Katherine Stewart, author of the book “The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children,” writes in the New York Times about the historical origins of attacks on democratic public schools.
When the DeVos crowd and rightwing think tanks refer to “government schools,” they are drawing their rhetoric from a dark and ugly history, tainted by racism, anti-Catholicism, and hatred of democracy itself.
Trump, DeVos, the religious right, and conservatives today promote “school choice” so children do not have to attend “government schools.” But where did this language come from?
Before the Civil War, the South was largely free of public schools. That changed during Reconstruction, and when it did, a former Confederate Army chaplain and a leader of the Southern Presbyterian Church, Robert Lewis Dabney, was not happy about it. An avid defender of the biblical “righteousness” of slavery, Dabney railed against the new public schools. In the 1870s, he inveighed against the unrighteousness of taxing his “oppressed” white brethren to provide “pretended education to the brats of black paupers.” For Dabney, the root of the evil in “the Yankee theory of popular state education” was democratic government itself, which interfered with the liberty of the slaver South.
One of the first usages of the phrase “government schools” occurs in the work of an avid admirer of Dabney’s, the Presbyterian theologian A. A. Hodge. Less concerned with black paupers than with immigrant papist hordes, Hodge decided that the problem lay with public schools’ secular culture. In 1887, he published an influential essay painting “government schools” as “the most appalling enginery for the propagation of anti-Christian and atheistic unbelief, and of antisocial nihilistic ethics, individual, social and political, which this sin-rent world has ever seen.”
But it would be a mistake to see this strand of critique of “government schools” as a curiosity of America’s sectarian religious history. In fact, it was present at the creation of the modern conservative movement, when opponents of the New Deal welded free-market economics onto Bible-based hostility to the secular-democratic state. The key figure was an enterprising Congregationalist minister, James W. Fifield Jr., who resolved during the Depression to show that Christianity itself proved “big government” was the enemy of progress.
Drawing heavily on donations from oil, chemical and automotive tycoons, Fifield was a founder of a conservative free-market organization, Spiritual Mobilization, that brought together right-wing economists and conservative religious voices — created a template for conservative think tanks. Fifield published the work of midcentury libertarian thinkers Ludwig von Mises and his disciple Murray Rothbard and set about convincing America’s Protestant clergy that America was a Christian nation in which government must be kept from interfering with the expression of God’s will in market economics.
Someone who found great inspiration in Fifield’s work, and who contributed to his flagship publication, Faith and Freedom, was the Calvinist theologian Rousas J. Rushdoony. An admirer, too, of both Hodge and Dabney, Rushdoony began to advocate a return to “biblical” law in America, or “theonomy,” in which power would rest only on a spiritual aristocracy with a direct line to God — and a clear understanding of God’s libertarian economic vision.
Rushdoony took the attack on modern democratic government right to the schoolhouse door. His 1963 book, “The Messianic Character of American Education,” argued that the “government school” represented “primitivism” and “chaos.” Public education, he said, “basically trains women to be men” and “has leveled its guns at God and family.”
These were not merely abstract academic debates. The critique of “government schools” passed through a defining moment in the aftermath of the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954, when orders to desegregate schools in the South encountered heavy resistance from white Americans. Some districts shut down public schools altogether; others promoted private “segregation academies” for whites, often with religious programming, to be subsidized with tuition grants and voucher schemes. Dabney would surely have approved.
Religious fundamentalists and evangelicals today have picked up the use of the term “government schools.” DeVos funds the leading fundamentalist organizations that see the public schools as godless. Religious groups are suing in states like Indiana to allow religious activities within the public schools. Secularism is their enemy.
When these people talk about “government schools,” they want you to think of an alien force, and not an expression of democratic purpose. And when they say “freedom,” they mean freedom from democracy itself.
The advocates of “school choice” bask in this tradition. Recall that Reed Hastings, founder of Netflix, looked forward to the day when there were no more elected school boards. Advocates for private management of schools funded with public money–such as ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council)–hail mayoral control, state takeovers, and privatization, anything to undermine and destroy democratic control of public schools.
Remember this history. It matters.
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