Freedom of Religion and School Vouchers

Silly separation of church and state.

More precisely, silly people who claim to support the separation of church and state. First off, the phrase never appears in the constitution, though people like to find the concept there. The constitution does grant religious freedom, which has the effect of limiting what religiously oriented actions the government can take, and that's a good thing. But it does not mean that the government can't have an interest in anything that anyone considers a religious issue, just that that can never be the sole rationale for a government action. For example, the government can ban abortion without running afoul of the 1st amendment, but only by determining that fetuses have rights, not by stating that it knows that a soul is given at conception.

The abortion issue seems likely to sort itself out just now, although it will take a while. Less likely to sort itself out is the issue of the religious rights of school children and their families. "But how are those threatened?" you might ask. I wouldn’t offer the question if I didn’t intend to answer it.

Let's start with the concept of religion. Religion cannot be limited to simply a church structure with clearly delineated beliefs and practices. Religion is much more inclusive than that. Atheism is a religion, or more accurately a set of related religions. Religion is any set of beliefs regarding the purpose and meaning of life, the definition and sources of truth, and the nature of reality, possibly including a clear judgment on the supernatural but maybe not. In this sense, everyone has a religion, and therefore everyone has religious rights to protect, and not just from unfair subjection to another's beliefs. This is an important definition because it makes it clear that freedom of religion is never freedom from religion, since no one is ever nonreligious. Everyone has a right to religious expression, and everyone has a religion to express.

There are two main places in our society where the church state issue comes up most frequently: government and schools. We get upset when a government official gives as a reason for doing something their religious beliefs, and we say something along the lines of "Well, he can't just force his beliefs on everyone else," as if his reason is more important than the action. It isn't. First off, the action is what counts, what affects the rest of society. His reason explains to the rest of us why he might take a particular action and what his goals for that action are, but the action is still the point. Second, as stated above, everyone has religious beliefs, and by the definition used above those beliefs will always influence every decision a person makes. Always. We elected people based on what actions we think they'll take, and we based that judgment on the beliefs they espoused. Well, we shouldn't be surprised when they actually act on the beliefs we chose them for (the whole money and lying politician issue aside). This is annoying to hear in public discourse as it is clearly not a well considered opinion, but we can ignore it and move past it, and it would never stand up in court anyway.

More problematic is the issue of schooling. There are two basic issues here: should schools be nonreligious, and can schools be nonreligious? The answer to both questions is no, but we'll get there. For the first question we have to decide is what schools we're talking about. Some people have argued that private schools should not be allowed, but they were defeated in the Supreme Court long ago, and not too many people care to revisit the issue. I think the majority of people agree that private schools have every right to be religiously partisan. Good, now on to public schools. We have decided that it benefits society greatly to have a large population of people with at least a basic education, so we publicly fund schools. This public funding becomes an issue every time someone wants to start the school day with prayer, and occasionally when a valedictorian wants to thank the God of their choice in a graduation speech. The argument is that to allow religion to enter into any aspect of public education is to trample the rights of the tax payers, who don't get a choice about what they fund and shouldn't be forced to fund religious activities with which they disagree. Fair enough, the argument is rational and honest. The argument does, however, favor the rights of some over the rights of others, at least in the case of the valedictorian's speech, although I think the valedictorian would be highly likely to win that case in court. Rights aside, what about the quality of the education provided? Is an education devoid of any values, not just moral but also intellectual, of any value whatsoever? And it would have to be devoid of intellectual value, since religion is the ultimate source of any determination of what constitutes a valid source of truth. Without a determination that experience constitutes truth, science means nothing. Without a decision to believe written sources, history means nothing. Math requires a reliance on logic, and literature is an open debate anyway. Education is, and should be, filled with this sort of existential discussion, and this is exactly the sort of discussion that cannot be had in a nonreligious environment. For this reason alone all education should be religious, even if that religion ends up being materialist atheism.

Then there's the consideration of the rights of the parents to instill their religious values in their children, which tends not to be successful when the people they are trusting for the construction of their understanding of reality are not holding the same basic suppositions about the world. And the rights of children to possess and express sincere religious beliefs, which properly should come up in an educational setting but would be highly disruptive in a nonreligious educational setting. Both of these rights are fully protected by the phrase "or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," but discarded by the current interpretation of "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." So, no, schooling should not ever be nonreligious, whether that school is public or private.

This becomes a moot point as soon as we consider the second question: can education be nonreligious. Just as no one is ever devoid of religious beliefs, even if they do not choose to define them as such, no education can be devoid of religious values. Those same value judgments on the sources of truth that provided the argument that schools shouldn't be nonreligious proves that they cannot be. No school can educate a child without making these judgments, and we cannot pretend that these judgments do not constitute religious decisions. In the end, rather than be nonreligious, all a school can do is choose its religious values. Public schools are religious institutions, just not of any religion that holds organized church services. That is not adequate fulfillment of the requirements of the argument put forth by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, among others. Since their argument does not have an appropriate solution, another way must be sought.

We have two options if we want to be institutionally neutral towards religion. We can either not fund education, in recognition that all schools teach religious values, or we can fund all religions schools evenhandedly. Since we believe that education is a public good, the first is not a good choice. That leaves the second. Yes, this involves giving government money to explicitly religious institutions, but it's only different in that explicit bit from the current situation. Since the government should not be running religious institutions, that means these schools will have to be privately operated. That means school vouchers. The ACLU and the Americans United should be supporting school vouchers, not opposing them, which brings us back to my opening statement.

Silly supporters of separation of church and state.


The Economy

The economy: one of the most interesting topics that can be found regarding a political system.

Most people think it’s boring. Who cares what people are doing to make money? It's regrettable that they even have to work, why should we waste our time talking about the various ways in which they sell their souls?

They’re wrong. It’s enthralling. It gets caught in the mind like a fishhook and stays there, festering. What we spend money on is a strong indicator of what we care about, both on a personal level and a national one. How we interact economically tells us how we really relate to each other. Are we as generous as we'd like to believe, or are we selfish backstabbing scumbags?

We, as a nation and as a culturally imperialist force, are capitalists. Oddly enough, most of us don't really know what that means exactly. We usually think we do, but we've missed something important somewhere and we don't quite know what or where. We get this nagging suspicion that maybe this thing that runs our lives isn't quite what we really want, but since we don't know what it is, and we can't agree on what it is that we really want, we don't even talk about alternatives seriously.

We think about capitalism as being synonymous with "free market economy," but it isn't. Capitalism is characterized by the investment of capital with the expectation of a profit, which will then be reinvested ad nauseam. This ends up meaning that the people with the money will make more money because they have the cash to invest, while the people without money can't fix that little problem, because they need all or most of what they have on hand. At first glance you'd think that the stock market would be the perfect fix to this situation, allowing people with only a little money to invest, but it isn't. It doesn't allow them much control of the companies in which they invest. Most of that stock is non-voting stock, because they'll never have enough shares to make a difference. Effectively, the stock market becomes a tool of the wealthy to make the less wealthy think that there's something resembling a level playing ground. In our capitalist system, the people with money get to start companies and make money, while the people without money have to work for them and buy goods and services from them. Money ends up back where it started with only a brief layover in the pockets of the workers. Investment doesn’t have to be a bad thing; investment leads to a buildup of capacity, which leads to more jobs and a larger supply of, and thus a lower price for, goods and services. However, the way we set the market up to receive investment is heavily weighted against the non-rich, or even one non-hyper-rich person.

Our modern economy is too big for a single capitalist to form a company that would successfully dominate a market. For that we need groups of rich oppressors. We call those groups corporations. Corporations have none of the good qualities that individual people have, even rich oppressors, and all of the worst. A corporation exists only to provide a return on shareholders' investments. Corporations have no consciences. Our rich oppressors don't have the means to oppress our citizenry - the sheer size of it prevents them - so the corporation has been created to be the new and improved oppressor.

So corporations, a natural product of capitalism, are evil. So what? We're free, right? We could do something about it if we wanted to. Well, maybe, but it wouldn't work. People who have ideas but no money can't get started in this system. Corporations have everything so wrapped up legally that there's not much leeway for anyone who can't employ an entire law firm. Intellectual property laws, stemming from the idea that everything should have an owner even if it isn't something that can actually be felt or seen, assist in the lock corporations have on economic life. If you've got a great idea, but it happens to threaten some major business, say you've got an idea for a workable alternative fuel vehicle and Ford's scared, a corporation can buy that idea from you and just sit on it, and it becomes illegal for you or anyone else to use that idea. Sure, they have to convince you to sell out, but they’ve got the money to convince most people. Basically, because they've got money, they get to make it illegal to produce things they don't like. That is not a feature of a free system. The whole ownership thing, while good and healthy for society when applied to material goods like clothes or furniture, but not material things like forests and bodies of water, is very damaging to society when applied to things like ideas. Non-material things, being non-material, cannot be owned. When they are owned, which in this case means when their use is forcibly and artificially restricted, society suffers.

So I've gotten a bit sidetracked. Oh well. Back to the topic at hand.

The free market is completely different. The free market, based on the freedom to make what you want, provided it isn't illegal to make that thing (illegal for everyone, not just for you), and sell it to whoever wants to buy it (not whoever is forced to buy it because they need it and you happen to be the only supplier, which isn't free at all), is the powerful force Adam Smith described. He wasn't really talking about capitalism. The free market actually is more efficient in terms of employing people and providing the goods and services they need at prices they can afford, but it's fragile and requires active protection to exist.

The free market economy is the traditional model of economic interaction. Anyone who wanted to could start up any business they wanted to and make a living, so long as someone else wanted what they were selling. Work made money. Now we've mixed it up. Work doesn't always make money. Look at the numbers. Federal minimum wage was, until very recently, $5.15 an hour. At that rate, which is the state minimum wage in the majority of states, a person would have to work about 75 hours a week to make $20000 a year. 20 grand barely keeps you out of bankruptcy in a lot of places, and that's with no vacation. Work alone doesn't keep people alive. Money, on the other hand, makes money. That just isn't right.