The Influence of Politics on Education and Religion: How Much Is Too Much?

Article excerpt

Introduction

Hegel's dialectic (1) provides a model for examining the fracturing that occurs when politics begins to exert influence over education and religion. The Dialectic suggests that the current model, or thesis, will inevitably lead to a counter movement, the antithesis, and that the attempt to reconcile the two becomes a synthesis which in its own turn becomes the new thesis. Interaction among politics, education, and religion arouses passion in secularists and the faithful, civic leaders and educators, parents and taxpayers. The problem is intractable, in large part, because the debate is not limited to a narrow sector of society: it is not an academic problem or a legal one; rather, each citizen is a stakeholder in the issues. As a result, bringing light rather than heat to the debate requires examining the positions taken by various subgroups and determining a potential synthesis.

Since the Enlightenment, western societies have promoted a secular model with a strict separation of church and state. (2) Although some countries, like England, have a state church which receives nominal support, even those countries have become increasingly secular as populations turn away from the church as the heart of the community. France, the most secular of countries, has moved so far as to ban any obvious religious display such as large crosses or headscarves. (3) The United States is founded on the precept that there is strict separation of church and state, with free exercise of religion. This "Enlightenment Model" can be seen as the current thesis for Western Europe and the U.S. As societies have become increasingly secular through government policies and legal decisions, large numbers of citizens with religious agendas have launched a countermovement. At present in the U.S., the positions are almost diametrically opposed, with secularists arguing for a strict separation of church and state, and opposition groups demanding public policies which directly reflect their views. As books by Christian writers have flooded the market, militant atheists have written counterattacks which have become bestsellers. The senior religion editor for Publishers Weekly has said, "It was just time for the atheists to take the gloves off." (4) The tension between opposing views becomes unworkable when a critical mass is achieved for each side; recent elections in the U.S., for example, have revealed a sharply divided society with only the smallest of majorities possible in most elections. And, while not all the arguments are related to the church-state relationship, many are. School vouchers and attempts to allow churches with non-profit tax exemptions to engage in open political campaigns are just two examples of issues which polarize voting communities.

Indeed, when the thesis and antithesis are in greatest opposition, it is a time of stress and fracture in the community. A synthesis is inevitable. However, to achieve a longer lasting synthesis that enfranchises and satisfies both groups, they must work together to examine the underlying issues, ignore the distraction of the extreme views, and converge on the concerns they have in common. Such a discussion takes us back to the essential questions: What purpose should education serve? What do we value about religion? How can we minimize the politicization of the ideals and work together toward a partnership that maximizes the positives that each group contributes?

Why Education?

While most would agree that education is well-positioned to positively shape the intellects and the ethics of the youth-and consequently strengthen democracy itself, the ideals of education have been lost in the noisy political battles raging over who should be allowed to influence education. Should there be a strict separation of state and religion where education is concerned? Do taxpayers who belong to faith-based communities have a right to expect that religious expression such as prayers will be allowed in educational institutions funded with public money? …