When Jesus Needs A Visitor's Badge: Church-State Issues In Public Education

A “Hall of Separation”

That’s a horrible title and I wish I could stop thinking it’s not.

As you probably know, given that it’s pretty much all I talk about these days, I’ve been researching Supreme Court cases involving issues of church-state separation in relation to public education. My hope is to have something ready before the entire system collapses and any benefit one may derive from it is no longer relevant.

Map AnalysisGiven the state of the 2020 elections as I post this, I’m probably way too late.

Nevertheless, I’ve been wrong before. Democracy may cough and bleed its way through another generation or so in some form, in which case I may sell as many as eleven copies of this lil’ liber sui generis. A few people may even find it helpful, enlightening – or at least mildly diverting.

Who am I kidding with all the humility? So far, it’s bloody brilliant and everyone will want seven copies just to show off.

In the meantime, I thought I’d share three of the books I’ve been reading as I continue researching my own. While the cases I’m including aren’t exactly obscure or difficult to document (most reached the Supreme Court, after all), the issues involved are often less universal than most “landmark” cases. Plus, as the subject suggests, most involve religion on some level. That means that while my trademark wit and brilliance will no doubt still prove engaging – perhaps even illuminating – it’s nevertheless important I make a genuine effort to incorporate other points of view than my own and a wider array of interpretations and contextualization.

After all, just because someone doesn’t share the same political ideals or personal theology as myself doesn’t mean they don’t deserve consideration and respect as a potential buyer. It all spends the same, kids.

While you eagerly await my own contribution to the field, here are three titles you should seriously consider if you’re even remotely interested in church-state relations as they pertain to public education – or even if you just want to look impressive with your reading choices over the holidays.

Have a Little Faith: Religion, Democracy, and the American Public School (History and Philosophy of Education Series), Benjamin Justice & Colin Macleod (University of Chicago Press, 2016)

The lessons of philosophy and the lessons of history bring us to the same place: resolving religious controversies in public schools must proceed from an informed understanding of the role of public schools as legitimate sites of civic education, where children learn to become reasonable citizens of a religiously pluralistic society.

This rather bold little volume seeks to unravel the history, as well as the social and political dynamics, of public education’s rocky relationship with faith in the United States. While Justice and Macleod are clearly not fans of turning public dollars or control over to narrowly focused factions, neither are they seeking to exclude those voices from the conversation. As they write in the introduction:

{W}e think that public education can serve democracy by helping citizens to reason with one another respectfully and productively, and to understand the complex ways that different faith perspectives (including those that reject religion) inform the lives of citizens.

They structure their case in two ways. First, the book is divided into historical eras – the Founding Fathers as they wrestled with the mix of religion and public education, the 19th century, the “Era of Progress” (roughly the Second Industrial Revolution and the Progressive Era), the 1960s and thereafter, and sample issues from the 21st century. Within this structure, they expertly walk the reader through history, educational practices, religious evolution in the U.S., and the various ways in which these elements intersect, with a focus on what they call “legitimacy.”

Have A Little Faith

A diverse citizenry, they argue, is more likely to support outcomes they believe have both procedural legitimacy (they’re the result of fair procedures and democratic processes, even if not everyone loves the results) and substantive legitimacy (they demonstrate a good faith effort to accommodate the many voices involved in the process, even those in the minority). A religious community might accept that there will be no formal prayer at high school graduation if the process leading to that decision is transparent and the reasoning behind it is consistent with their understanding of how society is supposed to work. The same decision made without clarity as to why or how, or expressed in a way which seems contradictory to their understanding of the system, is more likely to provoke outrage and overt resistance. (I’m oversimplifying, but that’s the general idea.)

In short, then, what Justice and Macleod want is for the debate to be more informed on all sides – resolved by local boards and communities more often than by district courts or D.C. They get there through the best summary I’ve ever read of the history of public education – locally or nationally – as a function of collective needs and individual values. Having taught American History for so many years, I felt like I already had a pretty good grasp on the general educational trends and shifting social dynamics of the past few centuries, but the authors manage to highlight specific movements and interest groups that helped complete some of the connections I’d previously overlooked, as well as numerous other bits and pieces of history and culture. All in all, it’s a fascinating zoom-in on the past two centuries.

Justice and Macleod largely maintain the tone of researchers and advocates for improvement without obviously partisan political agendas, but by default this means readers with specific crusades in mind won’t find much to back them up in these pages. Advocates for public education may find themselves challenged, but most will also find some foundational convictions and ideologies validated along the way – not by mindless recitation of platitudes, but through balanced elucidation of history and founding principles as understood by those who first wrote them down. Even readers interested in “education reform” or convinced we need to reclaim “government schools” from the clutches of atheism and anti-Americanism may find insight and clarity here – minus the sort of “red meat” of which many have grown fond.

All in all, there’s a LOT of history and insight and challenge packed in to a relatively short, easy-to-read text. The authors seem to think we have every reason to be hopeful and that we’re perfectly capable of doing better. I hope they’re right.

Holy Hullabaloos: A Road Trip to the Battlegrounds of the Church/State Wars, Jay Wexler (2009)

Holy HullabaloosThis is not a comprehensive survey of church-state cases which have reached the Supreme Court in the past generation. Instead, Wexler selects a half-dozen cases which illustrate the complications inherent in applying the two religion clauses of the First Amendment to real life. He does a masterful job of reminding us of the very real people and situations behind the decisions, and dispels several common illusions about their goals and beliefs along the way.

Wexler offers valuable insights and analyses with a natural, comfortable humor – making this a very readable, relatable book despite some legitimately thorny topics. While he borders on name-dropping along the way, this can be forgiven since in real life he is apparently actually kind of a big deal. In fact, it’s possible that it’s not name-dropping at all so much as my own personal jealousy at the list of folks whose apartments and workplaces he references as part of this exceptional travelogue.

It's also really, really funny in all the most accessible and respectful ways. That may be part of my jealousy as well.

School Prayer: The Court, the Congress, and the First Amendment, Robert S. Alley (1994)

The first few chapters of Alley’s book are devoted to the history behind the precise wording of the First Amendment’s two “religion” clauses, with a natural focus on James Madison.

School Prayer R.S. Alley

The rest of the work jumps to the 20th century, especially the latter half (after Engel v. Vitale and Abington v. Schempp in the early 1960s), and a series of Presidential efforts and Congressional machinations to more openly label the U.S. as proudly and historically Protestant – and a fairly orthodox flavor, at that. A handful of relevant Supreme Court cases are addressed, but primarily in terms of legislative reaction and the various discussions and factions involved in trying to find a path around the Court’s interpretations of the Establishment Clause.

It was often closer than one might think.

The book ends in the early 1990s, meaning many of the most important cases from a contemporaneous perspective hadn’t happened yet (Lee v. Weisman is the last case covered in the book; Santa Fe ISD v. Doe wasn’t until 2000). Nevertheless, this book is a surprisingly readable and engaging journey through one of the most foundational debates in American history and culture – what role should faith play in a nation claiming to offer freedom of religion but at the same time so clearly founded in some sort of vaguely Protestant (almost non-sectarian, but not quite) “American Christianity”?

The book is rational and researched, so it naturally leans a bit left. Nevertheless, like the Justice & Macleod book, it offers a fascinating overview of a specific issue in American history over time.


At the moment, the status of our nation, whatever values we’re going to claim moving forward, or the actual role and reliability of our Supreme Court is all up in the air. One of the common themes I’ve discovered among Trump supporters over the past few years is their unshakable faith that nothing the President says or does, Congress says or does, or the Supreme Court says or does, can actually damage the nation in any permanent way because… America! They genuinely believe we are supernaturally invulnerable to any violation of our laws, traditions, values, or institutions, as if there’s a distinct, concrete idea of “America” that doesn’t rely on anyone actually maintaining or believing anything to remain omnipotent and eternal.

I find this conviction completely bewildering.

Because of that, I’ve had trouble knowing whether there’s a point to even finishing the book, given how quickly the precedents and procedures therein are likely to become entirely irrelevant moving forward as we move into an age of Rule by Shut-Up-Snowflake-I’m-Making-$(#&-Up-Over-Here!  I’m pushing ahead, however, largely because I’m not sure how long it will take for the system to actually collapse and because – full transparency – I don’t have any better ideas.

That means that you, my Eleven Faithful Followers, are probably stuck with at least another six months of me talking about this stuff, whether anyone other than me cares or not. Thanks for sticking around.

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