Separation of School and State

The conservative Texas State Board of Education adopted sweeping changes to its social studies textbook curricula on Friday. Among the most controversial changes is the way “separation of church and state” will be presented to students. I wonder what the school board members think about separation of school and state.

The Constantinian struggle between church and state characterizes much of Western history. During the fourth century, Constantine made Christianity the official religion of his empire. As Dr. L. John Van Til illustrates in his paper, “A Motorcycle Ride With America’s Religious Right: Changing Views of Church and State,” Constantine placed the state above the church and persecuted those who failed to convert. Christianity became the glue of Constantine’s empire and dissenters were not tolerated. For much of the following 1,500 years, church and state have struggled mightily with one another as the state imposed various forms of Christianity on its subjects.

When the state has been placed above the church, rulers used the power of the sword to impose their preferred form of Christianity on their subjects. The state-above-church model has prevailed in various forms, including early American history, until Roger Williams left the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony, stating that “forced religion stinks in the nostrils of God,” forming his Providence Plantation colony (Rhode Island) in 1636 and disestablishing the church. People gained liberty to worship, or not, according to their consciences. Eventually, this principle became national law when the Bill of Rights and the First Amendment passed in 1791. Freed from state control, religion—Christianity in particular—thrived in America.

But just as the nascent nation was jettisoning the historic state church model, it began to use state power to impose a Protestant form of education. Having experienced oppression under the state-above-church worship model, early Americans ironically adopted a state-above-school education model. With its establishment, state and federal governments grew in influence, imposed their will on local communities, and became increasingly secular.
I should recognize here that a small minority of citizens, about 10 percent of the population (the percentage has been growing lately), has opted out of the state-above-school model and adopted the parent-above-school model.

In short, the state-above-school model politicizes education, and it’s not at all surprising to see the rancorous battle taking place in Texas over the content of public school textbooks. Sure, there are textbook battles in the parent-above-school realm but they are contained to private school boardrooms or kitchen tables where parents are free to follow their consciences about selecting curricula.
Our forebears understood that disestablishment of religion was beneficial and they made freedom of religion a legal right after nearly 1,500 years of struggle. They threw off the state. I hope it won’t take as long to recognize the value of disestablishing education. Rather than reading headlines such as the ones reporting the political contest over the content of Texas textbooks, we’ll find those stories in history books chronicling the growth of American educational freedom.