School and State: Part II

Following is Part Two of the series. It was originally posted here.

So what happens when people fail to adapt to the presence of public education?
During its early years, the public school system was run by devout Protestants in a Protestant-majority nation. Virtually no Christians of that day compartmentalized academic from moral education – neither do I, but I don’t think that means that the same people necessarily have to teach both. The educrats of the mid-1800s could have instituted elective courses for each of the religions, taught by persons not on the public payroll (i.e. unpaid volunteers or church staffers). Or they could have adopted the modern-day practice of allowing privately-led clubs, including religious clubs, to meet on campus after official hours. This would have kept religious involvement under private leadership and private subsidy, and would have opened the door to all forms of religious instruction on campus, thus giving parents a wide selection from which to choose. Instead, everybody in the public schools got a generic Protestant education.
As the Alliance for the Separation of School and State’s FAQ page remarks, “Some groups escaped (e.g., Christian Reformed, Seventh Day Adventist, and Catholics); others were small and took their lumps (e.g., Jews, atheists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses).” At least in the beginning, the Catholics assumed that if de facto Protestant schools deserved public funds, de jure Catholic schools did as well. Many such requests were denied; fortunately, the Catholic church gave up on the idea and funded their schools privately. Peace between Protestants and Catholics would have proceeded much more slowly (if at all) if the latter had continued a quest for a separate-but-equal Catholic public school system.


The early educrats failed to comprehend a concept described by Mises.org contributor Adam Young. He wrote of the need to “protect religion and the economy, respectively, from manipulation by the state and its interests.” (See also Matthew 6:24) In the US of A, such manipulation manifested itself not so much as misrepresentation but as underrepresentation. The State will always emphasize social stability more than any other issue; everything it offers to us and expects from us (such as funding for the stuff it offers) is done in the name of that cause. In the schools, that meant more time devoted to secular subjects and less time devoted to religion. By the mid-1900s the treatment of Christianity had become so lukewarm that the schools effectively – albeit unintentionally – portrayed the faith as a quaint, innocuous little tradition.
Two manifestations of the “innocuous little tradition” were beginning-of-the-day prayers and Bible reading, from which students could usually opt out. This was not the same as the comprehensive religious teaching of the previous century. This was token treatment of religion, which is worth no more than token treatment of God’s name. Prayer and Bible reading are fine in and of themselves, but when instructors lead children in such activities without any expectation of participation and without any effort to explain the greater depth of what is being said and read and why, children tend to perceive this message: this is just a ritual. Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Abington School District v. Schempp (1963) ruled that teacher-led prayer and Bible reading, respectively, violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which, through Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment, applies to the states as well as Congress.
The ramifications of these rulings (the latter involving, among others, a certain atheist) were widely misinterpreted by people on all sides of the issue. Opponents perceived this as “taking God out of the schools.” These cases should have been presented as shifting religious authority from the schools to churches and private individuals. These parties should have been involved in schools in the ways I had suggested in the second paragraph of this post; instead, they pawned off their responsibility to an entity that didn’t treat religion with the same depth and seriousness that they did. On the other hand, many like Madalyn Murray believed that all religious activity, whether led by teachers or students, should be stricken from the schools.
It’s no wonder that the ’60s generation saw traditional religion as ineffectual fuddy-duddiness – because the ankle-deep religious routine they saw in school every day (and in most churches, for that matter) gave them precisely that impression. The first wave of the “spiritual crisis” (see Tuesday’s book review) challenged all things traditional. The second wave of the 1970s saw more of the same – as well as a backlash from those of conservative and libertarian mindsets. But the influence of the mad scientists and thugs of the counterculture was more pervasive. They had successfully conquered, among other things, public education.

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