Monday, January 24, 2005

The Secularity Gradient

Does maintaining a strict separation of church and state presuppose the existence of a sharp distinction between religious and secular matters? For a long time, I have (implicitly) assumed such a distinction to exist. Now I’m not so sure.

The question came to mind when I heard about school choirs that perform Christmas celebrations composed of only the secular Christmas carols (“Jingle Bells” – OK, “Away in a Manger” – not OK). Now, as an atheist who celebrates Christmas, this doesn’t bother me much, although I admit that some of my favorite Christmas songs are the religious ones. The notion that Christmas has a secular component makes perfect sense to me. Halloween provides an even clearer example of how an essentially religious event can become almost entirely secularized.

Yet Christmas and Halloween both lie on a spectrum. The only difference between the two is the number of people who still regard them as primarily religious events. Note that Halloween’s secularity is questioned by two different groups – the modern-day pagans who still treat it as a holy day, and the fundamentalist Christians who decry it as a form of Satanism. We do not have a sharp line between the religious and the secular, but a gradient. If enough people adopted my attitude toward Christmas, then Christmas might move down the gradient into the “mostly secular” zone occupied by Halloween.

So how should these holidays be treated by the state? Ought teacher-led celebrations of both events be banned from public schools, on grounds that celebrating either violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment? Or should both be allowed, on grounds that both have secular components that all students can enjoy? Or should the courts adopt a wishy-washy balancing rule, putting judges in the position of deciding whether the secular component of any given event is great enough to overcome church-state concerns?

I don’t have an answer to the question, so I pose it to my readers. I will just add that I see one relatively simple way to finesse problems like these: implement a voucher system, so that parents can choose the degree of secularity to which their children will be exposed.


Anonymous said...

As an atheist and long-time choir singer, I (angrily) submit the following:

It is NONSENSE to refuse to sing Christmas carols if you belong to a choir.
It is RIDICULOUS to expect a child to be able to say "up yours" (however justified he may be) to a teacher who makes him sing Christmas carols if he doesn't want to.
It is TOTAL nonsense to give the child an A if he refuses to participate in class (choir is usually a graded class.)
It's STUPID to pretend to be a musician and to ignore a piece of competent music just because you don't agree with the politics, race, culture, religion, sex, or habits. Pomos can take a long walk straight down onto jagged glass if they disagree.

It's laughable to pretend that anyone in a choir can act individually, even if they're the soloist. A choir is a collective actor or it isn't anything. Same with an orchestra. There is no personal freedom, in a musical ensemble, to haul off and play anything you please. If you do, it's called WRONG NOTES, and you are a PRIMA DONNA.

Now the example of a choir cannot, of course, be generalized onto a free-market libertarian society. But when people start talking about individuality in the specific context of acting as little more than one key of a piano, I start to get upset.

Glen Whitman said...

Andrea -- sorry to disappoint! I've been oddly unmotivated lately, as evidenced by the paucity of new posts.

My intention in this post wasn't to give a full-on defense of vouchers. I was simply noting one advantage of vouchers, which is that they would allow us to escape the one-size-fits-all problem of the status quo. Parents could choose the school that best fits their educational preferences, without having to impose their preferences on everyone else. This applies to the secularity issue, but also to many others: bilingual education versus immersion, uniforms versus more liberal dress codes, etc. These are only political issues because of the one-size-fits-all character of the public schools.

As for your other arguments against vouchers, it's unclear to me whether you're making predictions or relying on actual studies of the existing (very limited) voucher programs. If the latter, I'd like to know what studies you're referring to, because most evidence I've seen on vouchers has been moderately positive.

In any case, I think many advantages of a voucher system would not emerge until vouchers became widespread, instead of the narrow pilot programs currently in place. Only widespread vouchers will create sufficient incentive for the founding of *new* private schools, rather than just pushing up the enrollment (and likely the prices) of existing private schools.

Also, I think it's a mistake to look for the success (or failure) of vouchers along just one dimension, such as performance on standardized tests. There are other potential advantages, such as (1) encouraging greater diversity in teaching methods, administration methods, course offerings, etc., and (2) depoliticizing issues like those I mentioned earlier.

Finally, I don't have any serious constitutional concerns -- indeed, as indicated in this post, I think vouchers would allow us to *avoid* some constitutional problems inherent in the status quo. As long as the voucher program does not discriminate against any religion or lack thereof, I see no church-state issue. Think of it this way: What if the government offered to pave the driveways of all residences, businesses, and non-profit institutions -- with the *sole exception* of religious institutions, which would have to pay to pave their own driveways. Far from that exception being required by the First Amendment, I think the exception would be a *violation* of the First Amendment because it discriminates against religion relative to all other fields of human activity. Likewise, I think a voucher program that applied only to secular schools would violate First Amendment principles -- just as would a voucher program that applied only to parochial schools while excluding secular ones.