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June 7, 2006

why I'm not a zealot about church and state

We saw a student production of Godspell last weekend in my little daughter's Washington, DC public school. In a different DC public school years ago, I attended a PTA fundraiser that was pervasively religious, all of its rhetoric drawn explicitly from the evangelical Black church. I've argued here that it should be constitutional to teach intelligent design (even though it's bad science and worse theology). In these three cases--and others like them--I'm not zealous to keep religion out of public schools.

I'm not saying that authority figures in state schools like the ones we have today should make sectarian, religious pronouncements while they perform their official duties. To mention an easy case, the principal of a neighborhood public school should not get on the P.A. system and tell all the kids that they must embrace Jesus Christ as their personal savior. But in closer cases, I'm inclined to tolerate religion in public schools, for these reasons:

First, the purpose of public schooling is to reproduce and enhance a culture (not simply to produce economic "returns" for graduates). Because cultural reproduction is a common good, we need to subsidize it with public funds: otherwise, many people will leave the expense to others. Of course, "culture" is heterogeneous and controversial. That is why citizens need to participate in shaping their schools. The debate about what values we should teach is not a cost, but an opportunity to create our common future. By the way, there must be some local control over education, because a national debate about culture will produce the lowest common denominator.

Education should not be conceived as value-neutral, because that is impossible, and the effort to strip it of overt values has negative consequences--such as those that I mentioned yesterday in reference to civics textbooks. I am not terribly offended if some of the values taught in public schools are religious, in part because I think almost all modern norms have religious roots.

As Eugene Volokh's recent post and the replies indicate, the founders of the United States favored public schooling largely in order to inculcate values. I would reject their assumption that religion was a necessary foundation of public morality. (The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 said: "Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.") But I would endorse the premise of the Northwest Ordinance that certain virtues are important for good government and public happiness, and that public schooling should promote those virtues. If my fellow citizens see religion as part of morality, so be it.

Second, I would rather have the freedom to participate in a robust debate about the content of our children's education than to see courts dictate a position, even if I agree with it. For instance, when a judge rules that the teaching of intelligent design is unconstitutional, we cannot seriously discuss the issue. Likewise, if a court were to rule that public schools may not produce Godspell, we would have less scope to debate that play.

Third, Harry Brighouse argues in On Education that there are some perverse, unintended consequences from the American policy of barring religion from all state-funded education. A substantial group of parents is uncomfortable with secular public schools, because those institutions are materialistic, highly individualistic and competitive, and tolerant of premature sexuality. Brighouse (pp. 87-88) describes the typical high school:

It is a 2000-plus student institution, in which no individual knows every other individual; in which many children never have any teacher for more than one year of instruction; in which the prevailing values include pep rallies for sports and a slavishly conformist loyalty to school and neighbourhood. These schools maintain a deafening silence about spiritual or anti-materialist values, take sides in the Cola wars, and accept as a given the prevalence of brand names and teen-marketing. Religious parents often, with justification, believe that their own beliefs are at best ignored, at worst actively worked against by the schools. ...

I suspect that in the US many parents are drawn to private religious schools not by any interest in having their chidren indoctrinated, but by their horror at the experience of the shopping-mall high school, and, in fact, an unarticulated sense that the values of the peer group, tolerated by the school, threaten, rather than serve, their children's prospective autonomy. Religious parents fear that schools that do not incorporate strong moral values, and which treat spirituality as just another lifestyle option ... endanger their and other children's prospects for a balanced and satisfying life.

In most foreign countries, these parents would opt for state-funded religious schools. Some are not fundamentalists (or even necessarily believers), so they add diversity to religious schools by enrolling their own children. In most countries, state-funded denominational schools are regulated so that, for example, they must teach core democratic principles and tolerate non-believers.

In the United States, however, we have pervasively secular public schools that aim for value-neutrality (sometimes with bad consequences); and we have religious schools without any access to state money whose curricula are completely unregulated. The religious schools may draw religiously zealous parents who are hostile to the mainstream culture. When this happens, their students become a homogeneous group, deprived of diverse influences.

American Catholic schools, although not state-subsidized, give a taste of what would happen if public schools could introduce more religion--or if private religious schools could get state money. After Vatican II, Catholic educators chose not to proselytize, but instead to teach a set of values that are highly compatible with secular democracy. They also draw diverse student populations. They appear to do a better job of secular civic education than the public schools--on average. Thoughtful observers like Jim Youniss and David Campbell believe that modern Catholic education succeeds because it is grounded in strong moral commitments.

June 7, 2006 10:26 AM | category: education policy | Comments


It seems to me that your argument switches horses in midstream, as it were. At the top of the post, you say that "the principal...should not ...tell all the kids that they must embrace Jesus Christ as their personal savior." But later on, you seem to abandon this position, saying that "public schooling should promote...virtues. If my fellow citizens see religion as part of morality, so be it." So here, if the bulk of your fellow citizens would be OK with an aggressively proselytizing superintendent, you'd acquiesce?

My point is that you're being wildly optimistic if you think that you can get people to agree to a vague promotion of virtue, without inviting in what you call the "religiously zealous". Moreover, remember that atheists are the most unpopular minority (PDF)--when half of society has an unfavorable view of a group, it's unrealistic to expect members of that group to stand on the courage of their convictions and "out" themselves in a public debate. Meanwhile, the zealots will feel even more emboldened if these changes you advocate occur. I'm absolutely fine with some religion in schools--a high-school class on the Bible as literature was extremely informative, and I strongly support things of that nature. But you can't remove the explicit prohibition against the teaching of religion as values without asking for trouble.

June 7, 2006 1:26 PM | Comments (9) | posted by Meelar

If I may defend Dr. Levine, he does not "switch arguments in midstream". His argument only looks like a switch if you assume value neutrality, which Dr. Levine already noted is not something his argument is friendly towards. In fact, one might stretch so far as to say that the whole point of advocating "Civic Education" is to reject value neutrality and to say that there are in fact such things as the right civic democratic values that people need to have to maintain self-government.

From the position that some values are necessary for self government, and that these are particular kinds of values as opposed to others, Dr. Levine's two statements contain no contradiction whatsoever.

You seem to set up a false dichotomy between a liberal proceduralism that brackets all moral controversies and majority tyrrany. Let me give you an example of an alternative way to think through this false dichotomy: Coercive statements about what YOUR religion MUST be, as an example, are antithetical to self government and therefore are improper. Giving a minute for silent prayer in schools may turn out to be good for self government, and at the very least is less offensive to self government, and therefore likely proper.

I took Dr. Levine's comment, "public schooling should promote...virtues. If my fellow citizens see religion as part of morality, so be it." to meant that the fact that someone's moral point of view is enlightened by their religion is not a trivial thing, nor is it something that need be whitewashed from the public. Religious views in public are not allowed to claim infallibility, are not allowed to claim monopoly. But what is so horrible about religiously informed moral views that we should not allow them room to make any claims at all? So long as they deliberate in good faith, they should be allowed to deliberate. When they deliberate in bad faith, we should note that it is the bad faith effort to follow honest deliberation that is the wrong, and not necessarily religious values themselves.

June 7, 2006 2:14 PM | Comments (9) | posted by Steven Maloney

I think that we're at least somewhat talking past each other. My argument would be that, in the real world, it would be impossible to allow a minute of silent prayer or similar things without this leading to teachers preaching hellfire. Presumably, if one's fellow citizens see religion as part of morality, and see the role of schools as inculcating morality, it will lead to unacceptable outcomes like coercive statements about what students' religion must be. Respectfully yours, Dan Miller

June 7, 2006 2:25 PM | Comments (9) | posted by Meelar

The point that I was trying to make is that all morals are not alike. Schools are for the inculcation of public morality - which I would say roughly are the set of moral values necessary to sustain self-government. Therefore, in the real world, people actually need certain skills and information to make self government work. If there is not a critical mass of knowledge, participation, and institutions to keep self-government going, then you will not have it.

For example, deliberative democrats like Robert Talisse would say that we need certain civic virtues to be upheld because they create the best possible environment for truth claims to succeed. Using a standard like this, we might say that it would be very easy in the real world to draw the line between school prayer and preaching hellfire. Preaching hellfire does not respect democratic principles such as fallibility. It is clearly wrong, in any context, when teacher's say something like "freedom comes from Jesus and there is no legitimate alternative viewpoint possible". I think it is unfair to put my position on the slippery slope and say that if I think silent prayer is alright I have no "real world" mechanism to keep Jerry Falwell out of 11th grade science classes. Respectfully, Steven Maloney

June 7, 2006 7:40 PM | Comments (9) | posted by Steven Maloney

I endorse Steven's position. But I also agree with Meelar that my original post wasn't fully coherent.

I'm not sure what I think about switching to a system like those in Europe and Latin America, in which the state funds and regulates religious schools. In any case, I think that reform is wildly unrealistic in the US context. Given schools like the ones we have (i.e., secular public institutions and completely independent private ones), I'm willing to tolerate a dose of religion in the state system--not to the point that authoriy figures will actually proselytize at official events, but including the kinds of cases that I mentioned in my first paragraph. I see these cases as evidence that a community is wrestling with values in its own schools, which is healthy. The values that I personally promote will not be religious, but I'm willing to participate in an open debate even if I lose.

June 8, 2006 11:22 AM | Comments (9) | posted by Peter Levine

Policy analysis should not ignore the political context. One has to be remarkably naive to believe that the religious right will leave things at a moment of silent prayer or some sort of Bible as literature course. These guys don't want to promote a decent respect for spirituality. They want to promote their own highly coercive system of faith. If an educational policy doesn't involve the imposition of religion, they won't be satisfied with it.

June 9, 2006 4:53 PM | Comments (9) | posted by Jim Harrison

Surely the commentators above who suggest that it's a slippery slope with no stopping point, that if you a minute of silence you will have hellfire sermons on the PA system, have a rather negative view of their fellow citizens. The rest of life doesn't work that way. My law office, for instance, isn't particularly religious, and includes people with varying degrees of belief from various religious backgrounds, but we manage to mention God from time to time, celebrate religious holidays, wish each other well on religious holidays, discuss religious issues occasionally, mention that we are praying for people who are sick or suffer the death of a family member, and a whole variety of things that many would object to, without degenerating into either a theocracy or the Thirty Years War. Apparently, any number of federal judges would consider this state of affairs to be impossible, yet there it is.

June 9, 2006 6:44 PM | Comments (9) | posted by wm

Just a comment that "zealot", nearly synonymous with "fanatic", is prejudicial.

June 10, 2006 3:14 PM | Comments (9) | posted by rilkefan

We can slip down the slope toward a number of things, really. I am not Christian, and share a suspicion of the activities of many people who may strive to influence their local curricula (whether it be for the purposes of racial exclusion, book burning or any of the standard bogeymen). But I am as concerned about the alternative to a value-rich education being an education in which the only value is that of crass commericalism. And that concerns me more as a progressive than the idea that teachers would speak clearly about values from their own faith traditions when teaching class. Perhaps this suggests a compromise: individual teachers can inject whatever sort of value-laden material they see fit but local school boards must continue to pass rigorous tests of religious and racial neutrality when it comes to the hiring of teachers.

June 10, 2006 4:24 PM | Comments (9) | posted by micahd

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