Liberty Gained and Power Lost

I’m going to tell you a counterintuitive modern history of American religious liberty. In this true story, Bill Clinton emerges as an underappreciated hero and Antonin Scalia as an unfortunate  partial villain. In this true story, conservative Christians have never been more legally free from state censorship, yet they have never felt more isolated and culturally vulnerable. And in this true story, all of the cultural and political dynamics are set in place to make Christians feel more isolated and vulnerable even if they continue to win cases at the Supreme Court.

To understand where we are, it’s necessary to know where we’ve been, and the post-World War II history of religious liberty isn’t so much a story of freedom lost as power lost. The American Protestant church—a church that often proved quite willing to suppress the religious freedom of rival factions (including Catholics)—lost power but gained liberty, and it’s not only deeply unhappy at the outcome but sometimes seems fundamentally unprepared to live in this more-perilous new world. 

At the end of World War II, across much of this nation, people of faith enjoyed considerably less liberty than they enjoy today. Protestants, however, weren’t conscious of this reality in large part because they didn’t need liberty. They had power, and nowhere was this power more manifest than in public education. A Protestant school kid would often begin his day with a Bible reading from a Protestant translation of the Bible (typically King James), hear a Protestant prayer from a Protestant school official, and then hear that same message supplemented through Bible classes taught by his individual teacher. In many American jurisdictions, the phrase “public school” meant “Protestant school,” not as an instrument of rigorous theological instruction, but certainly as a powerful tool of cultural formation.

Moreover, this establishment was jealous of its power. Across the nation, dozens of states had passed so-called “Blaine Amendments,” odious pieces of anti-Catholic bigotry that attempted to deny public funds to so-called “sectarian” institutions. These amendments weren’t motivated so much by a desire to separate church and state as a desire to separate Catholic church and state. Catholicism was the “sect” in state legislative sights. Protestants largely weren’t concerned. Their schools were the public schools. “School choice” was hardly even a gleam in the libertarian eye. There was no reason to leave. Public schools were a bedrock institution of American society, and ideas like homeschooling? Well, that was not only a tiny fringe activity, state laws in a number of states made it virtually impossible. 

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