Friday, October 11, 2019

The Secular Schools

This is going to be kind of rambly and personal and religious; you've been warned. I've been trying to sort through my thoughts about the use of tax dollars to support private religious schools. I started here, then picked the thread up here. I have problems with the idea of vouchers as a tool for religious freedom, and it has taken me some discussion and thought to zero in on part  of my issue.

It's not just separation of church and state. I believe in it, and not just for the state's sake, but for religion's as well. I've oft-quoted (but have trouble finding the original author for) "When you mix religion and politics, you get politics," and we seem to be living through a fairly stark demonstration of that.

But the mixing continues apace. I have some religious conservative friends who have long thought, as does, apparently, Betsy DeVos, that there are certain functions that rightfully belong to the church that have been usurped by the state, and it's high time they were taken back. Schools are on that list. I think that's a huge mistake, both for state and church.

I am trying to side step a larger discussion of religion here. My own relationship with the church is... complicated. I have been a C&E guy, and I've been in leadership positions. My faith in God remains far stronger than my faith in all the tiny little humans who purport to speak for God. And as a teacher of American literature, I talked to students about religion every year while staying carefully neutral (my standard preamble was "I am going to talk about what these people believed. I am not here to tell you whether they were right or wrong-- just what they thought"). I'm rambling a bit now, but my point is that I've spent a lot of time thinking about how personal faith intersects with life and work in a country that was not, sorry, ever set up to be anything like a Christian nation.

I got to discussing this with Neal McCluskey, the CATO education guy with whom I disagree about almost everything, prompting him to write this response, and that helped me spot a big point on which we disagree. Here's part of what he wrote. The set up...

Writes Greene about “Libby folks”—presumably libertarians and not fans of canned fruit—“you have, of course, always been free to send your child to a religious school. What’s new here is the argument that the government should pay for it.” He goes on, “Libbys are saying that citizens should be taxed so that their children can practice their religion,” which doesn’t seem like a very libertarian thing to do.

And the pitch:

I agree. It isn’t. Except for one thing with which Greene never seriously grapples: this is in a status quo in which everyone is taxed to support government schools, schools that, by law, must be secular. In other words, a system in which religious people are inherently second-class citizens.

I agree with the first part, but not the second. For me, "secular" is not the same as "anti-religious." I don't see an issue, and have never seen one in thirty-nine years, with students of faith in a secular classroom--


Unless the student (or her parents) believes that their religion should dominate everything else. There is that certain brand of Christian who believes that her belief system should dominate whatever room, whatever endeavor she is involved in. She may insist that it is an excuse to deliberately reject learning (a colleague who was teaching a gifted class about comparative religions in the world was told by a student that there was no point in learning about other religions because they were all wrong), or demand that other students do not say or do or be things that she finds offensive. And of course you can insert a discussion of all the different evolution arguments here.

These are people who have yet to grow in faith and who, frankly, don't know much about the story of their own faith (Fun fact for proponents of the Biblical story of creation: there are two creation stories in Genesis, and they don't match. Seriously.) The history of the Christian church is filled with arguing and fighting and stabbing and killing over doctrinal points we no longer even talk or think about. One of my basic articles of belief is that anyone who thinks they know everything they need to know about a subject is a dope, and that goes quadruple for religion. Every person I've ever known whose faith I respected and admired can tell you right off the top of their head five things they got wrong about their faith when they were younger.

Point is, we're all growing, or should be, and putting yourself in a bubble where nobody will ever say anything you disagree with is an impediment to growth. This weird new interpretation of the First Amendment (I should be able to discriminate as I think my religion requires me to) is not just bad for the country, but it's bad for religion and it's bad for the people who want to practice it.

Also on my list of Things I Believe-- if your idea can't hold up to discussion or opposing views, it's probably not a great idea. If you think simply being exposed to science will forever erode your child's faith in God, then your conception of God is flawed (including your lack of understanding of God's willingness to play the long game).

There is no way to include religion in public education without having the government pick a winner, and that's bad for everyone. And every argument that boils down to "But we really deserve to be the winner" is invalid.

There is one other factor at play here-- the mixture of religion and politics has given us people who think their political or social beliefs are religious. But believing in capitalism as the best system-- that's not religious. Believing that LGBTQ folks shouldn't be seen, heard, or given rights-- that's not religious. Believing in white supremacy is not religious. We have a long history of reading current social beliefs into scripture, like the Southern Baptists who left the main church over their belief that slavery was mandated by God. If you are just trying to impose your political beliefs under the banner of God, well, schools should also be apolitical, and you should go sit down.

But to circle back around to my point (and I do have one), secular is not the antithesis or religious. Technical definition: denoting attitudes, activities, or other things that have no religious or spiritual basis. Secular is the absence of religion, not the rejection of it. A sunrise is secular. A baby's birth is secular. A baseball game is secular. A good jazz solo is secular. Faith (and its confused cousin, religion) is what puts a foundation under all that. The secular stuff is the dry soup mix and faith is the boiling water you add to make soup. Secular is the what and the how; faith is the why. They are not mutually exclusive, but mutually enriching. Someone without any secular education is stuck worshipping Magic Santa ("Yeah, God just waves his magic hand and stuff happened) which is pretty meager stuff. Someone without faith-- well, I don't know. I don't know if I've ever met someone without any faith in a larger something of some kind, though I'm sure it's theoretically possible.I think it would suck.

But because the faith part is personal, and because religion plus politics equals politics, we have a secular government and secular government agencies like schools, because this is not supposed to be the country where we extract tax dollars from Ed to pay for a school that will reject Ed's kid because of their tiny view of God.

It's also the kind of country where you should be able to go set up your own bubble school if you want to, and I totally support that. Just not funding it wit tax dollars either directly or via some clever voucher set up.

And if your beef with "secular" schools is really that you and your religious brethren aren't being given the dominant voice you deserve, well, that's very American, too. It's a big part of what brought the Puritans here, which got us fun things like Salem and hanging Quakers for proselytizing wrongly and banishing people. Our colonial period is filled with examples of how badly things go when the state picks a religious winner, which is probably a chunk of what motivated the founding fathers to bake in religious neutrality.

And picking a religious winner is where religious vouchers end up. The Satanic Church or the Rastafarians will try to horn in and then some folks will say, "We need rules" and before you know it, we'll have the Federal Bureau of Religious School Certification. Neutrality is the only workable course.

Again, secular schools are not anti-religion unless you think you're religion is too good and right and better to be forced to be on equal footing with all the other religions. Secularism is not a religion. Science is not a religion. Secular schools leave a big blank space where religion goes, leaving families, preachers, or random youtube videos to fill in that space. If your feeling is that you must be allowed to fill in that space with your preferred beliefs, send your child to a school that does it, but don't bill me for it.

That's what I think.

1 comment:

  1. Your premise that the USA was not set up as a Christian state is flawed, I believe. Freedom of religion was guaranteed so that the various Christian sects could not set up as a state church, a la Church of England. Now times have changed and we are confronted with Islam and Hinduism and Judaism and Buddhaism etc. as significant minority religions. Devos just wants things the way they were, but it's too late. We would have to say only Christian schools should get state money. Not going to happen. Thus the conflict.