University of California Press, 2007, 309 pp., $24.95The Last Freedom: Religion from the Public School to the Public Square
Princeton University Press, 2007, 294 pp., $27.95
While many are familiar with James Madison’s Federalist No. 51, which claims that religious freedom naturally follows from the multiplicity of sects, few scholars have noted its striking similarity to Adam Smith’s notion of religious disestablishment as described in The Wealth of Nations.1 Echoing his own economic thought, Smith argued that if government were to treat religious sects “equally and impartially” they would, as a result of competition, proliferate and become less zealous, to the benefit of citizen and state alike. To the extent that Madison and Smith saw this phenomenon as the product of an “invisible hand”, they both acknowledged that it would require individual sects to sacrifice, or at least to circumscribe, aspects of their faith for the public good. This tension is evident in two recent books that look to Madison—primary author of the Constitution and the First Amendment—as the defining Founder in shaping the relationship between religion and government in modern America.
John DiIulio’s Godly Republic: A Centrist Blueprint for America’s Faith-Based Future channels Madison and Smith in championing America’s religious pluralism and asserting the government’s responsibility to provide a level playing field for religious and non-religious providers of social services. Joseph Viteritti’s The Last Freedom: Religion from the Public School to the Public Square interprets Madison as being more concerned with the religious liberty of the individual, and calls for the government to protect the “free exercise” of faith, particularly in America’s schools. DiIulio, the original czar of faith-based initiatives for the Bush Administration, and Viteritti, a veteran of the school choice battles in New York City, bring a wealth of practical experience to their views on religion and government in America.
DiIulio’s book is a pleasure to read. He seamlessly intertwines policy discussions with personal anecdotes ranging from his involvement in cabinet meetings at the White House to working with grassroots religious organizations in the urban core of Philadelphia. Eager to dispel myths propagated by orthodox sectarians and secularists alike, DiIulio portrays his own views as a synthesis of extremes. While his dialectical centrism appears contrived at times, DiIulio’s reasoned voice is a refreshing change from the cacophony of cries bemoaning either secular vacuity on the one hand, or the supposed coming of an American theocracy on the other.
Viteritti also claims middle ground in his equally well-written account, but his sympathy leans hard toward the faithful over the faithless. He rues the compromises required of the religious in American democracy, especially relative to the unrestricted freedoms he sees on offer to secular ideologues. While convincing on balance, his argument would have benefited from greater consideration of America’s rapidly growing non-Christian population. As it is, his advocacy for the “deeply religious” seems primarily a brief on behalf of a parochial minority within America’s still quite religious majority.
Church and State
DiIulio and Viteritti both devote useful preliminary attention to the words “separation of church and state”, which most Americans erroneously believe can be found in the Constitution. Their historical analyses of the actual development of the phrase are strikingly similar: Both argue that the “wall of separation” of Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists bears little resemblance to the clear divide that current opponents of public support to religious institutions read into the phrase. Rather, Jefferson was merely asserting the Baptists’ freedom to practice their faith and resist persecution by Connecticut’s state-sponsored Congregationalist Church. Jefferson had a political axe to grind with the Connecticut theocracy anyway: Its Congregationalist ministers had firmly opposed his presidential bid on the basis of his liberal religious views. Jefferson’s letter was more on the order of a tart response to political attacks from the Federalist Connecticut clergy, not a call for total separation, as has been claimed since by those advocating a strictly secular state.
DiIulio and Viteritti both lean heavily on the work of legal scholar Phillip Hamburger in arguing that the modern understanding of strict separation originated in the anti-Catholic campaigns of the mid-19th century. An unlikely alliance of liberal secularists, devout Protestants and anti-immigration nativists joined forces in the 1870s to oppose government funding of Catholic parochial schools. Liberals wanted religion out of the schools, nativists wanted Irish-Catholics out of the country, and Protestants wanted to maintain a status quo in which 80 percent of classrooms required reading from the Protestant Bible. Widespread opposition to public funding of Catholic education reached the national level in 1875, when President Ulysses S. Grant advocated the adoption of a Constitutional amendment separating church and state. James Blaine, a Maine Republican Congressman and presidential aspirant, then offered his own separation amendment targeting Catholics explicitly by allowing Protestantism to remain in the schools.
Although the Blaine amendment fell just short of passage in Congress, “Blaine amendments” were incorporated into a number of state constitutions in the West and Midwest as a condition for admission to the union, and they remain in as many as 29 states today. That set the stage for the canonization of the legal doctrine of strict separation in the 20th century. DiIulio makes clear the relevance of Hugo Black’s anti-Catholic, Klansman roots to his 1947 ruling in Everson v. Board of Education of the Township of Ewing. In what historians have judged a poorly executed example of legal bait and switch, Black upheld the use of tax dollars to transport children to Catholic schools but then laid down a strict seperationist standard by invoking Jefferson’s “wall” metaphor.
Vitiritti views Everson as a watershed ruling in what has remained a largely anti-religious court over the past half century. Alternatively, DiIulio, a self-described “born-again Catholic”, takes great pleasure in arguing that Black unintentionally laid the foundation for the Court’s current neutrality doctrine by declaring transportation (among other essential services) to be a neutral activity. This recent formulation, associated with former Chief Justice William Rehnquist provides Constitutional support for governmental assistance to churches and parochial schools if the specific program being financed is religiously neutral in character.
As the highest-serving Democrat in the Bush Administration, DiIulio saw politicians from across the ideological spectrum, from Hillary Clinton to George W. Bush, united in their interpretation of specific church-state issues. An advisor (somehow) to both the Bush and Gore campaigns in the 2000 election, DiIulio makes a good case that the candidates shared a vision of Federal support for qualified non-profit religious organizations. And although Bush has been labeled the faith-based president, DiIulio shows that Bill Clinton was the real progenitor of the field. It was Clinton who included as a part of the 1996 Federal welfare reform law a charitable choice provision (largely designed by then-Senator John Ashcroft) that aimed to reduce barriers to the Federal funding of faith-based organizations.
Contrary to popular belief, these charitable choice laws did not create a new funding stream solely dedicated to religious non-profits. They addressed only the public administration of Federal programs, serving to rid the Federal funding system of “any arbitrary regard for the religious character, or lack thereof, of the prospective non-profit grantee.” DiIulio portrays the reforms as according with Madison’s view that the Federal government should regulate the religious free market to ensure that “varying and interfering interests” can compete on the same terms and conditions.
Despite his claim of bipartisan support for his faith-friendly government approach, DiIulio acknowledges that the flow of Federal funds to religious non-profits remains but a trickle. Of the hundreds of billions of dollars the Federal government has granted to social service providers since 1996, less than $20 billion has gone to faith-based organizations. He is bipartisan in laying blame for this, but he is particularly critical of Republicans who have invited obstructions by supporting Federal funding for groups that mix proselytizing with the provision of religion-neutral social services.
Ultimately, however, DiIulio shows that the most difficult barriers faced by grassroots religious organizations are more administrative than political. He paints a bleak picture of a “government-by-proxy” in which Federal officials have lost control over the administration of grants to local social service providers. With oversight outsourced to state and municipal governments, only major, politically connected national organizations appear on Washington’s radar. As a result, small-to-medium sized inner-city religious organizations are often left out in the cold, despite the fact that they provide the majority of the services to those in need. In distinguishing “faith-based” from “faith-saturated” non-profits, DiIulio observes that those in the urban core are far more concerned with getting bread on their client’s tables than with putting Bibles in their hands.
True to his social science background (he is a Harvard Ph.D. who has taught at the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University), DiIulio concedes that existing research has yet to establish the actual efficacy of community-serving religious non-profits. He is also realistic enough to admit that religious providers can play only a small role in tackling America’s social ills. Nevertheless, DiIulio shows that in targeted cases, faith-based organizations can be particularly effective if properly funded by the Federal government. Echoing the comedian Bill Cosby, for example, he champions tackling the high incarceration and recidivism rates among young, urban black men by empowering national and local black faith-based organizations.
Critics of DiIulio’s “faith-friendly” approach predictably question his interpretation of Madison’s legacy and fault his unwillingness to condemn such “faith-saturated” service providers as Charles W. Colson’s Prison Fellowship Ministries when they are found, as in 2006, to step outside constitutional bounds. As to the latter, DiIulio, while acknowledging PFM’s misconduct, instead suggests ways in which the organization can better ensure religiously neutral service provision. Attacks on the “pervasively sectarian” religious nonprofits like PFM, as DiIulio notes, normally do most to expose the general antipathy that many “open-minded” religious and secular individuals feel toward evangelical Christian groups. Like orthodox secularists and sectarians, DiIulio is resolute in his beliefs, but what makes him different and effective—to lift a phrase from Frank Page, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention—is that he is not mad about them.
Religion in the Schools
While DiIulio’s experience leads him to focus on faith-based service initiatives, Viteritti’s leads him back to the issue of religion in the schools. Viteritti commends the neutrality doctrine, but he still views the Supreme Court as “anti-religious” in part due, ironically enough, to a decision with which he agreed. Although the 2002 Supreme Court ruling in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris upheld the use of vouchers for tuition at religious schools, the Court based its legal justification on educational rather than religious grounds. Viteritti agrees with DiIulio that the Supreme Court has ruled correctly in most cases involving religion since Everson, but he warns that the Court’s tendency to rely on the “free speech” rather than “free exercise” clause of the First Amendment has had serious ramifications for the most devout—especially in America’s public schools.
Viteritti traces the origins of public schools as we know them today to the mid-19th century and Horace Mann. As Massachusetts Education Secretary, Mann viewed the classroom as a “grand machine” working to instill common republican virtues in a rapidly diversifying American population. A heavy dose of Protestant religion in the form of daily prayers, hymns and Bible readings formed part of the assimilation regimen. Viteritti finds plenty to fault in Mann’s “homogenization” scheme, which required children to “forsake the religious and cultural traditions of their own parents.” However, he reserves his harshest criticism for John Dewey, the 20th-century educational reformer who performed a “spiritual lobotomy” on Mann’s religious educational standards. A “son of the Enlightenment”, Dewey was eager to stamp his secular worldviews on public school curricula. His educational philosophy, which opposed religious instruction on account of its “divisive” and “undermin[ing] influence”, left an indelible footprint on the classroom.
Viteritti cites Dewey’s lingering cultural influence in a 1986 Tennessee court case involving a dispute between fundamentalist Christians and a school district over a reading series with a “secular humanist perspective.” Aggrieved parents requested that their children be excused from reading numerous passages they construed as problematic—including some from Macbeth, The Diary of Anne Frank and The Wizard of Oz—but the district refused. A state court then offered a solution that allowed the parents to home-school their children in the subject, but a Reagan-appointee dominated circuit court rejected the compromise. Viteritti takes strong exception to the opinion of the lone Carter appointee on that court, who equated the “purpose of public school” with “values inculcation” and sounded like Dewey in her “concern that the opt-out program would be ‘disruptive’ and lead to ‘religious divisiveness’.” He asserts that such rulings only confirm the suspicions of the devout that America’s schools are not value neutral but serve as havens of secularist indoctrination.
As a warning against the future, Viteritti points abroad to France, where President Jacques Chirac and the French parliament caused great controversy in 2004 by outlawing the public display of religious paraphernalia in the country’s “neutral” public schools—the intent being to prohibit Muslim women from wearing headscarves. Such a scenario is very unlikely to unfold in the United States, where, as Viteritti acknowledges, an abiding respect for religious pluralism is evident. At the same time, Viteritti’s own policy prescriptions could lead the United States down the path of multiculturally contrite Britain, another European country rife with religious tension. Viteritti praises the fact that immigration to the United States “tends to have an Americanizing, moderating influence on the religious practices of people, including those whose traditions are foreign to the Judeo-Christian way of life.” Will the same be said twenty or thirty years hence if the religiously inclined are encouraged by religious and lay leaders to opt out of the public school system?
Faithful or Hollow?
While DiIulio and Viteritti both describe themselves as pragmatic optimists, their differing analysis of Americans’ views of religion reveal variation in their pragmatism, if not also in their optimism. Both agree that the vast majority of Americans are religious and that the majority view on church-state relations—our wondrously porous and transparent “wall of separation”—is under-represented relative to small but vocal minorities on both ends of the religious-secular spectrum. Yet while DiIulio applauds this quiet majority as faith-friendly, Viteritti categorizes them as the hollow middle. DiIulio champions the “pluralistic and pragmatic” American citizens who handily (upwards of 75 percent) support government funding for faith-based organizations’ social service programs; Viteritti criticizes the fact that this same cohort supports laws limiting government funds for religious organizations that engage in discriminatory hiring practices. DiIulio acknowledges, where Viteritti does not, that religious institutions require greater constitutional scrutiny than non-religious ones—even in DiIulio’s “godly republic.”
DiIulio and Viteritti are also united in their depiction of African-American and Latino Christians as the two segments of the American population most in favor of faith-based initiatives and school vouchers. Faith-based organizations in these communities are already addressing vital social needs through private funding and could be even more effective with equal access to Federal funds. Ideal candidates for Federal support, these churches and religious organizations avoid hiring disputes by primarily using volunteers, eagerly partner with other civic and religious groups, and serve their clientele without regard for religious belief. DiIulio portrays politicians from across the ideological spectrum as relatively united in their desire to close the “apparent grassroots government Federal funding gap.” However, the fact that few Republican presidential candidates attended Black and Latino conventions this past autumn calls this suggestion into question.
Both DiIulio and Viteritti predict, as well, that culture warriors on both sides of the church-state debate will focus more of their resources on state-level judiciary battles in coming years. In 2003, the Supreme Court upheld a Washington lower court ruling that prohibited Kyle Davey from applying his publicly funded scholarship to ministerial study. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Rehnquist acknowledged the constitutionality of Davey’s claim under the neutrality doctrine, but stopped short of overriding the state’s generic no-funding clause law, despite its origin as an anti-Catholic Blaine amendment. DiIulio claims that two-thirds of the states, including Washington, have established charitable choice laws similar to those passed on the Federal level despite the fact that the vast majority still have no-funding clauses on the books. In fact, according to the Government Accountability Office, 23 percent of all funds authorized by the state of Washington to provide temporary assistance to underprivileged families went through religious organizations. DiIulio notes that Federal law is “crystal clear on church-state matters” compared to “the diversity and complexity of the states”, where the allocation of funds increasingly falls to the discretion of local authorities.
DiIulio and Viteritti confirm that competition between a “multitude of sects” and relative government neutrality has resulted in unprecedented levels of religious freedom and social harmony in the United States. While DiIulio sees charitable choice laws as aligning directly with Madison and Smith’s notion of the government as an even-handed regulator, Viteritti is more concerned with providing school choice for those whom the system fails almost by design: the most devout minority. Both books are valuable contributions to our understanding of the productive tension between individual liberty and public virtue in America’s rapidly diversifying religious marketplace. Which book will appeal more to any particular reader is, like much about our religious marketplace these days, mostly a matter of taste.
Few, but not none: See Walter Russell Mead, “Faith and Progress”, The American Interest (September/October 2007); and Amy Chua, Day of Empire (Doubleday, 2007).