February 2024 Church & State Magazine - February 2024

The two-fisted assault: church-state separation and public education are two of the best things about America. Christian Nationalists would like to get rid of both.

  Randall Balmer

I’ve long argued that the First Amendment, with its guarantee of religious freedom and separation of church and state, is America’s best idea. The absence of religious establishment set up a free marketplace for religion and has therefore ensured a salubrious religious culture unmatched anywhere in the world.

If the First Amendment is America’s best idea, the second best is public education, known as “common schools” in the nineteenth century. It was originally devised as a way for the children of those less fortunate to obtain an education and, therefore, become upwardly mobile.

When the children arrive at school, a mature adult teacher greets them with high fives.

Public schools: A cornerstone of America (Getty Images)

Public schools became a place where children of different ethnic, religious and even socioeconomic backgrounds could gather in the classroom or on the playground to explore their similarities and understand their differences.

I acknowledge I have presented an idealized vision, and public education has only sometimes lived up to that promise. But it remains our best recipe for democracy, and if you care about the future of our multicultural society, you must care about the future of public education.

Sadly, both the separation of church and state and public education are under attack as never before.

The cancer of Christian Nationalism has been much debated in recent years. Following the lead of faux historian David Barton and others, many Americans, including the new speaker of the House of Representatives, Mike Johnson, are claiming the United States is and always has been a Christian nation.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The founders, who had seen the ruinous effects of religious factionalism in Europe, insisted that the new government remain neutral in matters of religion.

The First Amendment guaranteed the “free exercise” of religion and simultaneously prohibited any religious establishment. When Patrick Henry proposed that Christianity be designated as the favored religion in Virginia, James Madison and others decisively rejected that idea.

Those arguing for Christian Nationalism conveniently neglect the Treaty of Tripoli, which reads in part: “As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion …” The treaty was negotiated toward the end of George Washington’s presidency, submitted to Congress by John Adams and ratified unanimously by the United States Senate on June 7, 1797.

The attempt by Christian Nationalists to “baptize” the founders as evangelical Christians would be laughable were it not so insidious. Put simply, with the possible exception of John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian minister and president of the College of New Jersey, none of the founders would qualify for membership in churches where the heresy of Christian Nationalism is now being propagated.

The attack on public education is equally disturbing. Public schools are facing a tsunami of destruction, especially in red states like Florida and my home state of Iowa. The playbook, followed by their respective governors, Ron DeSantis and Kim Reynolds, dictates they legislate against what they characterize as “woke” ideas and ban books from public school libraries.

The Florida State Board of Education, for example, has directed that schoolchildren should learn that “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

In Iowa, teenagers can now work in meat-processing plants. Still, they cannot check out George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale from public school libraries.

Worse, Reynolds’ legislation will divert an estimated annual $142 million of taxpayer money away from public education to be used for students to attend private schools, including religious schools.

I suppose we have to give “Covid Kim” grudging credit for scoring a two-fer: undermining both the First Amendment and public education.

The attack on public schools coincides with the continued evangelical mania for homeschooling. In 1988, when I was writing Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory, parents in New Hampshire told me that they refused to send their children to the “snakepit” of public schools.

The home-schooling argument appears to rest on two premises: first, the supposed pernicious effects of public education, and second, the “fact” that home-schooled students score higher on standardized tests than students from public schools. As a product of public education in Minnesota, Michigan and Iowa, and as a parent who sent his sons to public schools, including New York City public schools, I’ve long been suspicious of both claims.

According to reporting by Laura Meckler in The Washington Post, the latter claim — that home-schooled students test better — has been discredited. The principal source for this data appears to be Brian Ray of Salem, Oregon, who styles himself as a social scientist and president of the National Home Education Research Institute.

He’s regularly called upon to testify about the glories of homeschooling in the media, before state legislatures and even in child custody cases when parents disagree about schools. He invariably claims that children who are educated by parents at home fare better academically.

According to social scientists who criticize Ray for using small and non-randomized samples in his “research,” that is untrue. In addition, much of Ray’s work is funded by the Home School Legal Defense Association, which is hardly a disinterested party.

Whatever its flaws and shortcomings, public education remains our best hope for the future of democracy. America’s best ideas, the First Amendment and public education, are under siege.

Anyone who cares about our collective future must rally to their defense. 

Dr. Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest, is John Phillips Professor in Religion at Dartmouth College and the author of more than a dozen books, with commentaries appearing in newspapers across the country. He is a contributing correspondent at Good Faith Media (goodfaithmedia.org/), from which this piece is reprinted with permission.

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