The Empty Bromide of Religious Neutrality

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Law & Liberty

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The history of American public education may be told as a history of gradual secularization driven not by religious neutrality but religious enthusiasm.

In the American colonies and well into the nineteenth century, the churches took primary charge of education. Even where public schools were established, their curriculum was distinctively Christian. Early nineteenth century Massachusetts schools were at first colored by a kind of pietistic Calvinism, after which there was an effort to diminish their distinctive Congregationalism. Horace Mann, that emblem of the early development of the government school, himself supported “religious instruction in our schools to the extremest verge to which it can be carried without invading those rights of conscience which are established by the laws of God and guaranteed by the Constitution of the State [of Massachusetts].”

Church education was thus fitfully replaced by varieties of government sponsored and administered Christian education. As time passed, the quality of the religious instruction became progressively diluted—less religiously specific, certainly, but not less specifically religious. Justice Frankfurter once praised the public school as “a symbol of our secular unity,” but he might have more precisely described it as a symbol of our religious division. The increasing secularity of public education grew not so much from the struggle between rival advocates of secular and religious education as from disagreement about the properly religious character of the government school—about the sort of religion needed to sustain the republic.