On the matter of public schooling, David French mistakes state authority for religious liberty
In the history of American politics the phrase “separation of church and state” has attracted strange bedfellows. The phrase has its origins in a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802. These Connecticut Baptists had written to Jefferson asking for his support in their struggle against the state-established Congregational Church: They objected to having to pay taxes in support of a Church to which they did not belong, and objected more generally to the idea of an established church that could exercise its authority over non-members. Though Jefferson himself had no political authority in Connecticut, he was at the time President of the United States and an acknowledged founder of the nation. He lent the Baptists his moral support, invoking the disestablishment clause of the U.S. Constitution as a model for the states and insisting that the Constitution created a “wall of separation between church and state.” Thus the Bible-believing Christians of the Baptist Association and the free-thinking deist who re-wrote the Bible to reduce Jesus to a wise moral teacher found common ground on the principle of religious freedom, understood narrowly as the freedom of individuals and groups to pursue their religious beliefs free from state interference in exchange for those individuals and groups renouncing all efforts to advance their beliefs through the state.
The recent decision by the Oklahoma state legislature to fund a Catholic charter school has resurrected at least one high-profile example of this old alliance. The editorial perspective of The New York Times stands as a rough contemporary equivalent
Reagan-era Christian conservatives, such as those represented by Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, certainly saw problems in the public schools and wished to turn back the education clock to some earlier, more Christian-friendly era; still, few if any demanded that the state support Christian schools. In fact, the mission statement of the Moral Majority denied any explicit religious affiliation or agenda, insisting that it sought only to promote universal moral values. But in his article “Oklahoma Breaches the Wall Between Church and State” French sees developments in Oklahoma as crossing the line from shared values to religious establishment: “Charter schools are public schools, meaning that Oklahoma has created and sanctioned a Catholic public school in the state. It has clothed a Christian institution with state authority.” For French, this violates the time-honored constitutional principles of disestablishment and the free exercise of religion, which, he contends, have safeguarded an “extraordinary freedom and autonomy” for religious organizations throughout American history.
Churches have indeed enjoyed a high degree of freedom in the United States. Religious schools have not. It is perhaps only fitting that the first religious school to cross French’s constitutional line should be a Catholic school. French’s airbrushed history of church-state relations ignores the tremendous religious battles that marked the founding of public school systems in America. The Constitution makes no provision for education. Public education arose in the 1830s largely in response to the democratization of the electorate and the rise of immigration. Northeastern Anglo elites, fearing their loss of political power, looked to public education as a way of washing the unwashed masses, making them over in the image of the elites themselves.
For a sense of the cultural ethos of these education reformers, think of the Unitarianism of Horace Mann, the figure generally credited with initiating and guiding the development of public schools. In Mann’s day, public school societies were in fact private institutions chartered by municipalities to perform a public function. Many Protestants objected to the education provided in these schools, fearing it was designed to turn their children into Unitarians. (They were right!) All involved agreed that morality was essential to education and that religion was the basis of morality. This agreement led to a compromise that religious instruction would be limited to daily Bible reading, without comment, to avoid contentious denominational interpretations.
Before the ink could dry on this intra-Protestant truce, Catholics objected that since the Church forbade Catholics from reading unauthorized translations of the Bible, such as the King James Version used in the school, Catholic children in public schools should be exempt from Bible reading. Nativist education leaders spun this into a Catholic plot to take over the schools. After much debate and more than a few riots, Protestants circled their wagons around the public school while Catholics moved on to establish a separate parochial school system.
French’s claim that Oklahoma funding for a Catholic school amounts to Church establishment sounds much like the response of the public school establishment to Catholics in the nineteenth century. To be sure, I do not read anything particularly anti-Catholic in French’s account; I think he would respond the same way if the new charter school were generically Christian. I do object to his formulations of this issue as a conflict of “liberty” against “power” and “freedom versus authority.” For French, the funding of a religious school is an act of power and authority that undermines liberty and freedom. What liberty and freedom have American Catholics had in education? Yes, the freedom to operate Catholic schools at their own expense—while continuing to pay for public schools through their taxes. How is this requirement to pay twice not an exercise of power and authority? Further, how is the state imposition of universal and compulsory requirement for education not an exercise of power and authority?
I am not sure what, if any, historical understanding of education in America informs French’s resistance to funding for religious schools. At one point he favorably quotes Justice William Brennan’s assertion that schools should prepare students “for active and effective participation in the pluralistic, often contentious society in which they will soon be adult members.” This civics-class idealism obscures the moral and cultural conflicts that have characterized public education throughout its history, particularly with respect to the Catholic Church. Despite the slavish patriotism that has animated Catholic schools from the beginning, the Church’s commitment to a separate education system reflected a fear that public school education was somehow a threat to the faith. Public school standards nonetheless exerted a powerful influence on the Catholic schools; as early as the 1890s some Catholic educators wondered what, if anything, made Catholic schools different from public schools aside from religion class. From the 1960s onward many Catholic educators came to believe that even the distinctly Catholic elements of religion class made Catholics stand too far apart from other Americans: Lest Catholic teaching make Catholics appear to be bad citizens, religious instruction should conform itself more to American norms. This development begs a key question: If religious liberty simply reinforces the authority of the state, in what sense is it liberty?
Ironically, American principles of disestablishment and free exercise have actually made it more difficult for churches to operate schools. Many European countries with established churches fund a variety of church schools with no fear of dissenting church groups taking over the state. The particularities of the American system may require a different approach to this problem. Perhaps a direct charter is not the solution. When I was a child going to parochial school in the 1970s, my parents and their friends fought for tuition tax credits—that is, the ability to claim Catholic school tuition as a charitable donation. This movement failed, its opponents invoking the sacred wall of separation between church and state. What we are left with is the persistence of an infidel tax, with Catholics who desire a Catholic education for their children having to pay twice. If fewer and fewer Catholics are willing to pay this, do we judge this evidence of religious liberty or state authority?
Christopher Shannon is associate professor of history at Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia. He is the author of several works on U.S. cultural history and American Catholic history, including American Pilgrimage: A Historical Journey Through Catholic Life in a New World (2022), available now from Ignatius Press.