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?

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.

Required Reading: Kicking God Out of Public Schools

We have looked recently at the effects on Fundamentalist America of the US Supreme Court’s rulings in 1962 and 1963.  These decisions ruled against the use of state-sponsored prayer and school-led religious devotions and Bible reading in public schools.  As any observer of Fundamentalist America is aware, many conservatives pinpoint these events as the date when God was “kicked out” of American public schoolsAs we’ve noted, the historical reality was much more complex.

Happily, those interested in these questions now have a promising new book to help them muddle through the mishmash of Constitutional, cultural, educational, and devotional questions raised by this thorny issue.  At Religion & Politics, Michael Waggoner has offered a thoughtful review of Steven Green’s newish The Bible, the School, and the Constitution: The Clash That Shaped Modern Church-State Doctrine (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

Waggoner, a scholar of higher education at the University of Northern Iowa and editor of the academic journal Religion and Education, concludes that the most significant contribution of Green’s book is that it moves the discussion away from the 1960s and back to their proper arena: the 1860s.  As Waggoner notes,

“while many Americans believed in 1962—and continue to believe today—that the crisis over the proper relationship between religion and public education arose full blown in the chambers of the Supreme Court, in fact these changes were a century in the making.”

In Green’s telling, the significant struggle over the role of religion and public education took place in the second half of the 19th century.  The linchpin, Green argues in his third chapter, was not only the US Supreme Court’s 1962’s Engel and 1963’s Schempp rulings, but the Ohio Supreme Court’s 1870 Board of Education of Cincinnati v. Minor.*  In that case, the culmination of Cincinnati’s angry “Bible Wars,” the school board successfully defended its decision to remove the reading of the King James Bible from public schools.  The first plaintiffs, John D. Minor and a group of concerned citizens, complained that such a removal was illegal, impractical, and immoral.  One of their reasons was that “large numbers [of city school children] receive no religious instruction or knowledge of the Holy Bible, except that communicated as aforesaid in said schools.”

As Green argues, this case and the cultural controversies that accompanied it nationwide laid the groundwork for the Court decisions of the 1960s.  The “culture wars” of the 1860s and 70s demonstrated the nation’s growing unease with traditional Protestant domination of public life.  Minor’s argument that children would not learn about the Bible if not in public schools did not win over the justices of the Ohio Supreme Court.  Not only that, as Green details, activists who sought to marshal the forces of traditionalism soon realized they faced a fundamentally different political and cultural environment.  A coalition of Protestant ministers first proposed a “Christian Amendment.”  They hoped to answer Cincinnati’s anti-Bible ordinance with a change to the US Constitution clarifying the government’s role in promoting religion.  More successful was the Blaine Amendment.  Largely a move to isolate Catholic schools, Congressman James Blaine proposed an amendment that would clarify: public funds must never support religious schools.

Green’s book will not likely satisfy the critics who insist that God was kicked out of public schools in the 1960s.  But for those of us hoping to understand the long cultural conversation about the changing role of religion in the public square, Green’s book is a great new resource.

* A nerdy detail: as with “Schempp” and “Engel,” this case is usually incorrectly described as Minor v. Board of Education.  That was indeed the name of the original 1869 Cincinnati case that sought to get the Bible back into Cincinatti schools.  However, the Ohio Supreme Court case in 1870 was actually an appeal by the Board of Education against John Minor, thus Board of Education of Cincinnati v. Minor.