SCOTUS Decision: Who’s the Bigot Here?

The script isn’t new. In every culture-war battle these days, both sides like to call each other bigots. The recent landmark SCOTUS ruling is no different. When the Court ruled this week that a church school cannot be prevented from receiving public funds, both sides insisted they are on the side of the anti-bigotry angels. From this historian’s perspective, one side has the much better case. Am I off base?

If you’ve been following the Trinity Lutheran case, you’ve heard all about “Blaine Amendments.” Yesterday, SCOTUS ruled 7-2 that Missouri could not exclude a religious school from receiving public funds for its playground. The school had applied for a grant to re-surface its playground. The state of Missouri, though, rejected the otherwise successful application because its state constitution prohibits funding religious schools, in a clause popularly known as a “Blaine Amendment.”

So far, so good.

The majority in this case fulfilled the dreams of conservatives such as Clarence Thomas. Blaine Amendments, Thomas has long argued, have their roots in anti-Catholic prejudice. As a product of 1870s bigotry, they deserve to be consigned to the scrapheap of historical justice. In his opinion in Mitchell v. Helms (2000), for example, Justice Thomas excoriated such doctrines as “born of bigotry.”

Is he right? The other side insists that the real bigots are the ones who want to erode the goal of a secular government. The true bigots, they’d say, are the folks like Clarence Thomas who hope to chip away at the post-World-War-II SCOTUS consensus that there should be a firm wall of separation between church and state. The ultimate goal of such SCOTUS scheming is to take away the hard-won rights of religious and non-religious minorities, to cram majority Christianity down the throats of Americans of all backgrounds.

Who has the better argument?

On one hand, Justice Thomas isn’t totally wrong. Although savvy historians such as Benjamin Justice of Rutgers have made a good case against him, the Blaine Amendments really do have roots as relics of anti-Catholic populist bigotry.

In his terrific book The Bible, the School, and the Constitution, Steven K. Green describes the context in which the Blaine Amendments took off. From Green’s perspective, Justice Thomas’s argument is far too simplistic. Senator Blaine himself wasn’t an anti-Catholic bigot. His mother was Catholic and he sent his kids to Catholic schools. Moreover, as Green points out, there was not a single “Blaine Amendment” and the supporters of such amendments had a variety of motivations, not just anti-Catholic bible school constitution

However, just because Blaine wasn’t an anti-Catholic bigot, his amendment certainly played to the popular anti-Catholic bigotry of his day, as Green also relates. In the years following the Civil War, the Republican Party used popular anti-Catholic sentiment as a campaign tool. Leaders such as Blaine and Grant inflamed the anti-Catholic prejudices of voters in order to discredit their rivals in the Democratic Party, the traditional political home of Irish Catholics.

Blaine’s proposed Constitutional amendment was at least in part a House-of-Cards-style attempt to inflame anti-Catholic bigotry. According to Green, contemporary newspapers recognized Blaine’s proposal as fueling “the excitement of Protestant fanaticism.” Rallies in support of the Blaine Amendment made no secret of it. They insisted the anti-Catholic measure would guarantee the victory of “the promulgation of the doctrines of true religion” in America.

So, although Justice Thomas distorts the history of the Blaine Amendments by over-emphasizing this bigoted anti-Catholic support, he is not wrong to suggest that supporters often did react out of knee-jerk Protestant chauvinism. Though the Blaine Amendment failed, its language was incorporated in one way or another into several state constitutions, including Missouri’s.

In this historian’s opinion, however, there is a more important flaw lurking in Justice Thomas’s use of the history of Blaine Amendments, due either to surprising ignorance or profound cynicism. If bigotry lurked at the heart of the Blaine Amendment, precisely the same bigotry has fueled a generation of conservative attempts to wedge religion—a certain form of religion—back into America’s public schools. When Justice Thomas fights against Blaine-ist bigotry, he is promoting the very same.

The dangerous, bigoted implication—in Blaine’s day or in ours—is that there is one type of religion that is somehow more American than others. To my mind, this is the big danger in this debate, and it is a danger that has worried conservative religious people as much as secular progressives like myself.

As Robert Daniel Rubin argues in his terrific new book Judicial Review and American Conservatism, since the 1970s religious conservatives have fought against the separation of church and state in order to restore Christianity to its place as America’s de facto religion. As part of this campaign, since the days of Senator Jesse Helms and Justice William Rehnquist, conservatives have pushed to wedge more and more Christian prayer and Bible-reading back into schools.rubin book

Moral-Majority types have always valued the privileges of Christian majorities over the rights of religious (or non-religious) minorities. Justice Rehnquist, for example, thought the primary goal of courts should be to defend the rights of majorities to promulgate their doctrines in public institutions, including public schools. As Rubin puts it (pg. 214), Justice Rehnquist felt

solicitude toward the majority and its capacity to fashion policies embodying its moral and political preferences. To honor dissenters’ rights more jealously than states’ laws was to disgrace the democratic process.

Just like Senator Blaine and Justice Thomas, Justice Rehnquist wouldn’t have called this solicitude “bigotry.” In the end, though, if we have to play the bigotry card, I can’t help but think that Thomas has the weaker case.

Why? The most dangerous, bigoted notion in these cases, IMHO, is the implication that there is a real American religion, that Christianity (or Protestantism, or evangelical Protestantism) have somehow a better claim to government support. In this idea lurks the true and dangerous bigotry in this perennial conflict. It is a bigotry, to be fair, that has been strenuously opposed by plenty of religious conservatives themselves. As we’ve noted in these pages, many conservative evangelicals are horrified by the notion that theirs is somehow a merely “American” religion.

Among conservative evangelicals, however, it has proven difficult to oppose moral-majoritarianism. And so we come to our culture-war battle over the proper role of Christian religion in public schools. One on side, we have conservatives who fight to include Christian sentiment and activity in government-funded activities, including schools. On the other, we have progressives who favor a strict secularity in government funding.

Ideally, we could have these discussions without calling each other bigots. When it comes right down to it, though, if we are going to start flinging mud, the balance seems clear to me: In this case the bigger bigots are those who hope to cram Christianity back into public schools. They ignore the rights of minorities; they insist that their ideas are right for everybody.

Many SAGLRROILYBYGTH will likely disagree. What do YOU think? Is it fair to call pro-Christian activism “bigotry?” Or do Christian groups have a right to legal protection from anti-religious “bigotry” such as the so-called Blaine Amendments?

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  1. Agellius

     /  June 27, 2017

    I’m confused. Wasn’t this just about re-surfacing a playground?

  2. You are correct Agellius – Adam’s first link gives a good summary. For me, even though the public funds are to be used for a ‘secular’ function, it seems to open the door to most any type of ‘secular’ function being subsidized with public funds. The Justices deny this, but the logical extension is that a voucher is just a scholarship that can be used at any school, secular or religious.

    • Agellius

       /  June 27, 2017

      Undoubtedly I’m missing some of the finer points, but I still don’t see what the big deal is. Christian colleges participate in government financial aid programs of various kinds, with strings attached which basically enable the government to impose restrictions and requirements on them that they otherwise would not have to observe. Why not elementary and secondary schools? What is essentially different about that? Is it just that the kids are younger and more impressionable?

      I’m a Christian but I wouldn’t get upset if a Jewish or Muslim school participated in this type of program. As a conservative I don’t like the idea of spending tax money on private playgrounds of any kind, but if it has to be done I don’t see why religious groups must be excluded from the largesse. After all their members pay a good chunk of the taxes in the first place.

      • I guess for me a primary difference is that this is K-12 education which in most places is mandatory, whereas college/university education is truly choice. I agree that with only a few exceptions, Christian and other religious colleges participate in federal and state funding programs, often limited to student aid versus facilities. Religious folks pay taxes for schools, but so do childless people. The religious folks choose to send their kids to private schools and should understand that the public is not obliged to subsidize their choice.

      • I agree that the main difference is the public/private distinction. Yes, college students get public financial aid, but the money is supposed to go to them, not to their religious institution. Also, students at K-12 private schools can often get public funding for things that are supposed to benefit them, not the school. The big woop-de-doo in the Trinity Lutheran case, IMHO, is that the decision establishes a precedent that state governments are not allowed to discriminate against religious institutions when it comes to funding for secular things such as playground equipment. In the fraught history of religion and schooling, even such a seemingly small decision has possibly significant implications. As Douglas suggests, the biggest one in this case is the idea of publicly funded vouchers to send students to private religious schools. If states can’t decide not to fund secular functions of religious institutions, does that mean that public funding of a secular good such as high-quality education can’t be restricted only to non-religious institutions?

    • Agellius

       /  June 27, 2017


      The public is obliged to subsidize the education of all children; as you say, even people without kids are so obliged. But given that all children are to be provided a subsidized education, where and by whom that education may be provided is another question. I don’t accept that an education provided in publicly owned facilities by public employees is the only possible choice. It is a choice we have made historically, but as a free people we have a right to choose other options, as we did before the public school era. Whether those other options are religious schools or secular, and if religious, what restrictions and requirements we will impose as a condition of public funding, are all things we can discuss.

  3. Agellius

     /  June 27, 2017


    You write, “If states can’t decide not to fund secular functions of religious institutions, does that mean that public funding of a secular good such as high-quality education can’t be restricted only to non-religious institutions?”

    I hope so.

  4. Dan

     /  June 27, 2017

    The problem isn’t bigotry but the inability of different groups and the state, each with their own interests, to find sufficient common ground where they can all support things like school playgrounds without fear anyone will use that as a precedent for ever-expanding influence and control, such that one interest dominates the others. Once the culture has degraded so much that these legal questions are defined by fear, anger, and suspicion — and justifiiably so — legal solutions will tend to reflect and exacerbate the corruption of the culture. The legal and political system is the last shred of pantomimed civility covering the war of all against all that is boiling below.


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