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 bigotry.green 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?

I Hart Review Season!

Well, it’s finally here: Review Season! Just like baseball fans wait for pitchers ‘n’ catchers to report; like bird fans wait for swallows to return…nerds just can’t wait til review season every year. This year, I’ve been asked by two journals to review two intriguing-looking books, and I can’t wait.

The first is for the Journal of American History, the academic journal of the Organization of American Historians. It’s a book by experienced Mississippi historian Charles W. Eagles. Here’s how the University of North Carolina Press describes it:eagles book

Just as Mississippi whites in the 1950s and 1960s had fought to maintain school segregation, they battled in the 1970s to control the school curriculum. Educators faced a crucial choice between continuing to teach a white supremacist view of history or offering students a more enlightened multiracial view of their state’s past. In 1974, when Random House’s Pantheon Books published Mississippi: Conflict and Change (written and edited by James W. Loewen and Charles Sallis), the defenders of the traditional interpretation struck back at the innovative textbook. Intolerant of its inclusion of African Americans, Native Americans, women, workers, and subjects like poverty, white terrorism, and corruption, the state textbook commission rejected the book, and its action prompted Loewen and Sallis to join others in a federal lawsuit (Loewen v. Turnipseed) challenging the book ban.

Charles W. Eagles explores the story of the controversial ninth-grade history textbook and the court case that allowed its adoption with state funds. Mississippi: Conflict and Change and the struggle for its acceptance deepen our understanding both of civil rights activism in the movement’s last days and of an early controversy in the culture wars that persist today.

The second review is for the American Historical Review, the academic journal of the American Historical Association. Here’s the publisher’s description:rubin book

The Christian Right of the 1980s forged its political identity largely in response to what it perceived as liberal ‘judicial activism’. Robert Daniel Rubin tells this story as it played out in Mobile, Alabama. There, a community conflict pitted a group of conservative evangelicals, a sympathetic federal judge, and a handful of conservative intellectuals against a religious agnostic opposed to prayer in schools, and a school system accused of promoting a religion called ‘secular humanism’. The twists in the Mobile conflict speak to the changes and continuities that marked the relationship of 1980s’ religious conservatism to democracy, the courts, and the Constitution. By alternately focusing its gaze on the local conflict and related events in Washington, DC, this book weaves a captivating narrative. Historians, political scientists, and constitutional lawyers will find, in Rubin’s study, a challenging new perspective on the history of the Christian Right in the United States.

I’m looking forward to spending review season with both of these books. The journals are only available via subscription, but I’ll be allowed to post my reviews here when they’re done.