Between Church and State: Religion and Public Education in a Multicultural Americaby James W. Fraser
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Today, the ongoing battle between religion and public education is once again a burning issue in the United States. Prayer in the classroom, the teaching of creationism, the representation of sexuality in the classroom, and the teaching of morals are just a few of the subjects over which these institutions are skirmishing. James Fraser shows that though these battles have been going on for as long as there have been public schools, there has never been any consensus about the proper relationship between religion and public education. Looking at the most difficult question of how private issues of faith can be reconciled with the very public nature of schooling, Fraser paints a picture of our multicultural society that takes our relationship with God into account.
Author Biography: James W. Fraser is Professor of History and Education and Director for Innovation in Urban Education at Northeastern University, Boston. He has also been Pastor of Grace Church, Federated in East Boston since 1986.
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From Holy Commonwealth
to the Strange Compromise of 1789
For the most part, colonial European settlers did not come to England's North American colonies seeking religious freedom writ large. The majority who came for religious reasons came for the freedom to practice their own form of religion and to impose it on all other residents of their colony. And when they founded schools, which most of them did rather quickly, they expected the schools to raise up the next generation in the faith of the established church, whether it was the Congregationalism of Puritan Massachusetts or the Anglicanism of Virginia or the Dutch Reformed tradition of New Netherlands. This situation is not surprising. In the Europe from which these settlers came, the notion of anything more than a grudging tolerance for other forms of faith, or the notion that either church or state could survive a separation, existed only among a few radicals on the very margins of society. In the early 1600s, when serious North American colonization began, no state had actually tried separating religion and government or conducting schools in any way separate from religious authority; none would do so for another two hundred years.
Of course, Europeans were not the only people in the colonial mix in the 1600s. The European immigrants arrived on a continent whose indigenous residents had highly developed forms of both faith and government. Soon after their arrival, the Europeans also began importing African slaves, adding yet another set of cultural and religious traditions to the North American mix. In time, as laterchapters will show, the Native American and African forms of spirituality interacted with European traditions in a multitude of ways. The American religious scene cannot be understood without paying serious attention to the contribution of indigenous American, African, and more recently Asian traditions as well as those of European Christianity, Judaism, and Enlightenment secularism. And these diverse contributions had powerful implications for the relationship of religion and education. The conflicts between the traditions and the understanding of the contributions of each one generally came later. From the beginning, the Europeans brought not only Christianity but also gunpowder and leg irons. They meant to dominate the culture and they had the power to do so. When schools first began in the colonies, European concerns about shaping the culture, ways of passing that culture to a new generation, and the best institutions for doing so were clearly dominant. This institutional domination continues to the present.
If people do not believe in the separation of church and state, if people have as a goal a homogeneous society united in faith, morals, and forms of government, then the relationship of religion and public education is quite simplefor the notion of religion and the notion of the public are one. And so it was in most of the colonies of British North America for most of the 1600 and 1700s. Thus the earliest schools in Massachusetts taught youth to read using The New-England Primer, which taught the alphabet from "In Adam's Fall, We sinned all" right through to "Zacheus he did climb the Tree, Our Lord to see." As with any good text, the subsequent reading lessons grew in complexity from The Lord's Prayer, to stories of Puritan martyrs in England, to the Westminster Catechism.
For the New England Puritans, education was essential to faith. Rejecting, as they did, any intermediary of church, bishop, or priest, each believer needed to make his or her own peace with God, and he or she needed intelligence and therefore education to do so. Thus it should not be surprising that the famous 1647 law requiring a school for every town in Massachusetts began: "It being one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures...." Being practical, the authors of the law also moved quickly to counter Satan. The next sentence read, "It is therefore ordered, that every township in this jurisdiction, after the Lord hath increased them to the number of fifty householders, shall then forthwith appoint one within their town to teach all such children as shall resort to him to write and read." Five years earlier the colony's legislature passed another law also requiring that every parent and master of indentured servants ensure that all children in the household were taught "to read and understand the principles of religion and the capital laws of the country." The Puritans of Governor John Winthrop's holy City on a Hill clearly intended to include schools in their city. And the curriculum of these schools, equally clearly, included Puritan piety as surely as it did reading, writing, and arithmetic.
In the 1600s Massachusetts, more than the other colonies, had a significantly structured civil society, including churches and schoolswhat one of its leading ministers, Cotton Mather, called "the evangelical church-state." The Massachusetts Puritans were never as intolerant as their latter-day detractors have portrayed them, but they were single-minded in their commitment to pursue their own form of church and statereligion and schooland their tolerance never extended to any who might challenge that polity.
Even before the first Puritan migration to New England, the first General Assembly in Virginia in 1619 ordered all ministers to "read divine service, and exercise their ministerial function according to the ecclesiastical laws and orders of the Church of England," setting the stage for an Anglican/Episcopal state church that would continue in Virginia up to the time of the Revolution. Anglican clergy had arrived with others settlers in Virginia as early as 1610, although the continued efforts of the local gentry to ensure that no bishop was ever appointed meant that the ecclesiastical system always remained incomplete. And Virginia's dispersed settlements meant that education would always be less structured than in Massachusetts. Nevertheless there were requirements that parents and masters send their children to religious instruction and that church officials present "such masters and mistresses as shall be delinquents in the catechizing the youth and ignorant persons" with substantial fines. The law seems to have been honored as often in the breach as not, but the legislature's concern for rudimentary education was clear.
The separate colonies of Connecticut and New Haven adopted laws patterned on the Massachusetts model in 1650 and 1655 respectively. With the English takeover of New York from the Dutch in 1674, the new laws included similar requirements that parents ensure the literacy of all children and servants in their households. Finally, Pennsylvania adopted an ordinance in 1683 providing that all parents and guardians of children "shall cause such to be instructed in reading and writing, so that they may be able to read the Scriptures and to write by the time they attain to twelve years of age; and that when they be taught some useful trade or skill, that the poor may work to live, and the rich, if they become poor, may not want." Enforcement of the laws varied, and the focus shifted between the practical and the scriptural. The different colonies clearly emphasized different elements of scripture that tended to prove the correctness of their particular interpretation of Christianity. But all of these heirs of the English reformation continued a significant part of their inheritance, the clear belief that it was their responsibility to raise youth in the correctread their owninterpretation of the one true faith and guard them against the errors that might be taught in the other colonies.
Throughout the colonial era, the different colonies carried on their own versions of church, state, and school. Distance from England and from each other allowed them to continue their different ways. However, with the Declaration of Independence from England and the creation of the new nation, a new crisis was also created. While Massachusetts and Connecticut could have their well-established and state-supported Congregational churches, while Pennsylvania could work out its own complex relationship between Quakers and non-Quakers, while the Church of Virginia could comfortably be the Church of Englandwith the nearest bishop carefully kept a safe 3,000 miles away across the Atlanticnone of these models quite worked for the new nation created by the rebellion and union of these thirteen quite different colonies.
At the time of the Constitutional Convention in 1789, no nation known to the framers had separated religion from the state's responsibilities. At the same time, the notion of adopting any one of the churches from the various colonies was fraught with problems, not the least of which was the degree to which such a move would alienate the other colonies and their churches. While there were at least some among the Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians who believed that their church would make an ideal state church for the new nation, not enough representatives of any one party could carry the day. And everyone's second choicefar preferable to the selection of someone else's sectwas a far stronger separation of church and state than the world had yet known. Thus there was relatively little objection in 1789 when the framers of the Constitution included Article VI stipulating that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States," or two years later when Congress included in the First Amendment to the new Constitution a fairly hard line on the church-state issue with the sentence: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
In the framer's minds there were few options. During the debates surrounding the adoption of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, there was almost no opposition to the radical disestablishment included in the final documents. Of course, individual states could maintain their state church, as Massachusetts did until 1833. Only with the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868 were the protections of the Bill of Rights applied to the states, and not until Everson v. Board of Education in 1947 did the U.S. Supreme Court specifically apply the establishment clause to state legislatures. Ironically, only in the last half century has the debate about the meaning of the First Amendment been fought out at the level of the U.S. Supreme Court. But that is getting far ahead.
Generations of Americans have grown up with a simpler story line. For a century school children have learned that the earliest European immigrants came to these shores for religious freedom. A sampling of most Americans today, regardless of region, gender, race, or class, would give similar answers; religious freedom is seen as a significant part of the bedrock on which this country was founded. But reality is not nearly so simple.
A Collection of Holy Commonwealths
The great mid-twentieth century religious historian, Sidney Mead, has provided a convincing if significantly more complex view of the emergence of religious freedom in North America. For most of Christianity's 2,000-year history, certainly from the time of the Roman emperor Constantine's conversion in the fourth century A.D. until the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth, church and state were seen as one entity living out God's preordained order for the temporal world. The Reformation broke Europe's religious unity forever, but not before almost two centuries of warfare, as Catholics and Protestants of various persuasionsLutheran, Calvinist, and othersfought to return the continent to what they saw as God's unifying design. While issues of a growing nationalism, cultural and territorial differences, and nascent capitalism all played into Europe's post-Reformation wars, the right to determine the religion of the state was dominant and few voices spoke for tolerance of other religious traditions. If there was a one true faithhowever much people differed about the contents of that faiththen alternatives to that faith must, by definition, be wrongand why tolerate error?
By the mid-1600s, not long after the first permanent European settlements in North America, Europe arrived at an exhausted peace. The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 and a number of similar treaties and concessions created a new model for the continent in which different nations and territories would each define the one true faith within their boundaries. Within each realm a single faith would dominate, chosen for the most part by the secular leader of the land. So Germany's different duchies and small kingdoms were divided up, some Protestant and some Catholic. Lutheranism reigned in Scandinavia; Calvinism in Switzerland, Scotland and the Netherlands; while Roman Catholicism was the faith of Spain, France, and the different parts of Italy. As Mead correctly described the arrangement: "Each of these groups claimed within its territory religious absolutism. All the dominant groups believed in and demanded religious uniformity within their civil commonwealth enforced by the civil power. In this situation religious fervor combined with patriotism to tinge the relationships between rival groups and individuals with suspicion, fear, and hatred." And rivalry, suspicion, fear, and hatred were all transported to the European colonies in the Americas, especially in North America, where a far greater variety of Europeans arrived than in South America, which was dominated by Catholic Spain and Portugal.
Thus the colonists, whom generations of schoolchildren have learned came for religious freedom, came for a very narrow kind of freedom. With rare exceptions, such as the Baptist followers of Roger Williams in Rhode Island, the colonists came seeking religious freedom for themselves and the right to persecuteor at least banishanyone who did not share the colony's faith. The compromise of the Peace of Westphalia was thus transported to the new world. Different colonies could have different faiths, but within any one colony a single faith was as obvious a necessity as a single set of laws and form of government. But this arrangement was not to last.
In their early years, most colonies enforced a uniformity at least as strict as had occurred in their homelands. Early Puritan intolerance in Massachusetts and Connecticut has been legendary, but it was also real. Those on the other side of the English civil wars, the Anglican Royalists, who settled in Virginia were only marginally more tolerant. The Virginia Charter of 1606 required that "the true word and service of God and Christian faith be preached, planted, and used ... according to the doctrine, rights, and religion now professed and established within our realm of England," which meant state support for Episcopal priests and the Episcopal liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer.
The non-English colonies of North America had similar policies. French Canada was Catholic. Dutch New Netherlands, later New York, included in its 1640 charter a proviso that "no other religion shall be publicly admitted in New Netherlands except the Reformed, as it is at present preached and practiced by public authority." The governor of Sweden's short-lived colony came with instructions to "take good measures that the divine service is performed according to the true confession of Augsburg, the Council of Upsala, and the ceremonies of the Swedish church."
These instructions were not idle words. Massachusetts banished Anne Hutchinson and many others over the years when they differed with the established faith. Governor Peter Stuyvesant moved forcefully against Lutherans, Jews, and Quakers when he discovered them in New Netherlands, sending the Quakers back to Holland as quickly as possible.
Exceptions have been important in building the mythic self-image of the United States. Lord Baltimore did establish religious tolerance in his Maryland colony as a means of protecting his own beleaguered fellow English Catholics. William Penn and his Quakers were far more tolerant than the Presbyterians who shared the land of Pennsylvania with them. And Roger Williams and the Baptists who founded Rhode Island actually spoke as if they believed in religious freedom for all, although for this they were widely distrusted by most of the other colonists who shared what fast became British North America with them. Yet within little more than a century and a half of Rhode Island's founding, the polity of this small colony became the national model. Again, Mead's analysis is correct:
What had been accepted as an axiom by all respectable Christian thinkers for about fourteen hundred years and transplanted to America as the guiding intention of the dominant groups was almost completely overthrown in the short span of one hundred and eighty years. The great experiment of religious freedom on a national scale, which Protestants in America now sometimes defend as the traditional way of doing things, has actually been tried for less than two hundred years.
And, nice as the story line would be, the experiment did not come from a growing embrace of the kind of tolerance advocated by the founders of Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, or Maryland. Rather, its roots were far more prosaic.
Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe was dominated by many issues besides religion. And when the struggle for empire or new and emerging forms of nationalism collided with religious absolutism, absolutism often lost. Thus, in spite of Peter Stuyvesant's efforts to cleanse New Netherlands of all but Dutch Calvinists, the authorities in Holland would not support him. Their instructions to him were clear: Stop banishing others lest "you intend to check and destroy your population." The new colony needed people if it was to survive. So Stuyvesant was ordered to "let everyone be unmolested, as long as he is modest; as long as his conduct in a political sense is irreproachable; as long as he does not disturb others, or oppose the government." The last clause was clearly the most important. And so, in spite of its intolerant governor, the settlement at the base of the Hudson became a haven for a wide assortment of Christians and Jews.
The end of the English civil wars and the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II in 1660 meant that the Anglican polity was triumphant in the homeland of the British colonies, but it was a more tolerant Anglicanism than had existed before the wars. If Charles could keep his head and his throne by tolerating Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, and other assorted Protestants, he certainly meant to do so. And the newly restored king lost little time in ordering his Congregationalist colony in Massachusetts Bay to end its persecution of Quakers or in giving the Baptists of Rhode Island full freedom despite objections from their northern neighbors. Well before 1700, then, the intolerance with which most of the colonies had begun was over. Not all sects were embraced, not all were equal in the eyes of the law or their neighbors, but punishments and legal disabilities were at an end. Religious toleration, sometimes grudging and sometimes more open, was the rule of eighteenth-century Britain in both the old and new worlds. Still, it was a long way from tolerance of dissenters to equality of all religions in the eyes of the law. Although tolerance continued to expand gradually in Britain in the nineteenth century, with the last disabilities for Catholics ended in midcentury, England still has a state church, and the monarch still receives the crownthe ultimate symbol of authorityat the hands of an Episcopal bishop.
Religious Freedom by Accident
The United States took a different route from the moment of the nation's beginning. As we have seen, full religious freedom and equality came to the new nation because it was everyone's second choice. While the heirs of the Massachusetts Puritans still hung on tightly to their Congregational polity at the time of the Revolution, they met in the Continental Congress with representatives of New York who were heirs of both the Reformed Dutch and of later English settlers, Presbyterians from the middle colonies, and Anglicans from the South. Since it was clear from the beginning that no one group could get a majority vote for its own faith as the established church of the new and already diverse nation, all factions reluctantly agreed that religious toleration was preferable to the establishment of someone else's church. Everyone wanted religious freedom for themselves, and the only way they saw to get it was to grant it, however grudgingly, to others. Thus religious freedom came to the new United States not by ideology or design but by compromise and accident.
While the various religious communities that dominated the political landscape never formulated a clear rationale for the religious freedom that they embraced as a necessary expedient, they were not the only voices on the political scene in the late 1700s. Although they had only limited numbers of followers for their religiousas opposed to their politicalviews, secular disciples of John Locke and the Enlightenment philosophy, such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, did have a carefully worked out rationale for religious disestablishment. And as Mead also argues, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is a product of a temporary alliance of the many religious minorities in the new nation with these representatives of the Enlightenment deist intellectual classes. It was an alliance that did not last. The religious groups quickly turned their attention to the new enterprise of building their competing denominations and battling with each other, with their former Enlightenment allies, and in most of the nineteenth century with new Roman Catholic immigrants, for the souls of the nation's citizens. As a result of all these shifting alliances, the only group to have worked out a careful rationale for religious freedom, the Jeffersonian deists, were quickly outnumbered and overwhelmed by many competing voices for the nature of American religiosity. Yet the deists' rationale remains the primary one, however few defenders it has had in subsequent generations. The major builders of religious freedom as it actually has been practiced in the United States for the last 200 years, the representatives of the different religious groups that became America's nineteenth-century denominations, have never worked out their own clear rationale for the polity on which so much of the nation's religious, political, and educational life is based.
The ideological, as opposed to the political, battles over religious freedom in the revolutionary era were centered in Virginia. At the time of the Revolution, Virginia had the same Episcopalian establishment as it had when it was first chartered in 1607, although there was widespread tolerance of other sects. But tolerance was not sufficient for Virginia's most articulate revolutionary leaders.
In 1783, in the midst of the American Revolution, James Madison authored his Memorial and Remonstrance, arguing that the legislature of the Commonwealth of Virginia, if it was serious about its support of independence and freedom, needed to apply the ideology of freedom to its own religious institutions. Madison's ally, Thomas Jefferson had already introduced legislation in Virginia's legislature calling for religious freedom. He wrote:
Well aware that the opinions and belief of men depend not on their own will, but follow involuntarily the evidence proposed to their minds; that Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested his supreme will that free it shall remain by making it altogether insusceptible of restraining; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments, or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do, but to extend it by its influence on reason alone.
The legislation separating religion from government includes some significant theological assumptions with which many in Jefferson's day or today might disagree. Individual reason alone has hardly been the major carrier of faith for many. Nevertheless, after years of debate, the bill for establishing religious freedom passed the Virginia Assembly in 1786, ending the colony's 180 year Anglican religious establishment and placing all religious bodies of the state on an equal footingfree of state influence and wholly dependent on the resources they could raise from the voluntary contributions of their members and friends rather than state government tax dollars. It was an extraordinary step in the experiment of separating the worlds of sacred and secular authority, and the full implications of the change would continue to be explored long after Jefferson and Madison had passed from the scene.
As president, Jefferson continued to voice similar views. Thus in 1802, after one year in the White House, he wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut:
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.
Few lines of presidential correspondence have entered the nation's language as firmly as Jefferson's description of the First Amendment to the Constitution as "a wall of separation between Church and State." Debates about how seriously to take this one letter, which have become numerous, miss the point. Jefferson, perhaps the nation's most truly secular president, always represented a minority view on questions of religion.
During his last year in office, Jefferson again noted the clear line he drew between the civil government and the various religious groups of the nation. Differing from his predecessorsand successors-he declined to call for a national day of fasting and prayer. For him that was a matter for religious groups: "I consider the government of the U.S. as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises.... Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, & the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenants; and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the constitution has deposited it." For the nation's third president, the line was very clear indeed.
However much the careful logic of Jefferson, Madison, and their allies provided ideological cover for one of the nation's great accidental decisions, the separation of church and state has served both churches and the rest of the nation well. Separation of church and state has been adopted by many other nations around the world and has moved in 200 years from a radical experiment to being seen as one of humanity's most basic rights. But in part because of its origins in compromise, in part because it came about in a unique historic moment, many of the deepest implications of America's lively experiment have never been fully explored. And most basic among these implications are those related to education. So again Mead is right: "Perhaps the most striking power that the churches surrendered under religious freedom was control over public education which traditionally had been considered an essential aspect of the work of an established church if it was to perform its proper function of disseminating and inculcating the necessary foundational religious beliefs."
For most of Europe's history, the state conducted education as an arm of the church, ensuring that the young were brought up with a knowledge of both proper doctrine and proper behavior as defined by those doctrines. But what would happen in the new nation? Were elements of a common faith similar enough that the state could conduct schools to teach them without offending the differing religious bodies? Was there a common secular or democratic faith on which all could agree? And who would define it? These questions have never been fully answered. Indeed they have been a source of struggle in almost every succeeding generation. And at no time were the debates more intense than in the early years of the Republic when Horace Mann and his many allies and opponents created the public schools as we know them.
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Meet the Author
James W. Fraser is a professor of history and education and the chair of the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences in the Professions at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. An ordained minister of the United Church of Christ, he is the author of By the People: A History of the United States.
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