Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The Dark Side of Public Sectarian Schools

One of the key goals of the Religious Right in America today is to reinsert religious faith, prayer, and other sectarian sundries in public schools. Fortunately, religious freedom is sufficiently ingrained as a value here that they can't go flat out and say "we want every American schoolchild to be immersed in Christian dogma." Rather, they frame the issue as one of democratic choice--local school districts should be able to choose curriculums that represent their values, if these values happen to be religious, then so be it. The benefit of this is the healing some sect-line divides (presumably Baptists and Catholics, say, would differ heavily in what theological tenets they'd like to add into the classroom). But it also theoretically leaves room for other religious minorities too--in areas where, say, Jews are in the majority, then they could make the public school reflect their values and theology and marginalize the opinions of other faiths.

So the question is whether Christians who are pro-sectarian public schools are honest in their desire for mere democratic choice, or are fair-weather fans of the doctrine who support it only when it yields Christian majorities.

In this vein, Amy Welborn tips us off to a very interesting story about a state-supported Catholic school in Scotland whose parents are pressuring the school to switch affiliation--to Islam. Why? Because the student body of the school is 75% Muslim.

Now if this was a private school, I'd say the school could legitimately do whatever it wants, regardless of whether it made its parent's happy. If they don't like it, they can leave. But this school isn't private--it's supported by the state. As such, isn't it the logical end of conservative trumpeting of local democractic supremacy that the school adhere to the wishes of the majority of its "voters"? Now this isn't a problem for me, because I oppose state-sponsored religious schools for all faiths (and I think this whole controversy is an excellent example why). But for those who think these schools are desirable, what would be their warrant for denying the will of the people?

I think the answer lies in the blog of one respondent who tackled the issue. Curt Jester (whose headline image, featuring Jesus and Pope John Paul II waving and saying "wish you were here," might be one of the creepier things I've ever seen) writes:
I am not sure why there has been a lot of attention paid to a Scottish Catholic school (state run) where the 75% of Muslim students want to change it to a Muslim school?

After all secularists have been successfully doing this for years with nary a complaint.

Basically, this guy wants to compare a Muslim-faith school not to its logical partner (a Catholic school), but to the secular public schools. From this view, Christianity is the neutral baseline, and anything that departs from it is equally deviant and/or discriminatory. A secular school and a Muslim school are both equidistant from a Catholic school (albeit in different directions), and thus both should be opposed. Curt Jester even says flat out that the "secularists have been...doing this for years," implying that turning a school secular and turning a school Muslim are exactly the same. But the view of Christianity as a neutral baseline is simply wrong, and definitionally places others (Jews, Atheists, Agnostics, Sikhs, Muslims, etc.) as irrevocable outsiders in the political community. Furthermore, the mentality behind it is delusional; whatever the flaws in a secular school system, inoculating its students with "Muslim values" is definitely not one of them (no, short programs designed to foster tolerance and understanding toward a minority faith is not the same as transmitting the values of that faith. That's a lazy argument, don't make it).

But weak logic aside, this is the logical upshot of what happens when a democratic society lets religion inside its schools. Occasionally, its going to work to the benefit of another faith. If you can't take that, then you should re-examine your commitment to the value (this is part of the reason why I think the goal of a Christian America and that of a democratic America are mutually exclusive).

Thanks to Rick Garnett for the original heads-up (Here/here).

1 comment:

Holly in Cincinnati said...

Thanks David!