9/11 at Eternal Grace School

Following is an example of the way in which committed religious truth translates into learning in a fundamentalist Christian school in the United States. Simone Sweber tells how the events of 11 September 2001 were received at a school she was researching. The names of the school and the teacher have been changed.

Eternal Grace is a K-12 school associated with a charismatic evangelical, fundamentalist Christian church. The school had approximately 475 students enrolled the year I observed, and, as reflective of the growth in the population of fundamentalist Christians nationally, the administrators expected its enrolment to expand by a full third the following year. The building itself was stunning; the 3.1-million-dollar facility housed a day-care center; the elementary, middle, and high school classrooms; as well as music rooms, gymnasia, a cafeteria, a state-of-the-art computer lab, and an impressive library.

The educational mission at Eternal Grace was twofold: to prepare students academically and to prepare them to live ‘in the way of the Lord.’ The school’s promotional materials explain:

‘… teaching both the Truth of God as found in His Word, the Bible, but also truth as it exists in God’s world. We recognize that God is the author and source of all truth, and that true education is gaining this perspective and integrating it into all teaching. This perspective is theistic (God-centered), not humanistic (man-centered) and, as such, is opposed to atheism, evolution, permissiveness (an “open attitude” in matters of morals and ethics), and existentialism (experience of “phenomena-orientation” as the only reality). It stands in direct opposition to any thinking that is anti-Biblical or extra-Biblical.’

All teaching at Eternal Grace serves the ultimate aim of creating strong Christians. As their literature explains, ‘we recognize our task as being one of teaching that man is incomplete and inadequate without a proper relationship to God’.

To foster this relationship, the teachers in the school typically stand at the front of their rooms, and from a very young age, their students are taught to learn by listening. In almost every grade in the school, the children’s desks sit in neat rows facing the blackboards. Reference to the Bible occurs during every subject, not only in religion classes, and it is typical for prayers to begin class sessions. Moreover, a strict dress code is enforced; the students wear khaki pants or skirts and solid colored jerseys every day except Wednesdays, when the students dress more formally for weekly chapel sessions. Wide banners adorned the main school hallways, proclaiming ‘God, protect us’ and ‘Expand our providence.’ Eternal Grace aims to foster the characteristics of good fundamentalist Christian children: they are to be strong in their faith, obedient to their religious authorities, humble in their human relationships, and dedicated to Christian salvation. Like the school-wide policies, the teaching of all school subjects at Eternal Grace serves the same purpose–that of elucidating for students what a ‘proper relationship to God’ entails …

On the morning of September 11, 2001, a television sat boldly perched on top of a high cart outside the main administrative office suite at Eternal Grace, broadcasting the attack [on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon]. A small group of school personnel, parents, and students were huddled at its base, gazing awestruck as the first World Trade Tower building collapsed.

The class I was observing began at 9 a.m … As she did every session, Mrs. Barrett started that class by soliciting concerns on which the students could focus their prayers. One student volunteered … that they should pray for those who were hurt in the attack. Mrs. Barrett agreed and restated the request [and] … asked the students to pray with her, bowing her head, closing her eyes, and clasping her hands together. The students followed suit.

‘Father God … we know that our country, we know that our universe is in your hands. Lord, you have created everything. You have given us life. Nothing could happen without your allowing it to happen. We first acknowledge your authority over everything that happens in our world. We thank you that we can trust in you in that you have this situation under control, even though it seems to us that things are not under control … We trust you to work this situation out, for you are good. And Lord, we just ask that … you would take care of this situation for our president and all of our other people in positions of authority in our country. In Jesus’ name, Amen.’

Mrs. Barrett looked up at the end of the prayer, initiating a brief emotional inventory of her students. ‘How are you all doing?’ she queried, continuing, ‘Is any one really, really worried?’ ‘I don’t know,’ one student raised her hand to say seeming to express real nervousness about the situation. Mrs. Barrett, gracefully and forcefully, foreclosed the possibility of a fuller discussion, as though the student’s admission of emotional uncertainty were akin to theological doubt. ‘It’s a pretty scary situation,’ Mrs. Barrett conceded, ‘but we know that God is in control,’ she asserted—‘that he’s going to work this all out.’ …

On September 13, 2001, two days after the airplane attacks of September 11, [prominent Evangelical Christian] Jerry Falwell appeared on the televangelist show The 700 Club, hosted by [another prominent Evangelical] Pat Robertson …

Falwell: ‘What we saw on Tuesday, as terrible as it is, could be miniscule if, in fact, God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve.’

Robertson: ‘Jerry, that’s my feeling. I think we’ve just seen the antechamber to terror. We haven’t begun to see what they can do to the major population.’

Falwell: The ACLU’s [American Civil Liberties Union] got to take a lot of blame for this, (Robertson: Well, yes.) and I know I’ll hear from them for this, but throwing God—successfully with the help of the federal court system [and the US Constitution which bans religion in public places, such as schools]—throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools, the abortionists have got to bear some burden for this, because God will not be mocked and when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad … I really believe that the Pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way—all of them who have tried to secularize America—I point the finger in their face and say “You helped this happen”.’

Robertson: ‘Well, I totally concur’.

Schweber, Simone. 2006. ‘Fundamentally 9/11: The Fashioning of Collective Memory in a Christian School.’ American Journal of Education 112:392–417. pp.396–397, 398–399, 392–393.