April 27, 2003

WALLY WORLD

To Worship Freely, Americans Need a Little Elbow Room: Most religious organizations recognize that religious freedom depends entirely on maintaining the constitutional separation between church and state. (Brent Staples, 4/27/03, NY Times)
The Bush administration encountered a backlash earlier this month when Secretary of Education Rod Paige was quoted in The Baptist Press news service as saying that he would prefer to have a child in a Christian school, partly because the value system was set. Mr. Paige said that there were too many different values in the public schools to easily arrive at a value consensus.

Mr. Paige was criticized for seeming to diminish the public schools that he is charged with improving. But the problem is that his remarks seemed to attribute moral superiority to Christian schools in a religiously diverse society that includes millions of non-Christians.

Religious chauvinism is clearly driving policies at the Department of Education, which has seemed fixated on religion under Mr. Paige's tenure and seems to believe that the schools would be fine if only students were exposed to more religion and more prayer.

Even more troubling is the Bush administration's battle to create "faith-based" initiatives, which could potentially open a direct line of funding to church-related social programs--while allowing those organizations to proselytize with federal dollars. Congress, particularly the Senate, seems worried about how all this could violate the First Amendment. But the president's indifference to the church-state barrier is especially perplexing at a time when this country faces grave peril from religious fundamentalists abroad who aspire to theocracy.

We're agnostic on the question of whether folks like Mr. Staples do this intentionally, but certain that his statements here advocate a dangerous and a destructive version of tolerance. Genuine tolerance does not require that we engage in the absurd practice of pretending that public schools, which are for good reason barred from teaching any religion, provide an education that is morally equivalent to private schools that offer instruction in Judeo-Christian morality. Nor need we kid ourselves that entirely secular government programs are as effective in dealing with social problems--particularly those like addiction--as are faith-based programs. This kind of "tolerance", which supposes that religion must be entirely banned from the state, lest someone take offense, and which cloaks itself in due regard for all religions, does not in fact reflect any respect for religion at all. Instead it displaces the centrality of religion and morality in the life of the nation and then fills the gaps with more and more of the State. It is nothing more, in practice, than a bid for power, and, as we've seen over the last seventy years, quite a successful one at that.

Authentic tolerance is much different. It allows us to state the obvious: that, as moral education (in our society) requires a grounding in Judeo-Christianity and as religious faith has proved an important component of dealing with various social pathologies, we will endeavor to provide these things to those who are open to them, but, to those who are not we will not deny social services or an education and we will listen and learn from their differing views. This form of toleration allows us to vindicate and preserve our culture without disrespecting the culture of others. In so doing, it treats religious ideas with the seriousness they deserve and recognizes that religion is not a threat to freedom, but one of its foundations, a check and balance to the State. Posted by Orrin Judd at April 27, 2003 7:46 AM
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