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Religious Neutrality: Admirably Compromised

No one said it was going to be easy.  Setting up a new political order for the ages among the former British colonies in North America was an adventure of colossal proportions since state religion, whether among the Greeks, Romans, or medieval Christians had been the norm for civilized peoples in the West.  Recognizing that state sponsored religion was no longer working among English-speakers was the easy part.  Civil war, the execution of a monarch, the failure of the commonwealth, and the contested restoration of the monarchy were all lessons from seventeenth-century British politics that most American colonists could understand.  Harder was figuring out how to encourage the kind of virtue that the founders of the United States believed essential to a free society.  To a man, the statesmen who formed the American political order knew that religion was imperative for cultivating virtuous citizens.  They even recognized that a non-dogmatic and non-clerical Christianity was the faith best suited to the American people.  But they did not want an established national church.

One way around this predicament was public education.  Although the availability of primary and secondary schools varied throughout the United States, these institutions became the vehicles by which to teach a generic Protestant morality that would set political liberty on a foundation of moral citizens.  In other words, many American leaders believed that the United States could have morality without established churches.  This was precisely the hope and plan of Horace Mann, the leading light of public education in Massachusetts at precisely the time when the state’s Congregational churches lost their establishment status.  By providing for moral education in schools but refusing to take sides in the contests among the nation’s ministers and priests, Americans thought they could reap the ethical benefits of religion without underwriting the overhead of ecclesiastical establishments.

But this solution was not free from difficulties since even the generic Protestantism of public schools would prove to be objectionable to some Christians.  Roman Catholics were one such group.  For starters, the schools used Protestant versions of the Bible (e.g., no Apocrypha).  Even more problematic was the public school notion that education could separate morality from doctrine and the sacramental order of the church.  The segregation of ethics from theology also prompted some Protestants to follow the example of Roman Catholics and form parochial educational institutions where Christian morality would be conveyed in the context of catechetical and liturgical instruction.  Of course, the rise of parochial schools undermined one of the chief aims of public education, namely, to assimilate children in the ways of American republicanism and its virtues.  In places like New York in the 1830s and in Cincinnati in the 1870s, tensions between Anglo-Americans and immigrants from Ireland and Germany sparked conflicts over schooling that were one front in a wider set of cultural disputes about American identity.  These debates also fed anti-Catholicism among native-born Protestants, with parochial schools confirming the widespread Protestant sense that Roman Catholics were unpatriotic and sectarian in their reliance upon a private education.

The pattern of Protestant-friendly public schools and separate Roman Catholic institutions persisted from the mid-nineteenth century down to the 1960s.  The path of American education had a few rocky segments, such as the debates in southern states over teaching evolution which prompted the 1925 Scopes Trial.  In other words, American norms for education were always contested and required adjustments.  But religion in the form of prayer and Bible reading was a feature of public schools all the way to the period after World War II.  Only then did the Supreme Court begin to question the constitutionality of the Protestant orientation of public school religious culture.  A series of rulings that culminated in Abington v. Schempp (1963) finally removed the last vestige of generic Protestantism from the nation’s public schools.  The author remembers distinctly going to second grade classes in Bristol Township (Pennsylvania) and only saying the Pledge of Allegiance without hearing first, as was the case in first grade, a passage from the Bible and a prayer from the teacher.  These court decisions were indicative of a much larger shift in America which some historians have called the emergence of a post-Protestant culture.  No longer was the identification between Protestantism and the American way of life as acceptable as it had been during two world wars, economic depression, and a cold war.  In the 1960s climate of tolerance and social justice, the nation’s Protestant heritage became associated with racism, sexism, economic exploitation, and militarism.  Public schools were left with the prior mission of cultivating citizenship and some sense of morality among the nation’s boys and girls, but could no longer rely on religion, even a watered-down variety, for support.

Of course, not all of the United States’ believers took the 1960s secularization of public life (and especially the schools) sitting down.  Indeed, the rise of the Religious Right and the unlikely alliance of evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics from the election of Ronald Reagan to the present were indicative of dissatisfaction with public policy shorn of religious (read: Christian) motivation.  As many points as social conservative have scored against liberalism’s excessive policies of tolerance and affirmation along the lines of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation, believing activists have not acknowledged how divisive religion may be.  Nor have they found ways to accommodate the diversity of beliefs that flourish in a nation where religious tests for citizenship and public office do not exist.  In fact, sometimes spokespersons for the Religious Right act as if the United States needs to return to the cultural patterns of the 1950s when Protestantism was the public face of American religion.  This is an ironic position to espouse if only because the Protestantism of the 1950s–mainline Protestantism–was not particularly friendly toward evangelicals like Billy Graham. Nor were the mainline churches free from the anti-Catholicism.  These anomalies indicate just how tricky the negotiations of religion in American public life have been.

These historical reminders may be a long winded way of saying that Stephen Smith has a point when he argues that religious neutrality, an implication of religious freedom, is theoretically impossible.  As he observes, the earliest claims on behalf of religious neutrality, such as those proposed by Jefferson and Madison, made assumptions about God and people that were hardly universal.  Smith is also correct to see how the nation’s commitment to religious freedom has left the courts tied in legal knots.  Crafting better rationales for religious freedom would be welcome.  Whether intellectual solutions will fix the practical problems that arise from religious diversity in a liberal democracy is another question.

Still, the history behind religious freedom might foster caution about being too critical of the United States’ inconsistencies.  After all, the political order to emerge in the late eighteenth century among the British colonists in North America was uncharted territory.  No European nation had entertained the idea of establishing political authority without the help of a Christian church.  Republican governments, for that matter, were not terribly popular.  In fact, the nation-state’s consolidation of power owed some of its success to European rulers who enforced religious conformity among their citizens and patronized churches to secure such uniformity.  To be sure, nations such as the Netherlands had instituted practices of religious toleration but did so only in the context of an ecclesiastical establishment.  If Americans, both at the time of the founding and since, have not been particularly coherent in their arguments for religious freedom– and this from a people not given to philosophical cogitation–the unprecedented nature of their political endeavor might constitute a reason for more patience.

Adding to the irregularities of religious freedom in the United States have been genuine disputes about the nature of the nation itself.  The Second Party System, which divided most political actors into the Whig and Democratic parties, witnessed a contest between a republic with limited powers (the Democrats) where peoples of diverse backgrounds could cultivate their own institutions (including churches) and a national and expansive order that would assimilate peoples from diverse backgrounds into a unified whole (the Whigs).  These contrasting visions not only tapped differences among the founders (Madison’s understanding of factions as a check upon majority rule versus Washington’s pleas to put aside partisanship), but also played out in the nation’s schools.  Christians who dissented from the generic religion of the public schools and founded their own parochial institutions were generally comfortable with the Democratic Party.  But evangelical Protestants who promoted a variety of voluntary associations to coordinate a common religious enterprise in support of the nation also supported prayer and Bible reading in public schools as a mechanism for assimilating immigrants.  The social engineering feature of contemporary public education that conservatives lament is not a recent development but has roots in the older efforts of those Americans who promoted a national order over threats posed by sectarian diversity.

If the place of religion in the United States has been unstable, have we reached a stage where coherence is possible?  Or is the alternative to muddle along with the same kind of inconsistencies that have afflicted the American people?  Surely Smith is right to call for greater intellectual precision, especially from the legal profession.  But how about the rest of us?

Take the example of schools.  What would religious freedom and religious neutrality look like?  It might start with no forms of religious worship during regular school exercises or instruction.  (I will defer to local school boards and parents-teachers associations rather than the courts to decide what groups have access to public school building in off-hours.)  Prayer and Bible reading were forms of worship and Roman Catholics were correct to detect that these practices favored one religious group over another.  As for religion in the curriculum, the courts, not that they should be the final arbiters of pedagogy, have ruled that teaching about religion, even Christianity, is perfectly acceptable.

Another way to honor religious freedom is to remove the social engineering aspects of education that originally provided grounds for including religion in public schools.  If schools were more about teaching basic skills like reading, writing, and arithmetic, they would face less hostility from those sectors of the public who feel slighted whenever teachers take it upon themselves to promote a specific group of people or certain ways of life in the interest of either tolerance or social justice.  The history of the West teaches that the social benefits of literacy are truly breathtaking.  The effects may take years to see.  But educators should be smart enough to know that basic learning skills are going to help American children far more than acquiring the capacity for empathy.

In those difficult cases, such as biology, where religious groups believe their faith is threatened, both sides should look for ways to compromise.  Perhaps educators can make special arrangements for children from families opposed to evolution, and make sure to avoid metaphysical claims about Darwinism’s significance.  At the same time, chary parents will need to recognize that not everything their children learn at school–some of the morality in Shakespeare’s plays (or the Old Testament, no less), for instance–will underscore their beliefs.  As such, they make a deal with the schools not unlike the sort of bargain that all Americans have with a republic that refuses to recognize any single deity as its sovereign.

None of these recommendations are perfect, but neither is the practice of religious freedom in a society of diverse faiths.  Americans have been muddling along and will continue to do so, no matter how ugly it looks along the way.

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