All Education is Inherently a Religious Enterprise

schlpryrAs more support for educational vouchers gains ascendancy, the talking points against them become increasingly shrill. The epitome of this trend might well have been expressed by a writer in his recent column in my local newspaper, The Appleton Post-Crescent, His assertion is excerpted below.

“Voucher schools, also known as taxpayer-supported religious schools, aren’t about improving public education, they are about proselytizing. And once government finances religion, it won’t be long before it wants to control the religious message, ending the religious freedom we’ve enjoyed for over 200 years.”

http://www.postcrescent.com/story/opinion/columnists/2015/06/11/vouchers-taxpayer-supported-religious-education/71095108/

It sure Sounds good, but in reading the rest of the piece, I believe that the writer has a distain for religious teaching, conflating freedom of religion with freedom from religion by using constitutional language.

When the anti-voucher argument is carefully examined, the position is at least as much anti-Christian as it is an effort at advocacy for public education. If education is a public good, then that particular public good is realized regardless of whether the learning takes place in the public milieu.

Some Christians may legitimately fear the regulation of their faith by the government should they accept vouchers. On the other hand, a greater number recognize the inherent unfairness of taxation policy that makes them pay for government subsidized public education, even when they are already paying for alternatives. Vouchers could only help restore those funds, making alternative educational choices more affordable citizens who aren’t wealthy. 

If one sees the voucher as following the student, rather than being a direct subsidy from the government to a particular school, then the issue is really about parental choice, not government subsidy. That is why the writer’s assertion that vouchers are tantamount to subsidizing religious education are bogus. Taken to it’s logical conclusion, should we argue that a government employee’s contribution in the church offering plate, is really government subsidy of religion since the taxpayers pay the employee’s salary?

Many secularists will quickly point to Thomas Jefferson’s famous quotation taken from a private correspondence in 1801.


“…I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”

But the historical understanding of this metaphor has absolutely nothing to do with removing religious principles from public education.

Jefferson more clearly explains the meaning of his famous metaphor in this excerpt from his second inaugural message…

“In matters of religion I have considered that its free exercise is placed by the Constitution independent of the powers of the General Government. I have therefore undertaken on no occasion to prescribe the religious exercises suited to it, but have left them, as the Constitution found them, under the direction and discipline of the church or state authorities acknowledged by the several religious societies….”

Jefferson is talking about the application of federalism; distinguishing between the enumerated powers of the federal government and the broader latitude of state governments.


Article three of the Northwest Ordinance in 1787 clearly shows that the Founders had no intension to separate education from acknowledgment of God.

{Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.}

The late SCOTUS Chief Justice William Rehnquist, in his Wallace v. Jaffree (1985) dissent, clarified the historical abuse of the wall of separation metaphor.

“But the greatest injury of the “wall” notion is its mischievous diversion of judges from the actual intentions of the drafters of the Bill of Rights…no amount of repetition of historical errors in judicial opinions can make the errors true. The “wall of separation between church and State” is a metaphor based on bad history, a metaphor which has proved useless as a guide to judging. It should be frankly and explicitly abandoned.”

The great deception on the part of many people, is to define “religion’ narrowly, as a belief in theism, rather than more broadly. If one were to read beyond the first definition of the word “religion” in a good dictionary, they will come across a definition like this…

A cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion”

In that sense all education is fundamentally and inescapably a religious enterprise.

An attorney in San Antonio, Texas teaches a historical symposium on constitutional law. One question he asks early in the course is this: Who is more religious…

A) Bill Clinton
B) Bill Gates
C) Billy Graham
D) Billy the Kid

The answer, of course, is that this is a trick question. The correct answer is E), all the above, since all persons listed have a cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion.

The biggest fallacy accepted by the public is that public education is ideologically neutral. The writer’s original claim of proselytizing is classic example of the pot calling the kettle black. At least some humanists view the public education venue as an indoctrination opportunity.

(“The battle for humankind’s future must be waged and won in the public school classroom by teachers who correctly perceive their role as the proselytizers of a new faith: A religion of humanity — utilizing a classroom instead of a pulpit to carry humanist values into wherever they teach. The classroom must and will become an arena of conflict between the old and the new — the rotting corpse of Christianity, together with its adjacent evils and misery, and the new faith of humanism.”)

Dunphy, John J., The Humanist, Jan. 1983, p. 26.

Dunphy clearly recognizes what most advocates of monolithic public education either fail to admit, or are inexcusably ignorant of: The effort to extract Christianity from public education is really replacing one religion with another.

Though there are many good reasons to support vouchers, a check against undesired indoctrination is first on my list.

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