Voices

No denying the undeniable

On vouchers, the Supreme Court also took a step toward common sense

Issue: "Reaping the whirlwind," July 20, 2002

If you think the Supreme Court's big decision on school vouchers last month was mostly about money for education, then think again.

A far more important issue even than the just distribution of educational dollars was at stake in the Cleveland voucher case. The principle the high court affirmed might be thought of this way: No American should be deprived of benefits other Americans get just because he or she thinks of those benefits in "religious" terms.

Some of us think of everything in life in "religious" terms. We remember the simple but profound instruction from the Apostle Paul: "So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God." But for half a century and more, the direction of American society-and certainly the direction of the highest courts of the land-has been to say that in virtually every facet of life, public dollars could legitimately be spent to promote a doctrine of secularism, but never could be spent to promote the Apostle Paul's style of thinking.

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So you could use public dollars by the tens of millions to teach that the creation of the universe was a totally naturalistic event; but you couldn't use a penny to suggest that the God of the Bible had something to do with it. You can infect the whole public health system with the argument that condoms are the best way to control disease in a promiscuous society; you get in big trouble if you use that same system to promote the idea that God has created sex as an exciting dimension to the mutually exclusive commitment of two people. You can use billions of public dollars to feed the hungry without mentioning God, but you can face a lawsuit if you stop to thank Jesus for that same food.

For half a century and more, the effect of all these policies has been to say to the American public: It's OK to exercise your religion. Just don't try to do it in the mainstream or in the nitty gritty of life-or any place where it really matters. Keep your religion, if you can, off to the edge of things-over there where it won't get in anybody's way.

The problem is that religion-by its very nature-is so obstinate about not staying on the sidelines. Look at four of the biggest news stories of the last few months:

  • There's an international war going on. And make no bones about it-it's a religious war. Argue all you want about whether the terrorists are the true representatives of historic Islam. It doesn't really matter so long as they think they are. By insisting on imposing their values on the rest of the world, they have set the agenda for us all.
  • American business is in crisis mode-but not for the usual economic reasons. The current crisis has to do with basic truth telling, integrity, and trust. Nobody's arguing that the problems at Enron, WorldCom, and Martha Stewart stem from their executives getting their MBAs from the wrong universities. Quite a few are arguing that their executives could have spent a lot more time studying the Eighth, the Ninth, and the Tenth Commandments.
  • Millions of members of the biggest religious group in America feel betrayed by their own leadership. The crisis in the Roman Catholic Church may be deeper than even its critics have thought. The fallout will be costly.
  • On the public-health front, AIDS statistics now appear to be worse than anybody has thought. In Washington, D.C., one adult in 20 is said to be HIV positive. New tests among the homosexual population suggest that perhaps twice as many are HIV positive as knew that to be the case as recently as last year. Only the blindest of the blind refuse to see the correlation of such figures with society's determination to thumb its nose at traditional biblical morality.

So religion's just a marginal issue, is it?

No, that game of denial is over. We all know better now. All of life is religious.

The U.S. Supreme Court didn't go quite that far in the Cleveland voucher decision. But the direction of its thinking was clear: We're not going to pretend any longer, the court said in effect, that we can erect a meaningful wall between the secular and the religious aspects of public life. No, we're not about to give our blessing to direct government subsidies for the church. But if the state gives Parent A a dollar to use for education in a state school, there's nothing unconstitutional in letting Parent B use his or her dollar in a religious school.

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