for their child’s education. That is why private Christian schools need to be a more broadly available option.

The COVID-19 pandemic significantly disrupted K-12 education in America. While much will remain the same when schools reopen, some changes and realignments are likely to be permanent. This in an opportune time for experimentation in creating Christian private schools, as parents are eager to find workable solutions. Churches should be using this season to think creatively about what we can do today to form the families of tomorrow.

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