The Real Wall of Separation

At ILYBYGTH, we’ve been following stories in Missouri and New Hampshire about religion, authority, and public schools.

Today in a guest post on Valerie Strauss’ Washington Post Education blog, I argue that these kinds of laws just won’t work.  In this post, I allow myself to get a little more strident than I usually do on these pages.  I argue that rules allowing parents and families to opt out of school rules a la carte just won’t work.  Nor are they new.  In the 1920s, anger at and fear of a steamrolling anti-religious curriculum drove the first anti-evolution campaign.  In the 1970s and 1980s, in places such as Kanawha County, West Virginia, and Hawkins County, Tennessee, battles over school curriculum led to a new generation of conservative school activists.

The maturation of that generation can be seen in laws and amendments such as those in Missouri and Tennessee.  I am deeply sympathetic to parents who don’t want schools to dictate hostile ideas to their children.  But putting up a wall of separation around each individual student just won’t work.

What Do Missourians REALLY Want?

Everyone interested in what we’re calling Fundamentalist America should be following Missouri’s Amendment 2.  The debate about the nature of religion in public schools and institutions gets right to the heart of many culture-war controversies.  But it appears that the amendment might pack a much heavier culture-war punch than it seems to.

There are plenty of places to go to catch up on the story.  ILYBYGTH has introduced the upcoming vote, discussed the results, and noted Catholic Bishops’ support for Amendment 2.  The St. Louis Post-Dispatch offered a very helpful introduction in late July.  For anyone interested in the viewpoint of amendment supporters, a Baptist congregation in Odessa published an hour-long video of Representative Mike McGhee explaining his vision for the amendment, frankly and openly.

For those who don’t like clicking on stuff, here’s the story in a nutshell:  On August 7, 2012, Missouri voters overwhelmingly (83%) approved an amendment to their state constitution.  The amendment was promoted as a school-prayer amendment.  Supporters such as legislative sponsor Mike McGhee called it a clarification of the rights of religious people to pray in public, so long as their prayers did not disturb others.  McGhee claimed that such rights are often disrespected.   Opponents such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State insisted it was at best unnecessary, since such rights are already protected in the US Constitution.  At worst, opponents insist, this amendment threatens to undermine the barrier between church and state.

Given a closer look, however, this amendment does much more than clarify students’ rights to pray in public schools.  It does that, but the amended Constitution now includes two other rights for students.  These new rights go far, far beyond protecting the rights of public schoolchildren to pray quietly.  The new rights satisfy the long-standing desires of important constituencies in Fundamentalist America.  For all parents who have worried that their children might be taught unwholesome moral, sexual, or religious lessons in public schools, the Missouri Constitution now offers an easy escape route.

The first added phrase, “students may express their beliefs about religion in written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their work,” opens the door for conservative families to include their beliefs in all parts of the school curriculum.  For example, creationist parents and students could now use their beliefs to answer questions about evolution.  This has long been a sticking point for creationists.  Consider the words of Avis Hill, a pastor from Kanawha County, West Virginia.  Hill rose to national prominence in 1974 when assumed a leadership role in a controversy over adopted textbooks.

From Trey Kay, “The Great Textbook War”

Hill told interviewers that his daughter was given a failing grade for her report on evolution.  According to the Reverend Hill, the young Miss Hill, fifth grader, told her teacher, “‘Mrs. So-and-So’—whose name I’ll not use—‘I’ll not give that report, and I’ll not read that book in class.’  She said, ‘I have a book I will read,’ and she opened her Bible—and I did not coach her because it didn’t bother me that much at that time—she opened her Bible, and she began in Genesis 1, ‘In the beginning God—‘ and the teacher failed her.” [Interviewed by James Moffett, included in Moffett’s Storm in the Mountains (Southern Illinois University Press, 1988), pg. 90].

This sentiment echoes throughout Fundamentalist America.  Fear that students will be forced to learn evolution, or about the use of condoms, or about the moral ambiguities of modern life have long dominated conservative rhetoric about public education.  Missouri’s new Constitution fixes that perceived problem.

The second telling phrase in the new Constitution underlines the point.  “No student,” the amendment reads, “shall be compelled to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his or her religious beliefs.”  The implications are clear.  Sex ed, evolution ed, “situation ethics,” all have loomed large in the imagination of Fundamentalist America for generations.  This amendment guarantees that no student shall be forced to learn about such things.

Missouri’s amendment is not the only place to find this sentiment in political action.  New Hampshire’s state legislature recently passed a very similar law.  As I argue in my 1920s book,  conservatives have struggled to protect conservative religious students from public-school curricula since the 1920s.  In the last generation, the fight in Hawkins County, Tennessee, might have generated the most attention.   In that case, conservative religious parents ultimately lost their lawsuit against the school board.  Parents had claimed that anti-religious messages in school textbooks forced their children to learn messages inimical to their religious beliefs.  In 1987, the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit disagreed.

Lawmakers in New Hampshire and now voters in Missouri found a way around this legal precedent.  However, it is not clear that Missouri voters knew just what they were voting for.  Consider the wording of the ballot measure:

“Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to ensure:

“That the right of Missouri citizens to express their religious beliefs shall not be infringed;

“That school children have the right to pray and acknowledge God voluntarily in their schools; and

“That all public schools shall display the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution.

“It is estimated this proposal will result in little or no costs or savings for state and local governmental entities.

“Fair Ballot Language:

“A “yes” vote will amend the Missouri Constitution to provide that neither the state nor political subdivisions shall establish any official religion. The amendment further provides that a citizen’s right to express their religious beliefs regardless of their religion shall not be infringed and that the right to worship includes prayer in private or public settings, on government premises, on public property, and in all public schools. The amendment also requires public schools to display the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution.

“A “no” vote will not change the current constitutional provisions protecting freedom of religion.

“If passed, this measure will have no impact on taxes.”

No mention of creationism, sex ed, condoms in schools, or other implications.  Nothing about guaranteeing students the right to opt out of any instruction they deem pernicious.  The ballot measure emphasized the amendment as a clarification of students’ rights to pray.  Yet the amendment itself makes the other meanings crystal clear.

Missouri voters approved the amendment by overwhelming margins.  But it appears that the implications of that ‘yes’ vote might not have been entirely apparent.  So what DO Missouri voters want?

In the News: Missouri Voters Pass School Prayer Amendment

This just in: Missouri voters overwhelmingly approved Amendment 2.  OzarksFirst reports that the Constitutional Amendment received over 80% support yesterday at the polls.

Those who’ve been following this story know that the amendment is largely symbolic.  It guarantees people in Missouri the right to pray in public–especially including public schools–as long as their prayers do not bother anyone else.  This right has already been established by the US Supreme Court.  The kinds of school prayer deemed unconstitutional by SCOTUS in the 1960s were those imposed by the state and led by a teacher or school official.  The right of students to pray on their own has never been constitutionally threatened.

However, politicians and activists have long insisted that SCOTUS kicked God out of public schools.  This amendment is meant as a sort of line in the sand.  Fundamentalist Missouri wants to make it clear that students may pray in public schools.  Some voters have surely been traumatized by horror stories of students being suspended for Christian statements.  Teachers such as Bradley Johnson in California have claimed persecution when they have not been allowed to display religious messages in their public-school classrooms.

These sorts of highly publicized skirmishes inspired Missouri’s move.  As the sponsor of the amendment Mike McGhee explained in a National Public Radio story ,

“We are a religious country, and we want to take our country back, and we want to pray to God, and we can gather around the flagpole and say something to Jesus in our minds and in our hearts and it’s going to be okay.”

As everyone knows, in culture-war battles, symbolism matters.  Political moves like Missouri’s Amendment 2 help marshal the sides, force people to declare for one or the other.  In Missouri, this has meant, for instance, the public support of Catholic bishops for the amendment.  As McGhee argued, Fundamentalist America feels a powerful need to “take our country back.”

Can students now pray in Missouri’s public schools?  Yes.  Could they have before this constitutional amendment?  Yes.  But that doesn’t mean the amendment isn’t important.  To observers like those at ILYBYGTH, votes like the one yesterday in Missouri demonstrate the continuing power of Fundamentalist America.

Missouri Loves Company: Catholics in Fundamentalist America

Missouri’s Catholic Bishops support Missouri’s proposed constitutional amendment.  In a recent statement, the Missouri Catholic Conference supported Amendment 2, which will go before voters on August 7.  The bishops’ statement argued that the amendment would ensure religious people’s rights in the public square.  As they put it:

“Increasingly, it seems, religious values are becoming marginalized in our society. People of faith need assurance that they remain free to exercise and express their religious beliefs in public, provided just order be observed, without threat of external pressure to conform to changing societal ‘norms’.”

For some, this defense of public religiosity by Catholic bishops seems unremarkable.  But from a historical perspective, this Catholic endorsement of religion in public schools signals a shocking turnaround in the history of religious life in America.

In the nineteenth century, after all, intense Catholic political pressure led to “Bible Wars” in public schools.  For many Protestants, the reading of the King James Version of the Bible in public schools seemed natural.  As Steven Green has argued in his new book, these nineteenth-century battles determined much of the role of public religion long into the twentieth century.

This history of Catholic protest against a Protestant-dominated public religiosity resulted in lingering anti-Catholic animus on the part of many conservative Protestants.  In the 1928 Presidential election, for example, self-described Protestant fundamentalists vehemently opposed Al Smith’s candidacy in the Democratic Party due to Smith’s Catholicism.

Yet even in the 1920s, we can see connections between conservative Catholics and conservative Protestants.  William Jennings Bryan tried hard to recruit Catholic anti-evolution writer Alfred  McCann to testify at the Scopes trial, for instance.  These connections received a boost in the 1950s with the strengthening of anti-communism on the Right.  And Catholics such as William F. Buckley and Phyllis Schlafly assumed new leadership roles in the postwar conservative revival.

By the 1970s, the issue of abortion fused even stronger connections between conservative Catholics and Protestants.  As Daniel K. Williams has argued, abortion politics brought pro-life Catholics into the fold of the “New Christian Right.”

The recent statement by Missouri’s Catholic bishops demonstrates how seamless these connections have become.  Early 1920s fundamentalism in America often included a virulent anti-Catholicism.  But by 2012, we need to include conservative Catholics in any sensible study of conservative religion in American public life.

Some readers have objected to ILYBYGTH’s broad definition of “Fundamentalist America.”  And they are right: “fundamentalism” in the American context usually refers to one subset of conservative evangelical Protestants.  But if we hope to understand the broad sweep of conservative religious activism in America, if we want to talk about the conservative side of America’s culture wars over the proper role of religion in the public square, we need to include a much broader coalition of religious groups.  Not only conservative Catholics, but also Pentecostals, Orthodox Jews, Mennonites, conservative Lutherans, and others who don’t fit within the smaller boundaries of small-f fundamentalism.

The recent statement by Missouri’s Catholic bishops is just further proof of how the times are a-changing.  When conservative Catholics can get behind an amendment protecting religion’s role in public schools, we know the old Catholic/Protestant split has become largely irrelevant.

In the News: Missouri Voters Will Vote on School-Prayer Amendment

Fundamentalist America wants its children to feel comfortable praying in public schools.  Since the US Supreme Court’s 1963 Schempp verdict, many religious conservatives have complained that God has been kicked out of public schools.

As Steven Green’s recent book has described, the historical reality is more complicated.  And, as I have argued elsewhere, to understand these questions, we can’t start in the 1960s, we need to look at the battles of the 1920s.

But that does not stop some conservatives from pressing the issue.  In a recent wrinkle, Missouri State Legislature Representative Mike McGhee has succeeded in presenting a Constitutional amendment to the voters of Missouri.  On August 7th, voters will have see the following questions on a special ballot:

“Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to ensure:

• That the right of Missouri citizens to express their religious beliefs shall not be infringed; 

• That school children have the right to pray and acknowledge God voluntarily in their schools; and

• That all public schools shall display the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution.”

Opponents note with considerable justification that this amendment will not actually do anything.  Speaking to the Joplin Globe, an official of the state school administration insisted students already have the right to pray.  And C.J. Huff, superintendent of Joplin schools, told the Globe,

“If it passes, it isn’t really going to make a difference in our schools. Students already have rights for volunteer prayer in school. It happens. I think the misperception is that it (prayer) doesn’t happen (in schools).”

But to the amendment’s supporters, the symbolism is intensely important.  As Representative Jeff Grisamore told OzarksFirst,

“This (legislation) is one of the most important pieces of legislation…that we will pass this year, because it is fundamental to protecting the rights of Missourians to pray and express their faith and at the same time, protect Missourians from being coerced or compelled in a way that would violate their faith.”

Missouri politicians seem keenly aware of this symbolic importance.  According to the Lebanon Daily Record, the proposed amendment passed unanimously in the state Senate and triumphed 126-30 in the state House. 

The constitutional issue seems fairly clear.  This amendment, if successful, will clarify a right that public school students already enjoy.  The big question is the political issue.  Clearly, the elected representatives of the great State of Missouri find the bill politically invulnerable.  Will the voters of Missouri agree?