Hell hath no fury like secular parents in one of America’s most expensive zip codes when they learn that the local church-run nursery school plans to start teaching about Jesus.
Oh, the horror! “Why is this happening?” asked one of the parents, Leah Markowitz, whose two children attend Concord-St. Andrew’s Cooperative Nursery School, operated by the Concord-St. Andrew’s United Methodist Church in Bethesda, Maryland. “It feels like a crusade,” said another mother, Kate Mueller, whose three-year-old is enrolled at Concord-St. Andrew’s. Both mothers were talking to Washington Post reporter Joe Heim, author of a Nov. 4 story whose title, “‘A Breach of Trust,’” quotes yet another infuriated parent, Darren Higgins, whose four-year-old is enrolled at the school.
Concord-St. Andrew’s is located in leafy zip code 20817, home of the Burning Tree Club (where numerous U.S. presidents have famously teed off), and with an annual median household income of $180,412. That likely classifies 20817 as a “Super Zip,” the term coined by Charles Murray in Coming Apart to characterize the 650 or so U.S. zip codes where the median household income exceeds $120,000 and seven out of ten adults have college degrees.
One might think, since the school’s namesake is St. Andrew, one of the Twelve Apostles, that the instruction there might include a reference to the Son of God every now and then. But according to the irate parents, the nursery school, which opened its doors in 1958, has never in all of its history afforded any kind of religious instruction. Indeed, Kate Mueller, in her interview with the Post’s Heim, described it appreciatively as “the godless nursery school.” Many parents apparently chose Concord-St. Andrew’s for their children precisely because of its strictly secular focus.
All of that changed this past October, when a relatively new pastor (since 2014), the Rev. Susan Brown, informed the school’s director that, starting with the 2018–19 academic year, Concord-St. Andrew’s “will incorporate age-appropriate Christian lessons in [the children’s] daily activities.” According to Heim’s story, Rev. Brown announced to staff members that the church had hired a director for children and youth ministries, who would help incorporate religious lessons into the curriculum, and that there would be prayer and chapel. Rev. Brown also held a meeting for parents, distributing a handout that stated: “The CSA Nursery School is not a secular organization; it operates under the church’s exempt status with all of the privileges of that status. As such, it must include religious education as part of its primary mission.” The handout made reference to guidelines from the United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline, which sets out the denomination’s doctrines and laws.
Though the nursery school hasn’t changed its enrollment policies, which welcome children of all ethnicities and, presumably, all faiths, and though parents have nearly a full academic year to place their children elsewhere if they wish, an explosion of “disgust” has erupted, according to Markowitz. “I don’t want my kids there,” Markowitz told Heim. Kelly Headd, mother of a four-year-old, said, “It’s almost like a Hallmark movie, where the big bad corporation is coming in to destroy the little guys.” Higgins, who describes himself as “non-religious,” took the paradoxical position that the school, in deciding to teach Christianity, was being “un-Christian.”
Headd, according to Heim, suggested that the parents’ reaction might have been less “negative” if the school had been more “cooperative” in introducing this change and sought a “compromise.” But it is hard to see what a satisfactory “compromise” would entail. Perhaps, instead of teaching the youngsters that Jesus changed water into wine, the school could teach them that He changed water into a banana-kale smoothie.
Anxiety that their tiny offspring might come home quoting from the Bible or warbling “Jesus Loves Me” seems to be widespread among affluent, secular parents considering church-run preschools. One problem is that church-basement schools generally enjoy stellar reputations, thanks to staffers who genuinely care about children, coupled with relative affordability. The internet abounds with forums in which non-religious mothers and fathers wring their hands, weighing the schools’ merits against the downside of looking “hypocritical or even tacky,” as one parent put it, by patronizing a dreaded Christian institution. “I typically associate Baptists (at least in the South) with being close-minded and well, hateful,” said another worried parent, who was considering a brand-new Baptist nursery school. Another parent expressed relief after visiting a Catholic preschool and discovering that the only religious object there was a toy Noah’s Ark.
Many have noted that anti-Christianity is the last acceptable prejudice—and just as many have accused Christians of being thin-skinned, self-pitying, and just plain wrong when they make this point. It is fascinating to find evidence supporting this proposition in the grassy outskirts of the Burning Tree Club, where parents fret endlessly over whether their four-year-olds could turn into Jesus people.
Charlotte Allen is a writer living in Washington, D.C.
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