School Choice and the Value of Religious Diversity

Institutions that shape public policy should beware of discrimination against traditional Christians.

Today’s culture wars have disturbing historical precedents, both in the U.S. and abroad, reflecting fundamentally contrasting approaches to managing the tradeoffs between unity and diversity and to the very role of the nation-state in a free society. This explains the recent uproar over Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Bartholet’s already influential 2020 Arizona Law Review article “Homeschooling: Parent rights absolutism vs. child rights to education and protection.” There she essentially advocates outlawing homeschooling, characterizing it as threatening both individual children and national unity, since homeschooling parents dare to impose their faiths on their children.

For the Left, such traditions are triggering. These tensions underlie religion and school-choice politics generally, and Blaine-amendment court cases such as the recently decided Espinoza v. Montana. They involve the heart of American governance, with two distinct approaches to politics and bureaucracy, one prioritizing diversity, the other unity.

As shown by the late Vincent Ostrom in The Intellectual Crisis in American Public Administration, the American Founders sought a federalist republic enabling local and individual initiative, with diversity in public administration fostering and fostered by social diversity. In a free society, no one size fits all. Moreover, rule by any single faction, including an elite faction, would likely degenerate into tyranny. In short, the Founders anticipated Alexis de Tocqueville, enabling a localized, diverse society and polity. In contrast, Progressive bureaucratic thinkers like Woodrow Wilson prized centralization and uniformity. In government, this meant clear lines of accountability, with experts imposing the single best method in all things, reflecting values of the dominant faction.

The same struggles between politicians and experts occurred elsewhere, particularly as regards schooling. Our current education culture-war politics and those from a century ago bear uncanny resemblance to conflicts in 19th- and early-20th-century Belgium, which were settled peacefully, but also with the Second Reich’s Kulturkampf (“culture struggle”), which culminated in the Third Reich. Belgium and Germany offer two very different public approaches to religious schooling, one allowing diversity, another imposing uniformity. Those advocating the latter need to know where this could end. It isn’t pretty.

Blaine and Espinoza v. Montana
In its recent 5–4 decision in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a state-constitution Blaine amendment outlawing even indirect aid such as tax credits for attendance at private religious schools. As Justice Samuel Alito opined, the Blaine amendments in state constitutions reflected the anti-Catholic bigotry of the late 1800s and early 1900s, as shown in their support from interest groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. Such laws have no place in today’s multicultural, religiously diverse America.

Yet most elite policymakers, journalists, and the four members of the U.S. Supreme Court who failed to grapple with Alito’s concerns clearly don’t get it. Therein lies a serious problem for those of us who want culture peace instead of war. For peace, Americans need compromises in the school wars — compromises that honor social and religious diversity and are in accord with our de Tocquevillian heritage — before things run their inevitable course and arrive at one people and one state, perhaps eventually ruled by one leader. (And yes, this is an intentional reference to “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer.”)

Historic school culture wars in the U.S. and Belgium
Consider the schooling history of three nation-states, Belgium, the United States, and the German Second Reich, which lasted from the 1871 unification under Chancellor Bismarck to the end of World War I. (Spoiler alert: “reichs” never end well.)

As Dirk van Raemdonck and I detail in “Prisoners of History: Explaining Why Statist Belgium Has School Vouchers While Liberal America Does Not,” Belgian mass literacy was facilitated by public-sector partnerships with the Catholic Church and by public funding of church schools. In the 1870s a secular government terminated those partnerships, prohibited public subsidies of Church schools, and required teachers to earn credentials from secular institutions. In reaction, traditional Catholics withdrew their children from public schools, massively expanding private schooling. Elections resulted in legislative and budgetary U-turns, with eventual compromises assuring parents their choice of publicly funded public or private schools, including faith-based schools.

In the same era, the Netherlands engaged in a similar “school struggle” and reached roughly the same compromise, now called the “Pacification of 1917.” Belgium and the Netherlands today host dynamic publicly funded education markets, with high-quality secular, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim schools, among others, serving religiously and culturally diverse populations.

The U.S. suffered similar strife over religion and schooling in the 1800s. Traditionally, American public schools taught the Protestant Bible to inculcate morality. With increasingly diverse immigration, many Catholics protested, while Protestant elites saw the “Papists” as agents of Rome, metaphorical crocodiles threatening the Republic. In the 1844 “Bible Riots” in Philadelphia, Protestants burned Catholic churches after rumors that Catholics sought to end school Bible readings. (As a result, the nascent school that eventually became Villanova University, where I once taught, operated underground for a time.)

In our de Tocquevillian republic, local politicians and religious leaders responded to civil unrest by fashioning compromises to keep the peace. In New York City, elected ward leaders could choose Catholic or Protestant Bibles in schools, depending on local preferences. For several years New York State allocated 20 percent of excise-tax revenues to educate children not in the common schools — most were in Catholic schools. In Poughkeepsie and dozens of other northeastern cities and towns, local politicians found creative ways to subsidize (typically Catholic) religious schools, which after all served fellow voters and taxpayers, provided those schools taught loyalty to the U.S.

Multiculturalism was, alas, too good to last. After the Civil War, Maine congressman James G. Blaine and other Republicans opposed such partnerships, disingenuously claiming to prevent religious strife. In fact, as Noah Feldman writes, “the potential ‘strife’ Blaine claimed he wanted to avoid was exactly the controversy he hoped to produce nationally” to win elections. Republicans used “the school issue” as a wedge to divide Democrats and increase GOP (Protestant) voter turnout. From the 1870s through the 1920s, 29 states added “Blaine amendments” to their constitutions, motivated in each instance by anti-Catholic bias. That ended public support for (mainly Catholic) religious schools, however popular or educationally effective they might be. Later, the very existence of Catholic schools was threatened. Under pressure from the Ku Klux Klan, Oregon prohibited parochial schools, a law overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1925, when in Pierce v. Society of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary it famously declared that children are NOT the mere creatures of the state.

Even without public support, Catholic schools continued, and, contrary to the fears of elites, never did undermine the republic. Considerable research shows that Catholic education enhances a student’s respect for civic values. It even weakens anti-Semitism.

From the Second Reich to Adenauer
Along the diversity–unity continuum, the Germany Second Reich offers an even more statist and more disturbing model of schooling, one where America may now be headed. In the late 1800s, Bismarck formed a united German state from numerous smaller polities, in part to ensure national security in a continental Europe dominated by France, Russia, and Austria. “Kulturkampf” referred primarily to the political battles between the Catholic Church, particularly Poles, and the new state. Hitler alludes to this often in Mein Kampf, expressing contempt for localities, religious faiths, and other factions that undermine “a genuine national enthusiasm” in education.

As Ashley Berner writes in Pluralism and American Public Education: No One Way to School, in contrast to the Netherlands and Belgium, German schools in the 19th and early 20th century acted as key instruments of the state. Over time the state increased regulation of Catholic and other private schools to enforce German unity over subnational identities and supranational ones such as Catholic (and Jewish), which the state held politically suspect and scientifically backward. Reflecting these statist and expert approaches, educators were, among civil servants, disproportionately represented in the membership of the Nazi Party. This was all of a piece. The Nazis sold themselves as the party of science rather than religion, and Hitler appointed cabinets of experts. (That did not stop the Nazis from creating their own German national religion meant to eventually replace traditional faiths.) On taking power, the Nazis quickly absorbed or closed Catholic and other private schools.

To be clear, Bartholet and others skeptical of religious education are on the whole decent and well-meaning people. They are certainly not Nazis, and indeed some of their proposals have merit. Yet their failure to appreciate social and religious diversity may over the long term prove problematic. After all, the German social movement to end private schooling did not happen quickly. It took the better part of a century, suggesting lessons for our own culture-war politics. Fittingly, the post-war reconstruction of the Federal Republic of Germany was led by a Catholic politician twice jailed and nearly killed by Third Reich, whose family had suffered under the Second Reich’s Kulturkampf. Konrad Adenauer recognized the importance of both state and nonstate authorities, such as families and houses of worship, in a free society. He sensed that centralization and elitism empower government authoritarians whose control is absolute, rather than government authorities, whose control is limited and held in check by other formal and informal authorities. To make an American analogy: Adenauer was by experience and temperament more Madisonian than Wilsonian. Yet Second and Third Reich laws governing schooling continue to limit homeschooling in Germany, as homeschooling advocate Michael Donnelly laments, while critic Elizabeth Bartholet approves of the restriction.

Why this matters for the future of U.S. religious schooling
Ultimately, elites impose their values: It goes with the job description. Ideally, elites in a democratic republic should have connections to those they rule. As recently as the 1980s, many elites had served in the military during World War II and the Korean conflict. Others had built or managed low-tech businesses or served in local governments, so they had years of interactions with nonelites and better understood the complexities of life across class and faith lines. But what if, as seems increasingly true today, ideologically homogeneous secular elites are isolated from and dismissive of the religious values that most nonelites use to constrain behavior and make sense of their lives? How might this affect religious and other independent schooling in the coming decades? Not well, particularly given the unbearable lightness of contemporary elites and their politics.

As Williams College political scientist Darel E. Paul shows in From From Tolerance to Equality: How Elites Brought America to Same-Sex Marriage, class struggle is now largely subsumed by “classification struggle,” with the upper classes defining who they are by who they are not. In battles over social liberalism through much of the 20th century, elite Protestants defined other Christians, particularly Catholics and Evangelicals (and then Mormons), as the Other. Until the late 20th century these conflicts were tempered by such common-life experiences across lines of class and faith such as near universal military service among men and the uniting struggles against fascist and then communist dictatorships. Consequently, U.S. elites had understanding of and empathy for nonelites, seeing them more as fellow citizens than as social inferiors.

Today’s elites spend their formative years not in the military or broader business activities but in higher education and elite policymaking and business (high-tech or financial) trades, protected from and contemptuous of the deplorables. Higher education pioneered their binary thinking. As Baylor University sociologist George Yancey shows in Compromising Scholarship: Religious and Political Bias in Higher Education, 20 to 30 percent of professors admit reluctance to hiring Mormons, 30 to 40 percent to hiring Evangelical Christians, and a whopping 40 to 50 percent against fundamentalist Christians. (Just 5 percent or fewer report such antipathy toward atheists, Muslims, Mainline Protestants, or Jews.) Tragically, media elites have ignored Yancey’s work. His surveys are more than a decade old, but no one thinks that anti-Christian biases have declined since. Those biases limit the views to which elites are exposed, thereby restricting their education, a theme of works such as Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s Coddling of the American Mind.

Elizabeth Bartholet

Enter Elizabeth Bartholet, who in her recent essay arguing for presumptive bans on home education bravely states what many on the left have long thought: Religious schooling is suspect and inherently oppressive. Home education in particular offers cover for sexist, bigoted, and even abusive religious fanatics, who isolate their children from healthy influences in the broader culture. Bartholet captures how elites generally and higher-education elites in particular view home educators. Her work is sure to influence the coming decades of regulation of private, particularly faith-based schooling. In an increasingly diverse nation, traditional Christians are no longer the sole targets. Note, for example, moves to regulate or abolish yeshivas, for allegedly providing inadequate schooling and thereby harming the life prospects of children.

To be clear, as I say above, Bartholet means well, and some of her ideas have merit. Without inspection schemes, homeschooling might abuse children in some cases. Bartholet often cites Tara Westover’s Educated, a memoir by a woman overcoming homeschooling by her survivalist Mormon parents. In state-centric liberal circles, this book is a sensation: However unrepresentative Educated is of homeschooling, it is sure to inspire efforts to regulate private schooling and homeschooling into submission, if not extinction. Of course public schools already suffer massive inspection schemes and accountability frameworks, with no evidence that they protect students, and some evidence they make things worse. Generally, what likelihood is there that the average bureaucratic expert will know or love a child more than the average parent does?

Moreover, what are the odds that a secular elite who hates religion, or at least traditional Christian faiths, will implement without animus a homeschool or religious-schooling regulatory scheme? In Bartholet’s essay I count 17 distinct references to “Christian” or “Christians” and three more to “fundamentalists,” none positive. (Charlotte Allen has a higher negative count.) There are additional references to “religious ideologues” but none to secular ideologues, even though the latter did enormous damage to humanity in the 20th century in places as diverse as Russia, China, and, as noted, Germany. At Harvard Law, it is fair to say, Bartholet is unlikely to interact with the religious people she stereotypes and wishes to regulate. As George Yancey shows, this is increasingly true of academic elites generally. The late Stanley Rothman portrayed this as increasingly true of elites generally.

In short, today’s’ culture-war politics have deep historical roots with underlying implications for all sides, but particularly for progressives, who need to understand that all too easily a Bismarck-style state-worship could develop and lead down roads none should travel. We need compromises honoring social and religious diversity and liberty, before the American Kulturkampf runs its course. We need to think Belgian, not Prussian. To facilitate that, I conclude with three highly unusual suggestions.

First, the traditionally religious, including educators and home educators, must build relationships with higher education, inviting researchers into their worlds. As Mitchell Stevens showed in his highly insightful book Kingdom of Children, many home educators, religious and secular, fled what for them (and for me) were essentially abusive and de facto inexpert “expert” state education bureaucracies. Their stories must be told.

Relatedly, academics have long established the value of diverse institutions. Religious and ideological diversity increases complex thought and reduces stereotyping, as Lukianoff and Haidt argue in Coddling of the American Mind. Accordingly, the elite institutions that shape public policy and economic life must work to limit their own empirically demonstrated discrimination, in admission and in faculty hiring, against traditional Christians; else an insulated elite will grow ever more insulated, less able to ask a range of important research questions and to understand and empathize with the people they rule. Elites need to end their own real isolation before criticizing the alleged isolation of traditional people of faith.

Finally, even in the face of discrimination, the traditionally faithful must crash the gates of elite institutions, much as other minorities have done in the past. This will not be easy, but without diverse voices, neither good social science nor legitimate governance thrive.

Written by Robert Maranto for The National Review ~ August 9, 2020

~ Author ~
Robert Maranto is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas and edits the Journal of School Choice. He has served on both a traditional public-school board and a charter-school board.

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