The Bible, The School, and the Constitution: Guest Post from Steven K. Green

Paul Harvey

I'm pleased to host a guest post today from Steven Green, author of the brand new and very important book  The Bible, The School, and the Constitution: The Clash that Shaped Modern Church-State Doctrine. (Oxford, 2012). This post actually will kick off a mini-forum on the book; I'll be posting on the book this week, and Chris Beneke will be posting on it soon as well. A brief take from Religion Review gives a very nice short summary, and I would also recommend Green's short piece "The Battle Over School Prayer and Why It Matters.":

From 1863 to 1876, education reformers, religious leaders, ordinary people, and legal experts grappled with “the School Question”: whether Bible reading belonged in public education, and if religious schools could receive public funds. Green, a professor of law and history at Willamette University, has provided an extremely dense but rigorous assessment of this tumultuous period that witnessed the Civil War, the emergence of a public system of education, and an influx of immigration. Catholics accused the ostensibly secular public schools of promoting Protestantism because some influential education reformers equated Republicanism with Protestantism. While it was inconceivable to some that students could learn moral virtue without reading the Bible, other states like Ohio banned unmediated reading of the Bible in public schools during “the Cincinnati Bible War.” Meanwhile, anti-Catholic animus suffused the debate over public funding of parochial schools, with prominent ministers like Lyman Beecher stoking nativist fears that Catholics would dominate the Midwest. Deftly guiding the reader through this cacophony, Green reveals how a factious American public engaged with constitutional principles that still resonate in today’s controversies over school prayer and creationism. (Feb.)

by Steven K. Green

The subjects that compose the study of American religious history have frequently involved issues that were controversial in their day (admittedly, that is one reason we are attracted to this area).  The rise of Mormonism and the church’s conflicts with the United States government during the nineteenth century offer one notable example.  Another significant episode in American religious history has been the controversy over religion and education.  Unlike many subjects of religious history, however, this issue has remained controversial since the inception of public schooling in the early nineteenth century, perhaps due to its legal implications.  Recently, at lease three Republican presidential candidates – Rick Perry, Michelle Bachmann, and Newt Gingrich – have made remarks critical of the Supreme Court’s decisions banning school religious exercises, with the Texas governor announcing his support for a constitutional amendment to reverse the Court decisions.

That the Supreme Court’s Bible reading decisions have been a political punching-bag is nothing new.  Like other “culture war” issues, religion in the schools – both the Bible reading and funding sides of the issue – has ongoing symbolic significance for people who are interested in defining the nation’s moral character.  What fewer people realize is that the history informing this legal issue has been controversial as well.  Ever since the Court’s first decision in 1947, critics have charged that the justices either misinterpreted the history or (mis)used it selectively to arrive at their conclusions.  This criticism has grown in recent years. According to this critique – one endorsed by Justice Clarence Thomas – the notion of church-state separation endorsed by the modern Court rests on a decidedly illiberal history that supported a Protestant hegemony at the expense of Catholics and other religious minorities.  In particular, critics charge, the nineteenth century regime of “nonsectarian” schooling perpetuated Protestant control of public schooling while it legitimized discrimination against Catholics by prohibiting public funding of parochial schools.  As a result, the high court’s rulings, and potentially its entire church-state jurisprudence, may rest on a discredited principle.

My new book, The Bible, the School, and the Constitution: The Clash that Shaped Modern Church-State Doctrine (Oxford University Press, 2012), examines the connection between this history and the holdings of the modern Supreme Court.   The book has two related theses.  First, the understanding (and practice) of nonsectarian public education during the nineteenth century was not static but was dynamic and evolving.  Although nonsectarianism began as a means to instill morality and religious fealty in schoolchildren, the practice evolved over time as a result of efforts to professionalize education and pressure by not only Catholics and Jews, but also by liberal Protestants and secularists who viewed religious exercises as inconsistent with notions of religious equality.  By the close of the nineteenth century, a clear trend was underway toward abolishing religious exercises or making them chiefly symbolic.  It was upon this foundation that the modern Supreme Court built its early school prayer decisions.

The book’s second thesis is that the related rule against funding religious education – based on the notion that public funds could pay only for nonsectarian public education and not for private schooling in which sectarian doctrines were taught – arose not as a means to discriminate against Catholic schooling.  The rule developed in the 1820s in response to competition for school funds between Protestant schools and the nascent common schools.  Educator Horace Mann, who led the above drive to make nonsectarian instruction less devotional (albeit still religious), also endorsed the no-funding rule as a way to diffuse religious dissention among Protestant groups.  Mann, like others, also identified the no-funding rule with constitutional principles. This rule was already developing by the time that Catholic immigration exploded in the 1840s.  

Alienated by the Protestant character of public schooling, Catholic officials created a system of parochial schools and sought financial support from the state.  It was at this time that nativists and “muscular Protestants” took up the mantel of church-state separation, in large part to secure the favored position of Protestant schooling while countering the “threat” of Catholic schooling.  Even though nativists tried to limit the developing concept of separationism to funding issue – as they supported robust religious exercises that even Mann disdained – they were unsuccessful in preventing its application to the Bible reading issue.  By making separation part of the conversation about public education, it had the unintended consequence of accelerating the secularization of America’s public schools.  But more important, the book demonstrates that the controversy over the religious complexion of the public schools and the funding of religious schools was not a simple Catholic-Protestant conflict, that perspectives fractured along several lines.

The book argues that the Supreme Court built on this mixed history when it entered the fray in the 1940s. The Court agreed that even nonsectarian religious exercises violated the Constitution, while it embraced the larger heritage of the no-funding rule. Despite criticism at the time that the Court was making new law and going against our religious traditions, the legal basis for its decisions was well established by that time.

Steven K. Green is the Fred H. Paulus Professor of Law and History at Willamette University, where he directs the Center for Religion, Law and Democracy.  He is the author of The Second Disestablishment: Church and State in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford University Press, 2010).


jimmiraybob said…
David Sehat in The Myth of American Religious Freedom touches on this subject and if I recall correctly he didn't see a lot of consistency on court rulings on these matters. How does your book expand or build or challenge his theses?

Prior to reading MCCOLLUM v. BOARD OF EDUCATION and then Sehat's book, I had no real idea of the history of early church influence on public education. I was a bit surprised to find that separation of religion from public education has not just been a secularist/atheist cause but also a matter of religious conviction - or at least power struggle.
Tom Van Dyke said…
[(When) the Supreme Court built on this mixed history when it entered the fray in the 1940s], The Court agreed that even nonsectarian religious exercises violated the Constitution...

It's not self-evident that the Court didn't throw the baby out with the bathwater.

JRB, Justice Thomas doesn't find the Court has a "lot of consistency on court rulings on these matters" either.

It's unclear that the book is entirely closed on these issues.

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