Between Church and State: Religion and Public Education in a Multicultural America

By McAndrews, Lawrence J. | The Catholic Historical Review, January 2003 | Go to article overview

Between Church and State: Religion and Public Education in a Multicultural America


McAndrews, Lawrence J., The Catholic Historical Review


Between Church and State: Religion and Public Education in a Multicultural America. By James A. Fraser. (New York: St. Martin's Press. 1999. Pp. x, 278. $24.95 clothbound; $14.95 paperback.)

The interrelationship among church, state, and school in the United States has been quite complicated, and any book on the subject is apt to be equally so. When the author is not only a historian but a professor of education and a Congregationalist pastor, such a work becomes even more complex.

James Fraser is all of these. Relying heavily and selectively on secondary sources, Fraser the historian traces the history of religion and education from colonial times, when official Anglicanism and Puritanism prevailed. Fraser argues that religious freedom came to the new nation not by any grand philosophical design, but by a simple process of elimination: once established churches began to lose their exalted status, they sought to prevent others from supplanting them. Horace Mann's eastern "common schools," in which students listened to readings from the King James Bible "without note or comment" (p. 26), and Lyman and Catherine Beecher's midwestern public schools, in which McGuffey's Reader served as the "textbook for the common creed" (p. 40), were agencies of "lowest-common-denominator" (p. 6) Protestantism, the de facto established religion of the nineteenth century. Those who were not fully Protestant-African Americans, Native Americans, Catholics, atheists, and even Lutherans, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists-were thus not fully "American."

Education, which propagated this exclusionary gospel, also challenged it, as slaves broke the law to read and write, Catholics left the public schools to build their own, and Indians endured the indignities of forced assimilation. The Republican attempt to prohibit public aid to parochial schools through the Blaine Amendment of 1876, the fundamentalist assault on the teaching of evolution in the Scopes trial of 1925, and the Protestant resistance to Catholic presidential candidates in 1928 and 1960 aimed to protect the gospel from further attacks. The Religious Right's campaigns to restore creationism in the 1980's and 1990's sought to recover the gospel from its adversaries.

Fraser the professor of education advocates a new era in the history of church, state, and school, one which rejects not only the minimalist Protestantism of the nineteenth century but also the nihilist secularism of the late twentieth century. "The central question of this book," Fraser writes, is "how should a diverse and democratic society deal with questions of religion in the public schools?" (p. 4). He answers that while public schools must not promote religion, they should confront it-in history, literature, science, and even religious-studies classes. …

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