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Beyond flag waving: Raising patriotic kids

By Christina Quick

Next weekend, families across the country will fill parks and city squares to share picnics, march in parades and watch fireworks displays in celebration of Independence Day. Children dressed in patriotic colors will slurp snow cones of red, white and blue. Babies in strollers will wave miniature U.S. flags.

In spite of all that, some say patriotism is faltering — that a generation in the United States is growing up not knowing what it means to be American.

Recent studies suggest U.S. history education is lacking. For instance, in a 2008 survey of 17-year-old high school students by the education advocacy group Common Core, more than a quarter thought Christopher Columbus set sail for the New World after 1750. (The actual date was 1492.) Only 43 percent correctly identified the Civil War as falling between 1850 and 1900. Twenty-one percent thought it was before 1800. Forty percent couldn’t place World War I within 50 years of the correct time period.

If adults are to set the educational standard, they appear to be falling short as well. In a 2008 random sampling of Americans ages 18 and up conducted by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, the majority of participants scored an “F” on a simple test designed to measure “knowledge of America’s founding principles and texts, core history and enduring institutions” — ISI’s definition of civic literacy.

On a multiple choice test, less than half recognized the three branches of government as executive, legislative and judicial. Only 21 percent knew the phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people” was from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Less than one in five knew the phrase “a wall of separation” between church and state comes from a letter by Thomas Jefferson. Almost half incorrectly said it is found in the U.S. Constitution.

Those who said they never attend church scored higher than those who identified themselves as regular attendees. And those in the private sector, on average, had better scores than elected officials.

Such findings don’t surprise Mathew Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, a religious liberties organization in Orlando, Fla. He believes history education is being undermined by curricula that downplay patriotism and morality.

“There is a concerted effort to change from Americanism to globalism, with America being the enemy as opposed to the blessing it has been around the world,” Staver says. “If our kids grow up without being taught our history — or even worse, being taught inaccurate history — it will fundamentally change the course of the nation.”

Staver says Christian parents have a responsibility to teach their children what it means to be U.S. citizens as well as citizens of God’s kingdom.

“We need to return to some of those fundamental principles that made America great,” Staver says. “It’s impossible to separate religion, and particularly Christianity, from our history and have an accurate picture of why we became a great nation. When we remove those things from the equation, we are shaping the next generation to undermine the liberty this country has fought to achieve.”

John Wega, executive director and founder of the U.S. Christian Commission Museum in Gettysburg, Pa., says many of today’s kids are disconnected from any sense of history.

“Our heritage kind of grounds us,” says Wega, who attends Bethel Assembly of God in Littlestown, Pa. “That’s one reason why the Bible includes so many genealogies. God is showing us a principle that we’re connected to people, to stories. It gives us roots and a foundation.

“Yet a lot of young people don’t even have a contemporary heritage. They don’t have a father in their lives, so they can’t even go back one generation. It’s not just something we’re losing. In many ways, it’s something we’ve already lost.”

Wega says many of the children and teens he meets know little about the Civil War, much less the stories of godly heroism he shares with Gettysburg visitors.

“Those who experienced these battles said the presence of God was so thick in some of the hospital camps, if you didn’t come to God then, you never would,” Wega says. “God is the fabric, honor and strength of what our nation was built on.”

Wega says his four children, who range in age from 10 to 18, have played active roles in helping build the museum and presenting living history demonstrations to other young people.

“We’ve taught them that patriotism ties into our faith because it lays down our lives for a cause that’s greater than ourselves so others can live in liberty and worship God as well,” Wega says. “We’ve sought to instill those values and make them come alive for our children.”

William O. Barefield, an Assemblies of God chaplain who served four years at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, says visiting sites such as Arlington and Gettysburg is one of the best ways to stir up patriotism in young people.

“I always enjoyed seeing the response as kids walked through those markers and began to ask questions,” says Barefield, a retired lieutenant colonel. “They would get quieter and quieter, and a calm reverence would come over their countenance. It occurred to them, often for the first time, that someone stood in the gap for them. Someone fought for something meaningful.”

Katie and John Newton spent two years traveling the country with their three children and visiting national parks and historic sites. They call the trip one of the most meaningful experiences of their lives.

“While the purpose of our trip was to show our children the glory of God in His creation, we saw how passionate about history they became,” Katie says. “And we learned things about our nation’s history we did not know, which enabled us to give God greater glory.”

The Newtons later founded a business, the Corps of Re-Discovery, to help other families engage their children in U.S. history. Some of their products are sold in gift shops at places like Gettysburg National Military Park. John also presents living history demonstrations to schoolchildren.

“As we learn from Bible history and our own American history how God has provided for us, we cannot help but increase our faith and our reliance on God our Creator and Jesus Christ our Redeemer,” Katie says.


CHRISTINA QUICK is a freelance writer and former TPE staff writer. She lives in Springfield, Mo., and attends Central Assembly of God.

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