Picture of five core competencies of SEL and TN flag on a chalkboard

Is This the Beginning of the End for Public Schools?

Have public schools run their course? Just asking that question will irritate a lot of people, Christians included. But I think we have to ask the question, given an announcement last week by the Nashville Chamber of Commerce relative to what it wants from public education. Those who don’t ask and answer the question may not like what becomes of their children as adults.

Last week the headline to a front-page story in The Tennessean said the Nashville Chamber of Commerce “wants to focus on social emotional learning.” Of course, the Haslam administration has been dabbling in developing content for social emotional learning for the last few years in-between toothless barks from some legislators.

But what is it? Here’s how The Tennessean described it and the Nashville Chamber’s push for it:

Framed by the question of what students need to be successful in the classroom, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce in its annual education report card is throwing its collective influence behind a growing push for schools to provide students with social emotional learning.

SEL, as it is known, is a method to teach students the skills to regulate emotions and to provide them with positive relationships and goals. It takes a less punitive route toward student interactions and reinforces positive behavior.

‘SEL’ When I Was in Public School

When I was at Missionary Ridge Elementary School in the 1960s in the conservative and heavily churched community of Chattanooga, we had a form of SEL. With respect to the boys, at least, it was the school principal, Mr. Cassidy Bailey, gently but firmly and repeatedly poking his finger into the misbehaving boy’s chest while saying, “We don’t do that at Missionary Ridge.”

But at that time in that community and in that particular school, students were being taught a set of shared values at home by mostly intact families and the public school reflected those values.

This Judeo-Christian hegemony between homes, the community, and the operation of Chattanooga’s public schools into the 1960s made it possible for Mr. Bailey to correct and admonish us without much conflict, though I’m sure some chafed. But they didn’t file lawsuits and demand that the majority cater to them.

SEL Today

But there is no prevailing hegemony today, let alone a Judeo-Christian one, and, in any event, that’s not what we’re now talking about with SEL. When I was at Missionary Ridge, values were perhaps caught, but they weren’t formally taught, at least not by the school itself, and that’s what we’re talking about now.

For example, with SEL, what understanding of the human person and human emotions, their nature and cause, will undergird the instruction? Are human emotions determined by stimuli outside of us or only influenced by them? To what in us does stimuli appeal that either determines or influences our responses? Is “better” behavior a product of controlling external stimuli, or is there something in us that really needs to be addressed that different stimuli will eventually provoke anyway?

And what behavior is better? What view or understanding of right and wrong behavior will be used to evaluate the actor and the response of the actor? These are ethical questions, and we need to know on what underlying basis these ethical determinations will be made.

For example, is it wrong for one student to tell a fellow student that marriage is between a man and a woman when asked or when the subject arises? It wouldn’t have been at Missionary Ridge. Today, it would probably be wrong in the eyes of many public-school administrators, though perhaps not wrong in the eyes of that student’s parents.

But what if a fellow student whose father is married to another man hears the comment and tells the principal he or she feels bullied and threatened by it? Does the school punish the commenting student because the school judges that student’s comment to be morally wrong? Does the school affirm the student’s comment as morally correct but punish the student anyway because it is morally incorrect to make any statement that a fellow student thinks is hurtful or offensive? Or does the school tell the offended student that, whether the comment was morally correct or incorrect, he or she should learn not to be so sensitive to words?

Ethical neutrality is impossible.

Is Government Indoctrination Okay With You?

The point, as I’ve made in the past, is that education necessarily teaches ethical values, even as Mr. Bailey did when he used his finger and said, “We don’t do that at Missionary Ridge.” And he would have been teaching a value had he ignored a student’s complaint about a fellow student or told him or her to “get over it.”

Moreover, behind these ethical values is a worldview, a way of looking at the world by which certain beliefs and actions are considered ethically right or wrong. Even to deny that education teaches ethical values comes from a worldview.

So we need to face the fact that in an increasingly pluralistic society, civil government’s public schools are going to teach our children a particular set of values and a particular worldview. They can’t teach students all the sets of worldviews and associated values and teach that they are equally valid. Not if they are going to “teach students the skills to regulate emotions . . . and reinforc[e] positive behavior.”

And with compulsory attendance laws, this really boils down to a matter of compulsory indoctrination by civil government if the parent can’t afford a private alternative.

Do we really want parents to be forced into a position in which they feel they have no option but to have their child taught a worldview and set of ethical values with which they disagree? And what person who loves and cares about the parents of the child next door wants that for those parents?

I don’t, but what about you? If you care, then the coming push for SEL means that you, too, need to start asking if public schools have run their course.

David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.

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Mary and Joseph with baby Jesus, the TN Capitol, and the American flag

Is the Christmas Story Bad News for Today’s Politicians?

For the last two weeks, I’ve taken a break from politics to share some of my thoughts about the true meaning of Christmas. But when the Christmas story and politics come together, it seems like bad news for most of today’s politicians, Republican and Democrat alike. If too many politicians read it, there may be no room for me in the “inn” of their office next session.

Mary’s Christmas Song

Until this year, I had overlooked an important part of the song (The Magnificat) that the Virgin Mary sang as she contemplated what God was doing in bringing the God-man, Jesus, into the world through her womb:

He has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and [has] exalted the lowly (Luke 1:51–52)1.

This passage tells us that Jesus’ birth was about way more than the typical Christmas narration of how Jesus came to earth to save sinners.

The Part of the Christmas Story I Had Missed

What I didn’t appreciate was the connection between the Christmas story and the larger effect of Adam and Eve’s disobedience beyond that of the individual person.

By their sin, Adam and Eve not only alienated themselves from God, but they also rebelled against the authority that God had delegated to them when He told them to continue filling and forming the earth in order that it might become like the garden He had planted for them.

The presumption of such authority by human beings over and against God’s authority and the rejection of their God-given calling to display God’s glory in their culture-creating work in favor of their own glory are exactly the kinds of prideful imaginations of the human heart that Mary said God “scattered” by the incarnation!

What Meaning Should Politicians Draw From the Incarnation?

The incarnation is a tangible reminder that there is a “God in Heaven,” and the virgin birth is a reminder that He has ultimate authority over and can exercise that authority over the lives of those whom He has created. The angel who came to Mary didn’t come to ask if she’d give God permission, and Joseph sure wasn’t asked if he was okay with it.

But for those in places of civil authority, here is an often-overlooked meaning of the incarnation. In the incarnation there was no confusion or co-mingling of the two natures of Jesus—the Divine and the human. This is a tangible “reminder” that there is no divinity, no transcendent being-ness in mankind. God is God, and we are not. For us to act like we are God or even to think that we are is high treason from God’s perspective.

Consider, for example, Psalm 2:2–3:

The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against His Anointed, saying, “Let us break Their bonds in pieces and cast away Their cords from us.”

For those unfamiliar with this Psalm, God is saying that the civil rulers think they can break God’s ethical laws and do away with His creational laws and rule on the basis of their own authority and reason.

This kind of prideful, man-exalting God-complex is endemic to civil government when the allegiance of those who hold its authority is to voters or political parties (and often to their own person above all), not God.

God’s Response to Politicians With a God Complex

Notice God’s response: “He who sits in the heavens shall laugh; The Lord shall hold them in derision” (Psalm 2:4)

I’m thinking this is not a bowl-full-of-jelly laugh. Why? “Derision” is one clue, but the next sentence reads, “Then He shall speak to them in His wrath” (v.5).

In the next verse, God gives them a little counter-truth to consider: “Yet I have set My King on My holy hill of Zion” (v. 6). And this King is no less than God’s son. Psalm 2:7b says, “You are My Son, today I have begotten You.” Sure sounds like the New Testament description of Jesus as God’s “only begotten Son” (John 3:16), if you ask me.

But then comes the big hurt, when God says to His king:

Ask of Me, and I will give You the nations for Your inheritance, and the ends of the earth for Your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron; you shall dash them to pieces like a potter’s vessel’ (v. 8–9).

This is exactly what Mary was singing about when she said, “He has put down the mighty from their thrones.”

Do we see them put down yet? No, but it’s coming because we’re told that what God said about His Son was His “decree” (v. 7), and the very nature of an immutable, unchanging God means He can never go back on His word and there is no power on earth that can thwart God, as he of the arrogant God-complex, Nebuchadnezzar, learned the hard way (Daniel 4:35).

Do We Have Psalm 2 Politicians Today?

In America, we don’t have a Psalm 2 king, but we do have Republican and Democrat politicians who “break” the ethical law of God against stealing by redistributive taxation to fund their respective pet programs that go beyond the function of civil justice. We have Republican and Democrat politicians who support or, by man-fearing induced acquiescence, allow the creational boundary law of male and female to be “cast away” by the redefinition of marriage and parenthood. I could go on, but you get the point.

‘You Better Watch Out’ Because God’s ‘Telling You Why’

So, it is to these politicians (and judges) I leave the rest of Psalm 2 for their Christmas consideration (and the consideration of those who encourage them to run for office):

Now therefore, be wise, O kings; be instructed, you judges of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest He be angry, and you perish in the way, when His wrath is kindled but a little (v. 10–12).

Like Mary said, at some point those who are lowly and the meek before God will, indeed, “inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5).


  1. All quotations from the Bible are from the NKJV.

David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.

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Sword of the Spirit and Bible against Christmas lights

The Weapon-Wielding Baby Jesus Asleep in the Hay

Last week’s commentary about the Merry Christmas “culture war” was a break from politics per se, and the response to it ran the gamut. Some thought I was wrong, while others agreed; some flat missed the point, and others thought it sounded “kind of scary.” So, continuing my “seasonal break,” I can’t wait to see what you think about my weapon-wielding baby Jesus.

Of course, baby Jesus didn’t have a weapon lying beside Him in the feeding trough where His mother, Mary, laid Him. And we have no record of Him playing with weapons as a boy. In fact, we’re told that when He was arrested as an adult—Easter on the calendar—He told Peter to put away the sword that Peter had used to cut off one of the captor’s ear and then Jesus healed the man’s ear.

Sounds just like the baby-Jesus-turned-man that Isaiah prophesied about with these words:

For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; And the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called . . . Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end (Isaiah 9:6–7 NKJV).

And angels announced His birth by singing about “peace on earth.”

Bearing the Sword

Sounds a lot better than the “Old Testament God” to whom a song of praise was lifted with these words:

Let the high praises of God be in their mouth, And a two-edged sword in their hand, to execute vengeance on the nations, And punishments on the peoples; To bind their kings with chains, And their nobles with fetters of iron; To execute on them the written judgment—This honor have all His saints. Praise the LORD!” (Psalm 149:6–9 NKJV).

That such words are in the Bible, let alone a Hebrew worship hymn, probably horrifies and embarrasses a lot of Christians.

But let’s hold our Andy Stanley horses a minute before we throw out the so-called war-mongering God of the Old Testament. The grown-up baby Jesus said this,

Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. “For I have come to ‘set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law’; and ‘a man’s enemies will be those of his own household’” (Matthew 10:34–36 NKJV).

What? Did Jesus lose His mind on this one? He actually said He came to bring a sword?! Peter, it seems, is owed an apology! But let’s back up a bit and think this apparent contradiction through.

We All Want Wrongdoers Brought to Justice

I bet I’m not the only one who would be willing to say this:

If I lived under oppressive, tyrannical leaders who thought they were God and could wield their authority over my family and me and over my nation in any capricious manner they wanted, then I would be delighted if God raised up someone or some group of people to bring a final end to such unrepentant leaders.

In fact, I suspect the political liberals who have wished death on President Trump do so for this very same reason.

Identifying the Wrongdoer and the Consequences

Now, let’s hold onto this thought about the tyrant so described while we read God’s assessment of all of us in our natural condition. “There is none righteous, no, not one; There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God. There is none who does good, no, not one” (Romans 3:10–12, quoting from various Psalms). Well, that’s not very complimentary!

But if that’s who we naturally are in God’s opinion (and who am I to quibble with God?), then His assessment of the consequences shouldn’t be very surprising and it’s not very hopeful. “The way of peace they have not known, and there is no justice in their ways; they have made themselves crooked paths; whoever takes that way shall not know peace” (Isaiah 59:8).

In other words, on our own and as we are, peace will always escape us, but it’s at this very point that the birth of Jesus is good news for those who believe God’s assessment of us!

In a way too mysterious for finite minds to comprehend fully, the second of the three persons who make up the one essence of being that is God takes on a second nature—a human one—and comes among us through the womb of Mary.

Through the sinless life of Jesus and His resurrection from the dead, Jesus introduces into this world a new kind of humanity. He bodily ascends to Heaven as the first of this “new kind” of humanity and sits at the right hand of the first person within the Trinitarian God, the Father. The government of the entire human race is now on shoulders of this new person, Jesus, as Isaiah said it would be.

Then, at the direction of the Father, the third person within the Trinitarian God, the Holy Spirit, comes to bring the now eternal life of the resurrected Jesus to others who then become a part of this new human race, those not born of flesh and blood, but by the Spirit (John 1:13).

This story is truly fantastic; it makes sense of reality to those for whom this new life becomes real. But it’s mere fantasy to those who find God’s assessment of them only fighting words. Thus, the members of the “old race” are bound to be in constant conflict with the members of the “new race,” because they believe different things and love and follow different leaders.

That conflict will not end peaceably until the Word of the Prince of Peace prevails over us by means of that Word which “is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword” in Psalm 149. And may that Living Word bring you peace this Christmas!

David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.

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illustrative manger scene and Christmas tree ornament that says "Away in a Manger"

Why I May Never Say ‘Merry Christmas’ Again

With today’s encapsulation of stories about schools banning certain Christmas songs and Christmas-related words and images, I couldn’t help but think about the protests in recent years over the shift from “Merry Christmas” to “Happy Holidays.” I get that for many these things are a lament about the increasing secularization of our culture and that for others these things are about stifling religious speech. But something bothers me about the fuss, and this week I may have finally put my finger on it. In fact, I may never say “Merry Christmas” again.

I don’t know the origin of the phrase “Merry Christmas,” but whatever it might have meant at one time, what’s important to me is what it means now. Webster’s dictionary entry suggests that the word merry now means “full of gaiety or high spirits.” The “archaic” meaning of merry according to Webster’s was “giving pleasure,” and perhaps that understanding better captures what I’m about to say. In either case, merry just doesn’t seem to be the right word to associate with Christmas.

Is merry the right word if the point of a Christmas greeting is to distinguish it from a greeting like “Happy Holidays” that, for many, is not so much a nefarious slam on the celebration of Christ’s birth as it is an acknowledgment that some may be celebrating a contemporaneous seasonable religious event and that others may just see Christmas as a break from the usual routine?

The answer for me came as I was reading the most complete telling of the facts surrounding Christ’s birth found in the New Testament, the story in Luke chapter 2. The word first associated with the birth of Christ is glory. We’re told that an angel appeared to shepherds tending their flocks near where Christ was born and “the glory of the Lord shone around them.” Then a host of angels joined the one angel, and they all began singing, “Glory to God in the highest.” After the shepherds found the Christ child, they left glorifying God.

Glory, not merry or merriment, seems to be the operative word when it comes to how the Scriptures would have us think of Christ’s birth. For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking of the word glory and the meaning it is intended to convey relative to God.

This is a subject too deep and full of meaning for this one little commentary, but I’ll focus on this: Glory is often used in Scripture to describe God’s moral beauty and perfection and as a way of describing its visible manifestation when a bit of it breaks through into our earthly existence. Glory is perhaps the best we can do when we try to describe what shone around the shepherds.

I don’t fully understand what is meant by the glory of God, but Scripture gives us some idea. It tells us that sin is more than doing something wrong or not doing what is right but is to “fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Scripture also tells us that the natural inclination of human beings is to “exchange the glory of the incorruptible God” for something less glorious and find value, worth, significance, meaning, and praise in that lesser thing.

In this regard I’m reminded of what C.S. Lewis said:

It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

In conclusion, it seems to me that by “Merry Christmas,” Christians settle for an expression that does not do Christmas justice. The phrase expresses contentment with and wishes for seasonal merriment when glory is what Christmas really offers. It is offered to all those who believe that the baby born in the manger was God incarnate, coming to provide a way by which those who had fallen short of the glory that was originally ours to enjoy—a relationship with the God of Glory—could again enjoy that relationship, both now and for eternity.

Wishing one a merry Christmas is a bit like offering people mud pies for their Christmas dessert. Wishing them a glorious Christmas? Well, that is the offer of a holiday at the sea!1


  1. Revelation 4:6 in the NKJV says, “Before the throne there was a sea of glass, like crystal.”

David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.

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man in handcuffs with Lady Liberty in background

Criminal Justice Reform on Tennessee’s Agenda

Governor-elect Bill Lee and various state legislative leaders have voiced an interest in working on criminal justice reform during the next legislative session. This is not a topic that I would normally wade into, but it points to what I perceive to be a systemic issue in “reform” efforts in modern politics.

Understanding How the Present System Works

I mean no disrespect to anyone in state government, but let’s be realistic. Any serious consideration of reform within any social sphere has to begin with a recognition that very few people will be really knowledgeable about that sphere, particularly when the relevant pool is only state policy makers.

The number of legislators that have interacted with the criminal justice system is rather small, and even fewer have interacted with all the components of our criminal justice system, from the law enforcement officer’s beat on the streets to a person’s release from prison. They will need information beyond what they themselves possess to understand the situation.

Understanding How the Current ‘System’ Developed

Understanding the present situation is important, but when it comes to reform, I’ve come to see how important it is to know and understand how we got to where we are. We have to know how that which we are going to reform came to be as it is, examine what changes have been made over the years (centuries), and the assumptions made at the time of those changes. If we don’t understand that history, we may find ourselves trying to fix something that we’re only doing because we’ve done it in the past.

For example, last year I was reading Law and Revolution—The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition by Harold Berman. He made this statement:

[T]he legal systems of all Western countries . . . are a secular residue of religious attitudes and assumption which historically found expression first in the liturgy and rituals and doctrine of the church and thereafter in the institutions and concepts and values of the law. When these historical roots are not understood, many parts of the law appear to lack any underlying source of validity.

Then Berman explained how the doctrine of the atonement (being made right with God) articulated by St. Anselm in the 11th century led to our modern system of criminal law.

Prior to Anselm, the law focused on vindication of the victim, restitution, and restoring the divine order of things. That’s because offenses were seen as being committed against God and the victim.

But Anselm moved the focus in atonement to the individual needing to “pay for” his or her sins against the law of God committed after being baptized. And, in a similar fashion, the focus in civil law began to shift away from vindication of the victim and restitution to vindication of the law itself, a “crime” against the body politic. And that’s why, today, we have this sense that every “crime” needs to lead to jail time so that the criminal “pays his debt to society.”

Concern for restitution and the individual victim has been largely pushed aside in favor of punishment, per se. Maybe we need to consider where restitution to victims over prison terms makes more sense. After all, law abiding citizens are “victimized” by having to pay for the prison, meaning the criminal’s victim is victimized twice.

Understanding the Larger Context

Another obstacle to reform is the increasing tendency in modern society to see all of the different spheres within our social order as fitting into some particular silo, with each silo distinct from the others. But silo thinking brings only limited reform at best, because those doing the reforming fail to see the interconnectedness of things in a universe. As the previous section just demonstrated, theological concepts provided a foundation for thoughts about justice and crime that live on to this day.

So, criminal justice reform that looks only at issues of legal representation, sentencing, and prison conditions but doesn’t look at what contributes to and lies at the root of criminal acts will fall short of what needs to be done if we are to have a just society, not merely a different looking system labeled “justice.”

Understanding the Influence of Worldview

But this last point shows the point of real departure when it comes to reform—dealing with divergent worldviews. How one sees the world will determine how one views any proposed reform.

This was underscored for me when, as a young state senator serving on the Oversight Committee on Corrections, I heard one of my colleagues say that education in prison was the key to eliminating recidivism.

Don’t get me wrong, being educated and being in a better employment position once released from prison is a good thing. But there are educated people sitting in prison and many uneducated people who are not.

Nevertheless, we have those who will still insist that criminals, are just victims of something outside themselves. And if that is one’s worldview, then he or she will want civil government to “fix” everyone’s circumstances. Before you know it, criminal justice reform turns into a demand for “social justice.”

I, on the other hand, believe wrong conduct is not a consequence of being unable to read, write, and do arithmetic or really the consequence of anything outside the person. Jesus said it is not that which is external to a person that causes him or her to do wrong. The Apostle Paul said he knew what was right, but he just didn’t do it. The root of the wrongs we commit are found within us, present company included.

So, if Governor-elect Lee and the Legislature really want criminal justice reform, they better think through the worldviews of those they will task to lead that effort. And therein lies the systemic problem of reform today; modern politics insists on a diversity of worldviews being at the table, which makes agreement on reform all that much harder. Those worldviews will determine the goal and the scope of the work to be done and the suggested reforms that will come forth, and it’s hard to find agreement when those at the table disagree at the most basic, fundamental level.

David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.

FACT-RSS-Blog-Icon-small Get David Fowler’s Blog as a feed.