God: Another Four-Letter Word?

Does God Belong in Public Schools?
By Kent Greenawalt
Princeton University Press, 2005, $29.95; 261 pages.

Between Memory and Vision: The Case for Faith-Based Schooling
By Steven C. Vryhof
Foreword by Charles Glenn
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004, $22.00; 181 pages.

Reviewed by Nathan Glazer

These are two very different books on the role of religion in schooling. Kent Greenawalt, university professor at the Columbia University School of Law, former deputy solicitor general of the United States, a distinguished constitutional lawyer, and a prolific author, has written a dense treatment of the law on religion and the public schools. He does not deal with private or religious schools, though on occasion he does note their existence as possible alternatives for aggrieved parties when this might affect constitutional reasoning on the legitimacy of one or another practice in public schools. For Professor Greenawalt, God definitely does not belong in public schools, certainly not the Christian God, though one detects in his constitutional reasoning a bit more license for other gods.

Our other author, Steven Vryhof, is a “speaker, writer, consultant, and adjunct professor of education at Calvin College” and an advocate of faith-based schools. In particular, he supports schools connected to a more orthodox and traditional offshoot of the Reformed Church, three of which he describes in Between Memory and Vision. The three schools are in Holland, Michigan; in Bellevue, Washington; and in Hoboken, New Jersey, and he compares them with the nearest public schools. But Vryhof is not really concerned with public schools, except to demonstrate the superiority, in cost and results, of his faith-based establishments. On that score the arguments have been familiar since James Coleman’s research on Catholic schools, and they remain sound, in particular on the effect of functioning communities around religious schools.

Vryhof’s brief accounts leave the reader wanting to know more about the schools. They seem quite different from the usual image of Christian schools, undoubtedly because of the stronger intellectual tradition of Calvinism. For example, they escape for the most part the dispiriting disputes over evolution and biblical inerrancy. One wonders, though, how graduates of these schools manage in our dominantly secularist colleges and universities, or whether they simply avoid them.

Vryhof does review briefly the constitutional position concerning public support for religious schools, but only to demonstrate its irrationality (yes it’s constitutional for books; no for maps; yes for some tests; no for preparation to take tests; and so on).


Our Secular Religions

Reading these two books in sequence, I came across a passage in Charles Glenn’s foreword to class Between Memory and Vision that threw a sharp and revealing light on the subtle and often mind-numbing distinctions elaborated in Does God Belong in Public Schools Glenn writes: “The effect of Supreme Court decisions over the past forty years was to treat religion as the only forbidden motivation for school choice.” Let us extend that comment to read “religion as the only forbidden motivation for any school practice.”

One may legitimately have school rules and practices for all sorts of purposes: to improve civic education and public morality, to teach honesty, to prevent disorder, to reduce unwed motherhood and sexually transmitted diseases, to avoid litigation, to encourage empathy for tsunami victims, to strengthen patriotism, and so on. But if the motivation in any way reflects religious belief or commitment, the practice, perhaps otherwise acceptable, falls under constitutional suspicion. An odd limitation in the most religious country in the Western world, where almost everyone believes in God, and greater numbers engage in weekly religious observances than anywhere else.

We have been so educated by the sequence of Supreme Court decisions on religion and schools that began in the late 1940s that most of us would not be astonished at how odd this is. But in studying Greenawalt’s detailed expositions and analyses, we may perhaps still be open to some surprise. For example, consider the case of Christian parents protesting“secular humanism” in school readers. Their charge was that the texts were in fact teaching religion, such as Secular Humanism and Satanism. Greenawalt tells us that a decision by teachers to use one series of readers rather than another in response to parents’ protests “would be uncontroversial [constitutionally] if the parents’ reasons had nothing to do with religion. But suppose the minority parents object to the [controversial] series on religious grounds. I believe educators are justified in finding acceptable common ground [with the parents], so long as their judgments are not self-consciously based on their own religious views.” And if they are based unconsciously on religious views?

We are in a tangle on religion in the public schools. Greenawalt’s main concern is to sort out the threads so he can provide guidance to administrators and teachers (and lawyers and judges) on how to stay within the constitutionally determined limits on religion in public schools. He does try to make some place for teaching about religion as against the exaggerated fears of administrators and teachers, but it is a small place. The way he limits what can be done may not reassure school people that they can stay on the right side of the Constitution in doing so.


The Highest Court Chips at the Wall of Separation

The First Amendment does provide that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or the free exercise thereof,” but this did not apply to the states (or to public schools as presumed organs of the state) for the first 150 years of the Union. But beginning with the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment after the Civil War, the provisions of the Bill of Rights were interpreted by the Supreme Court over time to apply to the states, too. The first ruling of significance on religion and the schools was in Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing (N.J.) Township in 1947. Everson posed the question whether states could provide free transportation to students of nonprofit private schools—specifically, parochial schools. The Court ruled 5 to 4 that busing could be provided, and so we are governed.

But the Court also unanimously adopted the language of Justice Hugo Black in the same case: “The clause [no establishment of religion] was intended to erect ‘a wall of separation’ between church and state.” Greenawalt notes, “This approach was dubious from a historical point of view, given that the amendment actually protected existing state establishments at the time from federal interference.” The author believes that the overriding issue at the time of Everson was Protestant and Jewish (and secularist) opposition to any assistance to the struggling Catholic parochial schools.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, on a wave of anti-Catholic sentiment, many states had passed prohibitions, constitutional and legislative, against funds for nonpublic schools, laws aimed at Catholic parochial schools. One thinks back to Charles Glenn’s observation about the “only forbidden motivation” and Greenawalt’s point that conscious religious motives would make a teacher’s selecting (or not selecting) school textbooks constitutionally suspect. There was religious motivation involved, conscious more than unconscious, in granting public aid to Catholic schools and in denying it. How could it be otherwise in this religious country?

Conceivably, if the originalist justice Antonin Scalia, is joined by others, the whole applecart may be turned over, to return us to pre-Everson days, with matters in the hands of the states. But no respectable constitutional authority would contemplate the possibility. Greenawalt wants to effect sensible compromises. No to creation science and intelligent design supplementing or replacing evolution: it is too hard to hide the religious motivation there, whatever the opponents of Darwinism say. Yes to the teaching about religions, though the dangers there boggle the mind. No to personal expressions of belief by teachers because they may influence students, but much depends on age and sophistication. And so we have guidance on many topics, sometimes so subtle one doubts a teacher can really manage it. Choral music? “Courts … will consider the director’s teaching style, including what he says during rehearsals, the site of a concert and its time of year, how selections are placed in a program, whether notes explain the musical significance of works, and the extent to which performance underscores aesthetic elements.” Well, let’s drop the St. Matthew Passion.

-Nathan Glazer is professor of education and sociology emeritus, Harvard University.

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