No, although they are related more closely than one might think. Here’s a quotation from the First Amendment of the Constitution with respect to religion: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This amendment prohibited Congress from creating a national religion, such as “The Church of the United States.” It also prohibited Congress from passing laws restricting the free exercise of religion.
Was this done because the Founding Fathers didn’t feel that religion was important?
Actually, it was just the opposite. The Founding Fathers felt that our country could not survive without strong religious and moral principles. But they felt that such personal beliefs about one’s faith should be up to the individual, and not dictated by the government. Additionally, they wanted to avoid infighting caused by differences in people’s beliefs, which would only be exacerbated by having laws related to religion.
Religion was too important to the Founding Fathers to have government involved in it.
How does this view relate to education?
The Founding Fathers felt that religion was essential to education. After all, how could one get a good education without a religious basis? Since all things flow from our Creator, so should all aspects of our lives.
What did the Founding Fathers actually say about religion and its role in education?
Sit back for a moment and enjoy the following quotations, some of which may surprise you.
In 1787, the year the Constitution was approved by Congress, they also passed the Northwest Ordinance. In it they outlawed slavery in the Northwest Territory, enumerated some basic human rights and also said:
“Article 3: Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”
George Washington said in his Farwell Address:
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports…. And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail to the exclusion or religious principle.”
In order to exclude the dissensions of individual denominations so as to make the teaching of religion a unifying cultural adhesive rather than a divisive apparatus, Thomas Jefferson wrote a bill for the “Establishing of Elementary Schools” in Virginia in which he wanted to emphasize that the only religious tenets that could be taught in public schools were those that were universally accepted by all faiths:
“No religious reading, instruction or exercise, shall be prescribed or practiced inconsistent with the tenets of any religious sect or denomination.”
Jefferson later proposed that the University of Virginia extend its facilities to the various denominations so that each student could worship and study in the church of his choice. He wrote:
“Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed, by eliminating religious instruction, their only firm basis – a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath?”
Benjamin Franklin wrote to the President of Yale University:
“Here is my creed. I believe in one God, the Creator of the universe. That he governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable service we render to him is in doing good to his other children. That the soul of man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental points in all sound religion.”
These basic beliefs were shared by almost all of the Founding Fathers, and they sometimes referred to them as the “religion of America.” Samuel Adams said that “the religion of America is the religion of all mankind.” Thus they could be taught in schools without be offensive.
John Adams called these beliefs the general principles on which the American civilization had been founded.
Jefferson called these basic beliefs the principles “in which God has united us all.” With respect to the University of Virginia, he suggested that the responsibility for teaching:
"The proofs of the being of God, the creator, preserver, and supreme ruler of the universe, the author of all the relation of morality, and of the laws and obligations these infer, will be within the province of the professor of ethics.”
Doesn’t this contradict the idea of “Separation of Church and State?”
Not at all. The clauses of the Constitution given above were meant only to prohibit the federal government from passing laws interfering with religion. And the federal government has no authority with respect to education. The Founders expected that the States would deal with education and that schools would teach the basic religious principles given above.
So why don’t we teach these principles in our public schools today?
That’s a long story and has mainly to do with a number of Supreme Court decisions that restricted what public schools could teach with respect to religion.
Furthermore, even though Franklin’s general religious principles would be accepted by most Americans today, they would not be accepted by all. So between the decisions of the Supreme Court and the beliefs of the current U.S. population, it doesn’t appear that such religious principles will be taught again in public schools.
And to make my position clear, even though I agree with Franklin’s religious principles, I don’t want to force them (or any other belief system) on those who don’t agree with them. So it is no longer proper to teach such in public schools.
So what’s the problem? After all, parents can teach their children about religion, and so can churches.
It’s true that parents and churches can teach their children religion. The problem is that most children spend a great deal of time in school. And if their school doesn’t incorporate religion, children are put into an artificial position of keeping education separate from religion. This, frankly, is ridiculous. We are here as children of God to grow toward God, to love one another, and to help make the world a better place. These are the basic premises of most Americans and yet not a word of this can be taught in our public schools. This leads to a complete disconnect between our true, spiritual selves, and what we are being taught in schools. Without God, what is even the purpose of education?
So what should we do about this?
Because public schools are no longer a place where spiritual principles can or should be taught, and because it is not possible to separate spirituality from education, there is only one realistic answer.
And that answer is to separate out two different functions of government: that of subsidizing education and that of running schools. When we say "public education" we usually mean both, but this does not have to be so. Indeed, it should not be so.
Let government subsidize education by giving parents vouchers to send their child to the school of their choice. Then, if a school taught spiritual principles, there would be no reason for anyone to complain, because parents could send their child to a school that teaches whatever belief system they wish. Thus, there would be true freedom in education.
Furthermore, it would help to stop the artificial disconnect between our spiritual natures, and our other natures. Our bodies, minds and souls are meant to work together in our effort to grow toward God, and this cannot be done when we must forcibly keep spirituality out of schools. This has even spilled over into science, where it is frowned upon to even consider that God or his helpers might have been involved with the world. We have gotten to the point where Einstein’s idea that studying science was his attempt to understand the mind of God would today be considered prosaic, if not unscientific.
Yes, it is time now to separate government from education so that all parents (not just those who are well-off) may once again have their children taught as they deem best. For it is the parents who are ultimately responsible for their children’s moral, spiritual, and intellectual growth.
For detailed information about how school choice would work, click here for my blog post on this.
Tim Farage is a Senior Lecturer in the Computer Science Department at The University of Texas at Dallas. You are welcome to comment upon this blog entry and/or to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.