Nationally syndicated columnist Cal Thomas is a passionate advocate for Christian schools—and was the graduation speaker at Emmanuel Christian School, Toledo, Ohio.

“Good morning, religious fanatics, imposers of morality, underminers of the constitution, and Bible-thumping bigots! Nice to be with you,” he greeted the 26 graduates.

“Well, what would you expect from a member of the media, right?” he added, poking fun at his own bombastic reputation. But he had come to deliver a more serious message.

“You have invested, and today you see the first payment of dividends,” Thomas said, speaking directly to the parents. “It is the first of many that you will hope and pray to see in the years to come.”

The Baptist Bulletin recently sat down with Cal Thomas, asking him about his well-known support of a movement that seems to have significant challenges.

The number of GARBC churches with Christian schools is decreasing, part of a national trend. Why are they closing?

It costs money! First of all, pastors don’t preach on the subject of how children of godly parents should be educated. A lot of congregation members don’t want to hear it. The excuse I love the most is, “I want my children to be ambassadors for Christ” [in the public schools]. Well, I usually say, “I’ve been all over the world and have met a lot of ambassadors, but I’ve never met any that were eight years old.” You know, they have to be trained first and educated.

So it’s really about the money, though people try to spiritualize it. Just as you would not feed your child lead paint for breakfast because you know that it would poison his or her system, so many Christian families put their children in government schools, where their minds and spirits are poisoned. They learn that they evolve from slime, their nearest brother is down at the zoo, “Here, kid, have a condom,” “If you need an abortion, here’s the Planned Parenthood number,” the skewing of history—American history especially. They learn the twisting of everything to a secular, liberal, pagan worldview.

They’re supposed to have the mind of Christ and to have a Biblical worldview.

The turning point for me—when I began to grow in Christ and to take the Word of God seriously—was when a note came from our youngest son’s elementary school inviting parents to a special meeting to discuss the growing drug problem in the elementary school.

I turned to my wife and I said, “You know, if I have to work at night bagging groceries at the local supermarket, he’s not going back there for another day.” And that was the beginning of my taking seriously the importance of educating my own children.

I found that I didn’t have the money because I didn’t have the faith. Once I made the commitment, I discovered I had the money. And it was the same thing on giving. I’m used to hearing tithing sermons on stewardship Sunday—I have them memorized. But I never did it, and then when I crossed the line, the bar, and I said, “You know, I need to do this not because God needs my money but because He needs to see where my heart is.”

So I think it’s a matter of us, those of us who are followers of Christ, who are being transformed by the renewing of their minds. I tell people to look at two words in a concordance: teach and learn. And after you’ve read in both Testaments what God requires of godly parents for their children that He has entrusted on loan to them, you cannot then rationalize keeping them in pagan schools. You just can’t.

Did you send your own kids to a Christian school?

Oh, yes, every one of them. Grandchildren too. It costs a fortune, but it’s an investment. Christian schools are not a panacea. Even after you’ve done everything “right,” your children still have to make choices. I’ve got imperfect kids because I’m imperfect, living in the world of the fallen. But you build in and rely on the Holy Spirit if they stray to bring them back someday. That’s all you can ask.

How do you feel about the homeschooling option?

I think it’s fantastic. Homeschoolers are just amazing kids and they’re focused. I think it’s tremendous. It does take a tremendous commitment—usually it takes one parent who is working hard and making a decent living. And I’ve noticed a lot who are forming groups of homeschooling families (my oldest daughter did this too). So one teacher who has a strength in biology will teach that, and another who has a strength in English and writing will teach that. Homeschooling is no longer a lone ranger thing; it’s cooperative, a really good idea for somebody who can’t do it all.

Emmanuel Christian School is a great school (and my alma mater), but not every school is this good. What can Christian schools do about the quality problem?

I think you need to bring in the right administrator for starters, one who has experience and a vision. The administrator should understand that just because you put the name Christian on something, that doesn’t make it necessarily good. This is one of the flaws of the Christian Yellow Pages. You tell me that the auto mechanic is a believer. That’s nice, but I want to know if he can fix my car at a reasonable price and do a good job. If I’m going to have heart surgery, I might be interested in where the surgeon goes to church, but I want to first know how many of his patients are still walking around in good shape. Just because you’re a believer doesn’t tell me you’re a good basketball player or a good writer. I want to see the rest of the package.

If you’re going to run a Christian school, it ought to be best in every category. You ought to have the best lab, the best computers, and the best teachers. You should compensate them well (they ought to be paid at least as much as the government schools’ teachers), and if you’re not ready to make that commitment, then don’t start a Christian school. Don’t have a crummy one. That’s worse than not having one at all.

What can schools do to increase teacher salaries?

Christian schools need the equivalent of a university endowment. You don’t want your school to be like people who live from paycheck to paycheck, spending it all as soon as they get it. Schools need a cash cushion, especially during a recessionary time. If a school were to raise $100,000, or close to it, every year, that would allow it to offer reduced fees for partial payment. Raising a significant amount of money would allow the school to hire more and better teachers, improve their fiscal structure, maybe even do a new building.

I recently toured a Christian school in Michigan. To me it was ideal. Not only did they have state-of-the-art biology labs, computers, an Olympic swimming pool, fabulous indoor gym; they had a restaurant, an entertainment center—linen tablecloths and a wait staff with really good food. There’s a whole complex: elementary, junior high, and high school. Fabulous. My jaw was on the floor. If you could clone this sort of school and put it in every town in America, that would be my ideal.

How important is teacher certification and school accreditation?

I think there ought to be some kind of overseer. The problem has always been, of course, when the secular accreditation people require certain courses like evolution. (I don’t mind teaching evolution so we know what the other side is doing; I just don’t want to teach it as fact. There’s more factual information on creation than there ever was for evolution.) My grandmother used to say the proof is in the pudding. If you turn out well-rounded, well-educated Christian young people, that should be enough.

How did you come to faith in Christ?

I had great parents. They got married; they stayed together. And they took me to a building called church on Sunday morning. But it was like a lot of other families—we didn’t read the Bible; we didn’t pray even before meals. My whole concept of God was what I’d seen on the Sistine Chapel in Rome: An old white guy with a beard reaching out across the ceiling to touch a guy who looked like he worked out a lot. So God was in Rome on the ceiling and I was in the Washington area trying to get a date on Saturday nights. I didn’t see how it really related.

My quest to become a successful news reporter began at NBC news, where I started as a copy boy at the age of 18. My wife had come from a Bible background and did some volunteer work at the National Prayer Breakfast office in Washington. Came home one day and said, “Listen, I’ve got some men you need to meet.”

I wasn’t really interested. I thought religious guys used religion as a crutch, same old argument you’ve heard before. But I went down to meet these guys, and they called me a few days later to invite me to a little prayer breakfast. There I met some men, one of whom was a White House aide, one was vice-mayor of the city, another was fire chief of the city—people I would have defined by my definition of success (at the time) as successful. I heard a federal judge [Oliver Gash] stand up that morning and talk about the possibility of everybody in that room having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

These same people called me a few weeks later and invited me to Bible study led by Richard Halverson. He had white hair and an incredibly wonderful voice and he read from The Living Paraphrase, which I’d never heard before. That man would later lead me to Christ, become my pastor, and then eventually become the chaplain of the United States Senate. Richard Halverson, one of the great influences in my life.

So I bought a Living Bible with the green cushiony cover—remember that? And I started reading it. I found out that God  loved me more than any job, career, relationship I could ever have. I found out I was a sinner. (Now my wife had been telling me versions of that for years!) And I found out about Jesus, that He wasn’t a religious figure; He was a person that came to reestablish a relationship that God had intended from the beginning which was broken because of sin.

And on the night I was fired, I had a little group meeting in our house, and my wife says to me, after absorbing the initial shock, “You know you’ll never be free of this drive to be a success until you thank God for losing your job.” Now that’s crazy! But she was right because my job was my god. Whatever is at the center of our lives is our god—that’s why there’s no such thing as an atheist. Even an atheist worships his unbelief. We all have a central idol in our life. And so I did. That night I committed my life to Christ and my career went into the toilet. In 1973, the very year I had set as a goal to become a network correspondent, I was instead fired. God then began to work me out of me because He wanted to fill me with Himself. And He put me in touch with a man who taught me sound doctrine. I was introduced to Francis Schaeffer and went to L’Abri, and that totally, completely transformed my intellectual thinking and the way I processed information. God was building all of this. He said, “I’m going to make you America’s #1 syndicated columnist and you’re going to glorify Me in the media. But in order to get to that point, I’m going to do all this other stuff with you first.” It wasn’t pleasant—like having a heart transplant. Lot of pain.

Is it easier to have a Christian testimony, now that you have reached the world’s standard of success? Do you find that this helps or hurts?

It’s harder in one way and easier in another. The easier part is that I’m not looking for anything from the world anymore. I’m not looking for their approval. I don’t need it; I have the only approval I need. The hard part is being ignored by my peers. I am, as our pastor preached last year in a fantastic sermon, I am the smell of death to them. Sweet aroma to God, but I’m the smell of death because the gospel is foolishness to those who are perishing. So it’s easier in the sense that I know where I’m headed, I know why I’m here. I know not to put my trust in princes and kings. I have my preferences for the next election. But they’re not going to be able to fix the problem sufficiently because it’s in here [the heart]; it’s not in Washington. It’s harder with my professional peers. You know, we don’t get invited to things. That’s okay. The only invitation that matters is the Wedding Supper of the Lamb; I’ve already got the engraved invitation that I want.

What is your vision for the future of Christian schools?

I’ve seen some of the testimonies, parents with tears in their eyes, many of them in single-parent homes. But their kids can’t wait to get to school. They feel safe, they feel loved, and they feel their education has a purpose.

People like to talk about the American dream. Well, you come home from school one day, bad day at school, and you want to quit school. Your parents say, “You can’t quit.” Why not? Well, you need a good education. Why do I need a good education? So you can get a good job. Why do I need a good job? So you can make money. Why? So you can buy stuff. Why? So you can be happy. That’s the great American dream, right?

Well, if stuff made us happy, the psychiatrists’ couches wouldn’t be full. Kids wouldn’t be committing suicide at such a high rate. Right? The approval and love of God makes you happy. This was Eric Liddell’s great line from Chariots of Fire: “I believe God made me for a purpose, but He also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”

Feeling the pleasure of God is the highest, highest reward any human being can have on earth—knowing that God loves you and proves it. Can I get an Amen?

Kevin Mungons is managing editor of the Baptist Bulletin. Darrell Goemaat is director of photography.