Religion And The Public Schools
THE PROBLEM OF the place of religion in the American public school—the “school question”—has never had a settled answer. It was a question which the framers of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution had no occasion to address and, together with many other church-state matters, left unresolved. Beginning in 1947, the Supreme Court began to answer the school question for the nation, and the rate and certitude of its answers increased in the 1960s and thereafter. Regrettably, discussion of the legal significance of the school question often begins and ends with these decisions, as if no conversation of substance had preceded them.
In his fine book, Steven Green does his part to rectify this misapprehension by exploring what have long seemed the dark ages of American church-state scholarship: the nineteenth century. In measured tones, Green shows that many of the disagreements about the school question which we believe are contemporary culture-war phenomena had antecedents in nineteenth-century debates and exchanges. Our own controversies about religion and education may not be mere duplications of the past, but they are surely part of the self-same conversation—one which, to the chagrin of some and the delight of others, remains stubbornly unfinished.
Green recounts the rise of “nonsectarian” education in the early nineteenth century, an instructional method that emphasized Bible-reading and reflection not for the inculcation of Protestant doctrine but instead as a font of republican formation—of good citizenship as well as proper moral character. From the innovations of the educator Horace Mann to the legal affirmation of non-sectarianism in several early state court cases, the movement toward non-sectarianism is described by Green as a Pyrrhic victory for supporters of Christian-influenced public education, as the uses to which religion was put grew steadily away from their confessional root until at last our cultural gardeners felt ready to chop them off.