A Republic, If You Can Keep It: Educating Kingdom Citizens

When Hope Academy began 22 years ago, we focused on solving the urban education crisis.

These days, the education crisis has spread all over our nation. Accelerated by a cultural shift away from basic concepts of morality, it’s a crisis that threatens our very republic.

Have you ever considered the fragility of our American republic? Most of us never give the future of America’s grand experiment with democracy a second thought.

The founders of our country thought differently. They assumed that our experiment in self-government would require constant vigilance. They knew its continuation would require the education of a special kind of citizen. I want us to consider how critically important a Hope Academy education is to protecting our liberty and sustaining the future of our way of life.

There is a story that upon exiting the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was approached by a group of citizens asking what sort of government the delegates had created. His answer was: “A republic, if you can keep it.”

The brevity of that response shouldn’t fool us: democratic republics are not merely founded upon the consent of the people and a piece of paper. They are absolutely dependent upon the active and informed involvement of the governed.

As I look at the state of our country 235 years after the Founders completed their work, there is both cause for satisfaction and reasons for grave concern. We have avoided many of the plagues afflicting so many other societies, but this is hardly cause for complacency.

One could argue that the challenges to national unity are, if anything, far greater today than those confronting our infant nation in 1787. The face of America in 2022 looks very different. We’re no longer a people united by a common language, a common religion, or a common culture; and while our overall material prosperity is staggering by any standard, the widening gulf between rich and poor is perhaps the most serious threat to a common “pursuit of happiness.”

So, Franklin said, “You have a republic, if you can keep it.” I would suggest that most American schools today, both secondary and post-secondary, foster three serious threats to the future of our republic.

American schooling threatens our country with:

  1. A destructive view of freedom
  2. A dangerous view of truth
  3. A devastating view of identity

And while this doesn’t necessarily apply to all teachers in our public schools, it is descriptive of the system as a whole.

Let’s look briefly at each of these threats and then how radically different and necessary is a Hope Academy education.

First, American Schools Suffer from a Destructive View of Freedom
American schools have exalted freedom as an essentially private matter, a liberty conceived only as freedom from all outside interference. Today’s destructive view of freedom assumes that there is no overarching purpose for which we were created. And if there’s no overarching purpose, then there’s no obligation to conform to it and fulfill it.

Freedom today is understood as the freedom to create your own meaning and purpose. Even the Supreme Court enshrined this view into law when it said, “The heart of liberty is to define one’s own concept of existence, of the meaning of the universe.”

The modern mind’s exchange of liberty for license has had a cancerous effect on our society and on our schools. Students are no longer prepared to answer the question, “What is freedom for?”

Without virtue there can be no true, personal freedom.

Imagine a fish who didn’t understand that its freedom must fit with the reality of its God-given nature and capacities. Designed to absorb oxygen from water rather than air, a fish is only free if it is restricted and limited to water. If we put it out on the grass, its freedom to move and even live is not enhanced but destroyed. Similarly, we will not flourish if we do not honor the reality of our God-given natures.

True freedom, then, is not the absence of limitations and constraints, but it is finding the right ones, those that fit our nature and liberate us for something greater.

Second, American Schools Foster a Dangerous View of Truth
In the middle of the 20th century, people like Dorothy Sayers and C.S. Lewis astutely suspected something was horribly wrong in our schools. Schools began to graduate people who were incapable of even basic intellectual skills that all previously educated generations took for granted.

Schools had exchanged a belief in transcendent, objective truth for relative, personal truths, an exchange that will ultimately lead to the destruction of society as we know it.

Schools no longer teach that certain attitudes and beliefs are really true, and others really false, in relation to the essence of the universe.

Do you see the difference between two persons having a disagreement over whether something is actually true or false? Or good or evil? Versus someone arguing that something is true for me, or evil for you?

The distinction is subtle in one sense and monumental in another. I would argue that this is an underlying reason for the educational crisis sweeping our nation. One type of school denies that there is any objective reality that stands outside of a person’s opinion, and the other says that the nature of objective reality allows for us—or should I say demands—that we respectfully discuss and reason with one another to come to some sort of agreement.

Third, American Schools are Beginning to Foster a Devastating View of Identity
The founders of our country chose a powerful motto to inspire its new citizens streaming to our nation. They chose the phrase, E Pluribus Unum—Latin for “out of many, one.” Today, American schools have moved away from honoring any singular, unifying, identity and have instead essentialized secondary identities: political, cultural, racial, and sexual identities. This has led to greater division, greater incivility, and greater polarization than at any other time in our lifetimes.

Have you noticed how this devastating view of identity has infected our everyday speech? Almost everyone now prefaces their remarks with a reference to some personal identity marker. For instance, “As a white, middle-class son of a Wisconsin tavern owner, I feel that it’s inappropriate for me to make any statements about the detrimental effects of alcohol.”

How detrimental is this erroneous view of identity? Recently, the superintendent of the Meade County School District in Kentucky dealt with an unusual situation: a group of high school students attending his school were acting like and dressing as cats. He said these students identify as animals and call themselves “furries,” preferring to crawl in the hallways and hiss at you or scratch at you if they don’t like something you’re doing.

Today, correcting such behavior is frowned upon. Imagine the chaos if our schools go down this road on a massive scale.

Educating Kingdom Citizens
So, what’s the solution to this chaos? What’s needed is an education that fosters a different kind of citizen. For lack of a better term, we need an education that fosters “kingdom citizens,”—citizens with a radically different view of freedom, truth, and identity. What we need are kingdom schools.

What if a school fostered a view of freedom, not primarily as freedom from all limitations or constraints, but as freedom for—as freedom for serving others? What if freedom was connected to the virtue of love, the virtue that supplies the self-restraint that is the indispensable requirement for liberty?

Let me illustrate this kind of freedom. A couple months ago, our upper school principal, Nathan Ziegler, got a phone call from a parent of a player from the opposing basketball team we played over the weekend. The parent called to single out one of our seniors, Jordan, for something he did during the game. Nathan’s first thought was, “Uh-oh.”

The parent said that his son was a very awkward and uncoordinated boy, and that he was the student manager of the team. That night the coach told his son to suit up because it was Senior Night. In the last few minutes of the game, to wild applause from the hometown fans, the coach put the student manager into the game. The first time he touched the ball he was immediately smothered by our defense and had the ball taken away from him.

Comprehending all that was happening, in a single moment, Jordan, our most ferocious competitor, took action. The next time up the floor, Jordan waved his teammates off, and he guarded this other player himself—making sure to give him plenty of space to attempt a shot. After receiving the ball, the opposing player awkwardly threw up a wild shot and made the only basket of his high school career, after which he was mobbed by all his friends.

The parent called to speak directly with Jordan to thank him personally for the gift he had given his son: a memory that will stay with him for the rest of his life. That’s what freedom is for.

What if truth was less about looking inside yourself to discover what’s true for you, but instead about using reason and the guidance of the Scriptures to discover what is objectively true and good and beautiful for us all?

What if classroom discussions of controversial topics with the guidance of the Scriptures were the most educational acts in which we could engage?

What if our core identity wasn’t something to be achieved, but something to be received from God? And what if students learned to preface their comments with, “As an image-bearer and child of God,…?”

What if education was ultimately about preparing citizens for eternal life? Divorced from its ultimate end, the worship of God, even the best penultimate educational goals will prove meaningless and hollow, won’t they? As Jesus himself said, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?”

Our school’s vision statement says, “Hope Academy will seek to unleash kingdom citizens who work for justice, economic opportunity, racial harmony, hope for the family, and joy in the community.”

That’s what your partnership makes available for the families in our city who otherwise couldn’t afford it.

Clearly, a Hope Academy education can carry the awesome weight of such a noble and transcendent purpose—to prepare one to truly know and enjoy the glory of God and to love your neighbor as yourself. As Jesus said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Now, that’s liberty indeed!