Book Review in The Weekly Standard



The Weekly Standard Last year Charmaine wrote a book review on Does God Belong in Public Schools? published in The Weekly Standard.

Read how academia doesn’t care much for church-going folk.

The Four Rs

Readin’, writin’, ‘rithmetic, and religion?

by Charmaine Yoest, Ph.D.

10/24/2005, Volume 011, Issue 06

Does God Belong in Public Schools?

by Kent Greenawalt

Princeton University Press, 296 pp., $29.95

IN 1925, JOHN SCOPES, a 24-year-old science teacher, violated Tennessee law by teaching his students the theory of evolution. The result was State v. John Scopes, the infamous “Monkey Trial” immortalized in the classic play and movie Inherit the Wind.

Nearly a century later, the Scopes trial still is being replayed in schoolrooms and courtrooms across the country. Today, Ground Zero in the evolution-creation conflagration has shifted to Kansas. The Kansas State Board of Education began hearings in May to consider including intelligent design in the state science standards. A nationwide coalition of scientists is boycotting the hearings. Kansas is not alone: Controversy over teaching evolution has erupted in at least 20 states.


In Alabama, Arkansas, and Georgia, the focus is on attempts to modify textbooks so that arguments for evolution are labeled clearly as “theory.” And parents in Pennsylvania filed a federal lawsuit after a school board decision requiring schools to teach intelligent design. The conflict in the schools, of course, goes beyond questions about

Charmaine Yoest is the author of the Reasoned Audacity blog.


Thankyou (foot)notes:

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evolution. Parents in Maryland are challenging the implementation of a sex education curriculum that labeled as “myth” the belief that “homosexuality is a sin.” In an initial ruling on a restraining order, the district court judge concluded that the curriculum promoted “viewpoint discrimination,” and threatened the parents’ First Amendment right to freedom of expression.

Into this fray wades Kent Greenawalt, a constitutional scholar at Columbia Law School, with Does God Belong in Public Schools? But oddly, for a legal scholar, he begins by asserting that the courts’ role in the changing relationship between schools and religion has been “only a modest one.” The driver, instead, has been cultural, particularly the secularizing effects of both the Progressives and John Dewey. Nevertheless, he provides a lengthy list of religion-related issues considered by the courts in the last four decades: moments of silence; prayer at graduation and football games; posting of the Ten Commandments; the treatment of student religious groups within schools; the teaching of evolution and creationism; the right to religious expression within schools for both teachers and students; and parental rights to withdraw students from objectionable classroom material.

Further, Greenawalt notes that “during the past two decades, the Supreme Court has revamped the law of free exercise and establishment to an extraordinary degree.” Then he adds, apparently without noting the contradiction in his argument that law followed the culture, that the courts’ school prayer and Bible-reading bans were “so unpopular” that many school districts simply ignored them.

It appears that, perhaps, the role of the courts in the relationship between religion and public schools has been a bit more than “modest.”

One of the most significant of the church-state cases was the 1947 decision in Everson v. Board of Education, in which the Supreme Court first interpreted the Establishment Clause to include a “wall of separation between church and state.” Oddly, Greenawalt spends very little time discussing this consequential, and controversial, framing of the Fourteenth Amendment. Then he dispenses with two subsequent Establishment Clause opinions, McCollum v. Board of Education and Zorach v. Clauson, both in single paragraphs without naming them, save in the footnotes. There in the footnotes we also learn that Zorach’s lead attorney was one Kenneth W. Greenawalt, the author’s father. The elder Greenawalt argued the case in front of the Supreme Court for a group of New York City parents who thought release time for religious instruction was unconstitutional. He lost.

That was in 1952, when Greenawalt, the author, was midway through high school–old enough to have noticed his father’s appearance in front of the Supreme Court. In the acknowledgments, he thanks his wife and his brother, a high school teacher, for his “extremely valuable perspective.” No dad. Here is Kent Greenawalt, these many years later, writing a book on which his father was inarguably an expert, but who makes nary an appearance except for lonely footnote 41. Perhaps this was his attempt to avoid an association with advocacy and present an even-handed academic presentation. If so, then he should have left out his fight with the Flat Earth Society.

On page 31: “A science teacher should not fail to teach that the earth is outside the physical center of the universe even if the doctrine of some religion puts the earth there.” Which religion would that be, exactly? Given the amount of time this Columbia law professor gives to the notion of a flat earth, Greenawalt appears to believe this ancient worldview still lurks behind our mainstream church doors.

Again, on page 67: “Schools teach as true . . . physical facts, including the sun’s place at the center of the planetary system. . . . These teachings implicitly reject the following religious propositions: God created the sun to circle the earth. . . . ” Then, again: “Many people will not credit a religious conclusion that conflicts directly with a powerful scientific one, such as the roundness of the earth,” he astutely observes.

“Thus anyone who accepts scientific proof that the sun lies at the center of our planetary system cannot also believe the religious claim that God made the sun to circle the earth.” And finally: “Although all scientific theories are revisable . . . the likelihood that further scientific advances will show that the earth is flat . . . is negligible.”

Greenawalt takes his antireligious bias so far that he slips this little nugget into the footnotes:

One might say that religion per se is healthy or good for people, but even that would be odd, given the diverse practices in which religious people have engaged throughout history. To take one extreme example, in devotion to the dual-natured Hindu goddess Kali, a group of marauding Thugees in nineteenth-century India emphasized her dark side and strangled strangers from behind in sacrifice to her.

So “religious people” in Greenawalt’s book are in the same category as murderous marauding savages who believe in a flat earth.

This troubling subtext surfaces in his discussion of civic education and political participation. Greenawalt advances the argument that tenets of religious faith and the secular civic canon often parallel one another. For example, if one believes in the inerrancy of Scripture, then one might also subscribe to an originalist interpretation of our secular scripture, the Constitution. In Greenawalt’s opinion, these are convergent errors. Schools, therefore, have a role in making sure religious belief remains temperate: “Authoritarian, intolerant, dogmatic religions that discourage critical thinking are less desirable from a civic point of view than open, tolerant religions that encourage critical deliberation,” he concludes. “If the effect of public education is indirectly to favor the second kind of religion, that is a cause for satisfaction, not regret.”

The ramifications of his prejudice become clear in the discussion of a 1987 case, Mozert v. Hawkins County Board of Education, in which parents in Tennessee wanted their children exempted from reading a textbook they found offensive. The parents lost. Greenawalt believes the court erred, but only because the parents have recourse in putting their children in private schools “with much less exposure to diverse perspectives.”

He concludes that Mozert provides a cautionary tale: “[F]undamentalist Christians are active in the political process,” he notes. “That process is damaged by participants who are rigid ideologues. . . . Too many uncompromising ideologues are unhealthy for liberal democracy.”

He does note that neither conservatives nor liberals hold a monopoly on production of “rigid ideologues.”

Nevertheless, he deploys his own ideological views in decreeing that the sexual abstinence movement is justified only through “religious objections,” summarily dismissing the serious noreligious medical and scientific arguments proponents have developed.

He similarly dismisses creationism and intelligent design. Those opposing Darwinian evolution do so out of “distress” because it “threatens the grounds of religious belief and of morality.” Although Greenawalt notes that no less a figure than Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in his 1987 dissent to Edwards v. Aguillard recognized a scientific basis for creationism, he himself only allocates one footnote for evidence. Breezily, he states that “whatever the possible misapprehensions of not very well informed legislators, teaching scientific creationism is teaching religion, and that is not permitted.” Conversely, Greenawalt emphasizes that an education that elides religious issues is an impoverished one. Eliminating religion as a subject diminishes the historical significance of religious movements and communicates a marginalization of religious faith that is wholly inaccurate to real-world events.

God does belong in public schools. But this book underscores the challenges confronting a religiously heterogenous society. Attempting to adjudicate a controversy while arrogantly characterizing one side as flat earth partisans is not analysis. It’s wishful thinking. Kent Greenawalt’s inability to excise his own biases, after a self-conscious attempt to provide a dispassionate navigation through a freighted debate, does not bode well for today’s inheritors of the Scopes trial controversies.


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