Church and State: How High a Wall?

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Jewish history has taught Jews to be wary of the intermingling of religious establishments and political power, so it’s understandable that American Jews instinctively safeguard the separation of church and state. But there is a wide gap between opposition to a state church and the radical separationism of the type Milton Himmelfarb criticizes in his classic 1966 essay on government support for parochial schools, “Church and State: How High a Wall?”

To Jews, Jewish separationists like to say that separationism is necessary for our safety and well­-being. I think this argument is a second thought, invoked to justify a decision already taken on another ground. Those who invoke it remind me of a businessman who wants to contribute corporation money to a university or a community chest or the symphony orchestra. Possibly he wants to do it because he is a decent, generous man, but he has to justify his decency, to himself as well as to the other officers and the stockholders, by giving businesslike reasons for the contribution: it will be good for public relations, or it will help to make the environment so healthy that the corporation will be able to thrive.

There would be nothing wrong about consulting our interest when we are making up our minds whether to support governmental aid to church schools in the name of better education or to oppose it in the name of separation. If we consulted interest, we would estimate advantages and disadvantages by applying the appropriate calculus. That is how a man runs his business, or he is soon out of business. It is how Mr. McNamara chooses between missiles and manned bombers, submarines and aircraft carriers. But though I follow the Jewish discussions, I recall little that resembles a true weighing of alternatives. We prefer incantatory repetition of the dogma that separationism is our interest.

It is time we actually weighed the utility and cost of education against the utility and cost of separationism. All the evidence in America points to education, more than anything else, influencing adherence to democracy and egalitarian­ism. All the evidence points to Catholic parochial education having the same influence. (And all the evidence points to Catholic anti-Semitism as no greater than Protestant, and possibly less.) Something that nurtures a humane, liberal democracy is rather more important to Jews than 24-­karat separationism.

In the political and social thought that has least to apologize for, despotism is understood to prevail when state and society are all but identical, when the map of the state can almost be superimposed on the map of society. In contrast, freedom depends on society’s having loci of interest, affection, and influence besides the state. It depends on more or less autonomous institutions mediating between the naked, atomized individual and the state ­or rather, keeping the individual from nakedness and atomization in the first place. In short, pluralism is necessary.

Given that a shriveling of the non-­public must fatally enfeeble pluralism, especially in education; and given that the agent of that enfeeblement is the unchecked operation of economic law, the remedy is simple: check it. Let the government see that money finds its way to the nonpublic schools, so that they may continue to exist side by side with the public schools. That will strengthen pluralism, and so, freedom.

Read the whole thing at Commentary.


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