For The Record

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Following are excerpts from Secretary of Education William J. Bennett's Aug. 7 speech in Washington, D.C., to the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic lay organization.

Our schools--public and private--have no higher calling than to transmit those values that all Americans share. ...

It remains a fact that--in the President's words--"the Western ideas of freedom and democracy spring directly from the Judeo-Christian religious experience." The fate of our democracy is intimately intertwined--"entangled," if you will--with the vitality of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Yet in our time this fact is denied. It is denied because the implications of this fact would shatter some false clarities, some simple formulations, which make up so much of contemporary discourse. It is easier to repeat, like an incantation, the phrases "wall of separation" or "no entanglement of church and state," than to think seriously about such issues as the relationship between religious beliefs and self-government, about the connections between the beliefs of our people and our form of self-government. ...

The best place to begin is with the subtle truth embodied by your organization. The Knights of Columbus was founded, in part, to combat a false clarity, one that once had more appeal that we today care to remember. That was that America was and had to be a Protestant nation, and that Catholicism had no rightful place in our country. We cannot forget the repeated episodes of nativism, the violent outbreaks of anti-Catholicism, that mar our history--though I would hasten to add that it is to the credit of America that these episodes were transient, the outbreaks contained, until today they are a distant memory.

Yes, this all may seem very long ago. But virulent nativism flared up as recently as the 1920's, most notably in the attempt to forbid all nonpublic education in Oregon. A truly unholy alliance of groups ranging from the Ku Klux Klan to the Oregon Good Government League succeeded in passing in a statewide referendum a compulsory public- education initiative. This simple solution to the subtle difficulties of a nation of many religious and ethnic groups had considerable appeal; fortunately, it was struck down by a unanimous Supreme Court in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, in a case for the preparation of which the Knights provided crucial financial support.

This was 60 years ago. Within two generations, thanks in no small part to the education and example offered by organizations like yours, America had changed. A Catholic, John F. Kennedy, was elected President, and the issue of divided loyalty was laid to rest. The passage of federal aid to education in 1965, with provision for aid to all needy students, reflected an acknowledgement of the clear legitimacy of Catholic and other private schools. The long history of bitter religious division seemed over. And in a sense it was over.

But in a sense it was not. For even as the traditional sorts of religious intolerance were being largely overcome, a new aversion to religion was becoming increasingly respectable. This new aversion manifested itself in certain intellectual and social circles; but it manifested itself politically in the guise of constitutional interpretation. The same Constitution that had protected the rights of religious parents, and under whose aegis a host of religions had found happy accommodation, now became, in the hands of aggressive plaintiffs and beguiled judges, the instrument for nothing less than a kind of ghettoizing of religion.

It would be fruitless here to go into a long recapitulation of almost four decades of misguided Court decisions, intensifying in the last 20 or so years. These decisions have had two effects: they have thrust religion and things touched by religion out of the public schools; and they have made it far more difficult to give aid to parents of children in private, church-related schools.

These decisions have hurt Catholic parents. But they have hurt public schools as well, and the children, and the parents of children in those schools. For neutrality to religion turned out to bring with it a neutrality to those values that issue from religion. "Values clarification" flourished in our schools; but when public schools in Kentucky posted the Ten Commandments in classrooms, the Court found this unconstitutional. The Commandments were tainted, according to the Court, because they are "undeniably a sacred text in the Jewish and Christian faiths." And public school children cannot be exposed to any statement of such faiths. This, we are told, would violate the clear principle of separation of church and state, of religion and the public.

The consequences of this attitude for our public schools have been damaging. And these consequences follow from a failure to appreciate a subtle truth about the relationship between religion, the values and habits that religion supports, and the requirements of education among a people charged with self-government. For example, we in this country cherish self-government because we believe in the dignity of man. That dignity is manifested in our possession of unalienable rights. Whence come those rights? Listen: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights ..."

As in the public-schools cases, in the aid to parochial-school cases, I respectfully submit that the Court has failed to reflect sufficiently on the relationship between our faith and our political order. The Court has itself acknowledged the lack of "clarity and predictability" in its decisions, that it can "only dimly perceive the boundaries of permissible government activity" in this area. Judge Antonin Scalia of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, writing a few years ago as a law professor, put it more bluntly: "Supreme Court jurisprudence concerning the establishment clause in general, and the application of that clause to governmental assistance for religiously affiliated education in particular, is in a state of utter chaos and unpredictable change." Aid for textbooks for parochial-school students is fine; aid for school supplies such as maps, is not. Bus transportation to and from field trips cannot be provided. State money can pay for standardized tests in parochialel10Lschools, but not for teacher-made tests. Senator Moynihan's famous question--what do you do with a map that's in a textbook?--has yet to be litigated.

It would be funny if it were not so serious. What is serious is a failure on the part of the Court to reflect on the central importance of religion in our public life. This is seen vividly in the recent Felton decision. That decision, which forbade public-school teachers from teaching remedial classes in parochial schools, greatly impedes efforts to fulfill the Congressional mandate, dating back to 1965, to provide compensatory services to all needy students, whatever school they attend. The Court could not be bothered by the fact that not one complaint of improper indoctrination had been filed; that this program had, in the words of the Court of Appeals, "done so much good and little, if any, detectable harm," that the program had ignited nothing in the way of divisive controversy--beyond the lawsuit itself. But the program was ruled unconstitutional be-cause it excessively 'entangled" church and state. How? ...

We at the Department of Education will do our best to nullify the damage done by the Felton decision to the education of needy children. We will work with local school authorities to devise other means to provide services; and we are about to introduce legislation allowing local school authorities to convert Chapter 1 funds into a voucher program. Such a program would allow parents to use those funds in any school, including private ones; and we are confident that this Supreme Court will find such a program passes constitutional muster.

The broader implications of Felton and its predecessors cannot be nullified by particular pieces of legislation. The attitude that regards "entanglement" with religion as something akin to entanglement with an infectious disease must be confronted broadly and directly. It is this attitude that allows The New York Times to speak blithely of the desirability of drawing a line at the parochial schoolhouse door, as if parochial schools are somehow less American than public ones. It is this attitude that leads The Boston Globe to label me: "Secretary for Private Education" when I endorse methods, such as vouchers and tuition tax credits, that would foster choice among schools. It is this attitude that simply cannot understand why over three-quarters of the American people support this Administration in our efforts to restore prayer to public schools. It is this attitude, this underlying disposition about the place of religion, and the values based on religion in American life, that we must confront directly.

This means refusing to accept that the reasoning underlying the recent Supreme Court decisions is sound. It means reminding judges that these decisions are false to the intentions of the founders; that, in the words of Walter Bertns, the Court has "launched an interpretation under which the First Amendment forbids precisely what many a man in the First Congress went to such pains to protect--namely, public support of religion, albeit on a nondiscriminatory basis." It means saying what needs to be said about the relationship of religion, and the values that follow from religion, and the preservation of a free society.

And that relationship is this: Our values as a free people and the central values of the Judeo-Christian tradition are flesh of the flesh, blood of the blood.

In saying this, we--I--will be charged with being divisive. Indeed, a crucial reason Justice Powell gave for joining the majority in the Felton case was the potential of such programs for fostering divisiveness. But the fact is that the program was in no way divisive; on the contrary, this program, grounded in the 1965 legislation, marked the overcoming of past tensions. Indeed, it is the Court's decision in Felton, and the attitude underlying that and previous decisions, that fosters divisiveness. It is a great and tragic irony that, having overcome to so great a degree the old divisions of Protestant and Catholic, Gentile and Jew, we now face a new source of divisiveness: the assault of the secularism of religion. ...

To some my language will seem harsh. But how else is one to react to commentators heralding the Felton decision on the grounds that it helps save us from the fate of Iran and Lebanon? But let us ask: Is American Catholicism a religion of car-bombs and terrorism? It is not. Does the attempt to deliver remedial education to needy students in parochial schools augur an attempt to turn the government to the service of one religious faith? It does not. Is the Pope a force for intolerance in the world? Is intolerant Christianity the problem that bedevils the people of Eastern Europe? Is Catholic Lech Walesa an Ayatollah waiting to happen? No. The Judeo-Christian tradition is not a source of fear in the world; it is a ground of hope.

And what of the United States? Was George Washington wrong when he argued that "reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle?" Was Jefferson wrong when he asserted that the liberties of a nation cannot be thought secure "when we have removed their only firm basis--a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God?" Has subsequent history made the wisdom of our Founders obsolete? I do not believe so.

Indeed, our history has, if anything, deepened the intimate relationship between the Judeo-Christian tradition and the American political order. Lincoln understood the Civil War as a sort of divine punishment for the sin of slavery--a sacrifice that made possible "under God" a "new birth of freedom." And religious faith was central to the civil-rights movement a hundred years later: Martin Luther King had a dream. It was a dream that, as he said, "the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood;" and it was a dream that "one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, ... and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together."

In a word, then: American history--the fundamental shape of the American experience--cannot be understood without reference to the Judeo-Christian tradition, a tradition which gave birth to us and which envelops us.

Let me be clear. No one demands doctrinal adherence to any religious beliefs as a condition of citizenship, or as proof of citizenship, here. But at the same time we should not deny what is true: that from the Judeo-Christian tradition comes our values, our principles, the animating spirit of our institutions. That tradition and our tradition are entangled. They are wedded together. When we have disdain for our religious tradition, we have disdain for ourselves.

This Administration is fully committed to the First Amendment. We are fully committed to the principles of non-establishment of religion and intolerance. We are fully committed to equal rights for all--for the believer and no less for the non-believer. But we do not shy away from what has become an urgent necessity--a national conversation and debate on the place of religious beliefs in our society.

I intend to speak up in this debate; I have a responsibility to speak up, insofar as many of these issues come to a head in our schools. The Administration in which I serve will continue to press for legislation, and where necessary, judicial reconsideration and constitutional amendment to help correct the current situation of disdain for religious belief. And we do this for the sake of our national well-being in general, and for the sake of education in particular. And we do this for the sake of education in the public as well as in the private schools. For we are all equally heirs and beneficiaries of the same religious tradition. That is the subtle truth that, in our time, we should not forget.

Vol. 04, Issue 40 & 41

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