Thursday, July 06, 2006

Why government support of religious schools is un-American

My apologies for the somewhat inflammatory title, but I want to make a point. Many in the Orthodox Jewish community have but a tremendous amount of energy into attempts to obtain government support for Jewish Day Schools. It has been a main lobbying priority (perhaps THE main lobbying priority) of both the OU and Agudath Israel for decades. Yet despite all this activity, and even stronger activity by the Roman Catholic Church (whose schools have about fifteen times as many students as Orthodox day schools) and evangelical Christians (also much larger than us) the number of students attending religious schools with any government support, across the entire United States, is barely in the four digit range. This despite the fact that since 2003, the federal government has been dominated by a political party, the Republicans, that has gotten great mileage out of explicit and loud support for aid to religious schools, and many state governments have been under even greater dominance by the wing of that party that is dominated by evangelical Christians.

This ought to cause one to ask, “Why?” After all, in a democracy, the party that wins generally gets to carry out its policies. I think it is not just a matter of obstructionist Democrats, nor activist judges, nor even lukewarm support (or even opposition) by major parts of the party in power (suburban Republicans tend to oppose aid to private schools because of the fear that either taxes will increase or their own excellent public schools might lose funding). Nor it is just because of the anti-Catholic bigotry that led to the notorious Blaine Amendments (for which there is little support for repeal despite the dubious circumstances associated with their adoption), nor because of anti-Semitism, nor just because people fear (correctly) that if we fund Beit Shalom Day School we will also have to fund Osama bin Laden Jihad Terrorist Academy next door.

While all these do contribute to the opposition – and I think that the fear of tax increases may be the most important of the above – I think that there is another issue that is even bigger, that people don’t want to talk about. I think that the main reason is the deep seated respect for separation of religion and government that dates from the earliest days of the united republic, supported by the writings of some of the most important of the founding fathers of the United States – Thomas Jefferson and James Madison – to a degree that supports the most stringent position of the American Civil Liberties Union.

First, a little history: All of the English-speaking colonies except Rhode Island, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania had official churches that received government funding during colonial times. The particular churches were known as the “Established Churches”. In New England the established church was the Puritan Church, and in the rest of the colonies it was the Anglican Church. In most of those colonies it was necessary to get permission from the government to form any other religious organization. And in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Virginia, the Established Church actually performed many of the functions often associated with government; it would be more accurate to say that the government was an arm of the Church rather than the other way around. And those who did not abide by the Established Church’s rules could lose their civil rights – or worse. George Washington’s role as a vestryman in his parish was at least as important as his better known service as a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses.

Enter Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Jefferson’s authorship of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom is well known, as is his letter to the Danbury Baptists in which the term “separation of church and state” appears. (Roger Williams, who shared Jefferson’s attitudes, had used the term a century and a half earlier.) Also well known is James Madison’s authorship of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Less well known is the extreme interpretation they took of these actions. They did not advocate something like modern secular France, which provides tax money to religious schools while maintaining a militantly secular government. They opposed Patrick Henry’s post-Independence attempt to fund religious education in Virginia. Madison opposed (unsuccessfully) paying chaplains with government money in the First Congress. As President, Jefferson refused to issue proclamations calling for days of prayer and publicly opposed religious involvement in governmental activities. Both Madison and Jefferson sought to get the remaining states with official churches to disestablish them; by the time of Madison’s death in 1836 all had done so. (The idea that the Establishment Clause would directly apply to the states had to await the adoption of the 14th amendment.)

What does this all mean? Proponents of vouchers or tax credits aren’t just fighting the ACLU and suburban tax-phobic Republicans; they are fighting the legacy of the Third and Fourth Presidents of the United States (whose position is that of the ACLU today). I see little chance of defeating that coalition. Many of us who went to public schools in the US, and whose parents and grandparents also went to public schools here, have a legacy of reverence for the founding fathers of the US that many Jews whose ancestors arrived here more recently (and who don't get the patriotism stuff drummed into them in their yeshivot) don't understand. This is something deep in the American culture and psyche.

This strong separation of religion and state, and its wide acceptance, has given Jews a level of protection in this country that is rare across the world. For that we can thank, in part, the people most responsible for that – Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. We may have to learn to live with the consequences and make difficult financial decisions as a community if we want to have Jewish schools available, because the people of this country aren't likely to support major changes to what Jefferson and Madison instituted.

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