I return to the subject of religion – specifically its role in society and in education in particular. But my argument comes not from any particular religious partisanship. To understand my motivation better please see the expansive disclaimer that appears below the text at the * below - better read before proceeding. Those for whom this is irrelevant may skip this.
My prime concern in this musing is education policy in America and how it powerfully discriminates against freedom of religion in education, and thus, by implication, against religious freedom generally.
My claim is that, because of the way public education is set up and regulated in America today, parents who value a significant religious component in their children’s education, are being denied the freedom to choose such an education for them. By “religious component” I mean a curriculum in which the values, practices, norms, as well as the history and development, of a particular religion are taught.
As it stands, two aspects of the structure of public education conspire to deny parents this option, or at least to make it much more expensive than it would otherwise be (effectively, therefore, denying it to those who “cannot afford” it). These two aspects are 1. The fact that public education is produced (not just subsidized) by the government; and 2. Applying an interpretation of the 1st Amendment to the Constitution that prohibits the teaching of any and all religion in public schools.
I am not competent to comment on the legal niceties of the “establishment clause” of this amendment, which reads “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof … .” however, it is plain that this clause by itself is insufficient to obtain current practice regarding religion in public education. Such practice relies on developed precedents regarding the worthy doctrine of the separation of church (religion) and state.
In simple common-sense terms, this doctrine suggests that it is a violation of the spirit of the Constitution for government to use taxpayer money to promote or favor the practice of any religion over any other, and therefore, government should stay out of religion. Allowing the government to use taxpayer money to promote religious practice or education invites the danger of serious abuse in that the public servants using the money are not the taxpayers who paid the money. This makes eminent sense within the context of government produced education. Parents as taxpayers do not have the ability to directly shape or even influence the religious content of a curriculum produced by government employees, who are accountable not to the parents, but to their administrative superiors and ultimately to some elected school board. Dissatisfied parents have few options. In this context, the ban on religious content may well be construed as protecting parents – ensuring that their children are not educated to a “foreign” religion without their consent.
But, by the same logic, this “protection” also ensures that parents desiring a particular religious education for their children cannot get it in the public school to which their children are zoned. There is no choice among public schools for parents under school zoning. In effect, what this amounts to, it that public schools are run according to the religion of “no religion”. And, indeed, in many parts of the country this is a preferred outcome for those antagonistic to the teaching of any religion whatsoever – the preferred outcome of many modern secular intellectuals hostile to the very idea of organized religion.
The matter could be easily and justly solved by allowing parents to retain discretion of how the taxpayer money used for their child’s education is spent; removing the requirement that the money be used by the government to produce education. In other words, though government would continue to subsidize education, it need not continue to produce it unless that is the preferred choice of enough parents. One form of this would be an educational voucher system, Another would be a tax-credit system. Who could object to this?
Of course, many do object for a variety of spurious reasons. But the one that is relevant here is the objection that claims that allowing such a voucher system violates the principle of church-state separation as required by the 1st Amendment. My claim, and that of many much more knowledgeable than I, including many legal experts, including some court decisions, is that this is false. Courts have held that the separation doctrine is not violated by the parents’ exercise of a choice to educate their child in a manner including a religious component as long as that is one of many options among which the parent may choose, thus ensuring that there is no compulsion involved. Arguments to the contrary are predicated on the notion that somehow that money cannot be construed as “belonging” to the parents. It is “public” money. To argue thus seems to make a mockery of the fact that the money is intended to educate the parent’s child, yet to argue that the parent should not have any direct say in how the child is educated. After all, the parent pays the tax for the express purpose of this education.
But, I would argue further, this setup effectively denies the parent a crucial component of religious freedom, namely, the freedom to use his money to educate his child as he sees fit according to his chosen religion. Far from being a consequence of the 1st Amendment, it appears to my untrained mind, to be a gross violation of it, significantly impeding the “establishment” of religion by making the education of it significantly more expensive.
The implications of this are enormous. Quite simply it has meant the hobbling of all religious education in America by forcing those parents who want it to pay for it twice – once in the form of taxes and once in the form of alarmingly expensive tuition in private religious schools. The business model of such schools, having to compete with the “free” education available in the public school is seriously compromised. Public schools, in effect, are protected monopolies against which private religious schools cannot compete, especially and tragically for lower income families.
The enormity of this can be gauged by imagining the boost that private religious schools would get under a voucher system allowing a chosen religious school to earn the taxpayer money earmarked for a child’s education (as long as state secular curriculum requirements were fulfilled). It would herald a revolutionary transformation of religious education in America.
Parents who want affordable quality education for their children that includes a religious component, and those who support their right to choose this option, would do well to understand the implications of the current system and work to reform it to allow universal school choice, starting with their own particular school district.
At the outset I need to issue a disclaimer. I carry no banner for organized religion of any kind. Though I feel a strong Jewish identity, which is undoubtedly connected to the religion, I myself am not at all religious in the usual sense of the word. I am, strictly speaking, agnostic with respect to some of the factual claims of the religion and a complete disbeliever with respect to most of them. With regard to the moral authority claimed by its teachings, I see none. I judge the moral status of those teachings from an external standard of my own – my own moral conscience.
With regard to the value of religion in society (a big subject) I see both pros and cons. Clearly, the human inclination to be religious (to believe in some external guiding spirit that is the source of morality, of security, of justice and so on) is extremely powerful and universal. One finds it in all places at all times, to a greater or lesser extent – the current era perhaps being one in which a greater proportion of people can claim to be without religion than ever before – justifying its identification as a unique secular period in human history.
Personally, I find this easy to understand, yet, at the same time, being irreligious, extremely puzzling. It is easy to understand because this is a frightening and bewildering world in which there is comfort to be gained from the knowledge that there is a purpose to life that is determined and guided by a benevolent higher power. I understand and sympathize with this belief. I almost wish I could share it. However, there is a wide gap between the desire to believe something and the ability to believe it. I find it impossible to understand how very intelligent, rational people can believe unbelievable things – and there are many in that category – a belief impervious to compelling contrary evidence.
The pros and cons of religion can be summed up in the observation that, when religion is a matter of free choice, it works powerfully in favor of social harmony, stability and creativity; but when it is a matter of compulsion it is a source of great evil and destruction.
Religion is the source of much artistic and philosophical richness. It provides the social support and guidance for individuals to cope with the challenges of this world. It has always been an important manifestation of a crucial “tribal solidarity”. And, where it is a matter of voluntary affiliation, with freedom to enter and exit unmolested, its value is inestimable. I say this not as an endorsement of everything in organized religion (or of the Jewish religion in particular). In terms of my own moral code, there are many aspects of religious teaching that I regard as repugnant and socially dysfunctional – and many as matters of annoying superstition. But, unless coercion is involved I regard these as matters of private choice and not as socially destructive.
On the other hand, whenever religion has allied with political power it has been an overwhelmingly destructive force. Throughout history, it has been the cause or the excuse (or, in part, both) of war, oppression and brutality. The tyrannical impulse derives much power from the ability to claim to be implementing the word of god (Communism invented its own “secular god” which proved, perhaps surprisingly, to be just as powerful). The most powerful modern-day manifestation of this is Islamist fundamentalism. It is no accident that the European Enlightenment and the Age of Reason that emerged in Renaissance Europe took the predominant form of the fight for religious freedom.
So, I am the furthest thing you can imagine from a religious fanatic, or even a mildly religious enthusiast looking to promote acceptance of its teachings. My concern comes from a completely different place. It comes rather from a powerful belief in the importance of religious freedom. I favor an education inclusive of religious history and doctrine. We should know our heritage, its riches, its evolution, for better or for worse, and, as free critical thinkers should decide for ourselves how we feel about it.