Jefferson, Mann, and Us

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[post from our time at Covenant College, doing MEd coursework; class by Kaufmann and Greene called School and Society; worth reposting]

Today Dr Kaufmann (he wants us to call him Steve but he’s just so fatherly that I have trouble doing it! =) talked about Jefferson’s “fair experiment” to create a nation devoid of an established state church. As you know the “establishment clause” of the First Amendment stems from this impulse.

Our discussion centered on the idea that Jefferson’s experiment failed. A democratic state cannot operate unless its citizens agree on a core of civic values which are transmitted through some institution. The main options are government, family, church, and school. When America eschewed state-established religion for the sake of religious freedom (not necessarily a bad thing), it left a huge vacuum in what Kaufmann calls “central meaning/values dispensing institutions.” In other words, SOME institution is going to have the task of taking the “pluribus” [of “e pluribus unum’}–the immigrants, the rabble, the various cultures that existed in the colonies — and turning them into an “unum” which could work together in the republic.

Without an established church to inculcate a certain set of values for the common good, the government (led by Horace Mann and his “common schools’ movement in the early 1800s) rushed in to fill the gap with education. This went hand in hand with the rise of Unitarianism in the New England states, where Mann believed that humanity’s problem was ignorance (not the Fall) and the solution was education (not divine redemption). And as soon as he got what he wanted– common education for all children under the auspices of the government — a new “public religion” was born to fill the gap that Jefferson left.

The push for a united, free, and government-controlled public school system wasn’t universal UNTIL even level-headed Protestants like Charles Hodge (as well as just the ordinary guy on the farm) became alarmed at the enormous influx of Irish-Catholic immigrants. Protestants in general were wary of Catholics’ loyalty to the pope instead of to the government. And ethnic “racism” [“Irish are dirty, filty, good-for-nothing, uneducated rabble”] shoved people over the edge. Suddenly, everone wanted public compulsory education to turn these Irish Catholics (and later Italians, Poles, Czechs, etc) into good American citizens (which happened to match the values of the white Protestant middle class). Hope you weren’t Jewish!

Ironically, the removal of explicit Christian teaching from public schools stems from the mid 1800s, not in the 1960s Supreme Court decisions that banned prayer and Bible reading. And–even more ironic–the move to strike overt religious teaching was backed by Christians themselves. Why? Because Catholics were complaining about the discrimination against them in the school system. They didn’t want their kids to be forced to read the King James translation or study Protestant doctrine. When their protests fell on deaf ears and even produced a school system hostile to their beliefs, they went off to found parochial schools. If you grew up in the Northeast or a large city, you know the rest of the story. And a little more than a century later, independents and Baptists left the public system to found their own schools–the coincidence with school desegregation is more than a little embarrassing.

The ironies here are rich:

  • Christians in the 1800s overwhelmingly volunteered to give up their right to parent-controlled local school districts out of fear of Catholic “power”
  • Christians in the 1800s never dreamed that by giving up explicit Christianity in the schools to discriminate against Catholics, they were setting up their own demise 100 years later. Um, can we say “discrimination is probably not a good solution” in just about any case??
  • The separation of church and state clause seemed doomed to push Christianity from the center of public life from the very start. But as long as Christians thought they were “top dog” in the list of religions, no one cared.
  • Christians bought into the myth that education could take place apart from worldview considerations — that you can teach “moral values” apart from a religious system to underpin them.

If you know anything about the Dutch Reformed concept of “sphere sovereignty,” you might know where this history lesson is going. More on that tomorrow . . .maybe

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