Baptists–American, South, and Right (continued)

When I attended the Baptist church, their views of separation of church and state, liberty of conscience, equality, and religious toleration espoused by Roger Williams were strong. Tolerant Baptists may not have been publicly militant about much, but they were militant about the separation of church and state.

  It was easy to predict how American Baptists would react in those days to some prominent church-state issues: prayers in public schools and government aid to parochial schools. For American Baptists the answers were a simple: no and no.

The public prayers profaned God. If one prayed because the state required it, then the prayer came not out of devotion to God, but because of devotion to or fear of the state. This made such a prayer unholy and defiled true religion. If the prayer was uttered, not out of devotion and faith, but merely out of a habit, like saying “Good morning, Miss Ketter” to the teacher each morning, the prayer was still sinful.

          We American Baptists thought that the United States Supreme Court got it right when it held in 1962 that a recitation of a state-written prayer in the public schools violated the First Amendment, which prohibits an establishment of religion. Furor around the country, however, resulted. Godlessness would prevail. Communists would ascend. At the time I found this panic amusing. My public school did not have prayers. I believe they were outlawed in Wisconsin, as they were in many–perhaps most–other states. I listened to the rants about the Court’s decision and looked about me and could not figure out what they were going on about. Wisconsin, to my keen eye that was on a vigilant lookout for such things and disappointed when I could not find them, did not seem to be more a hotbed of iniquity than the places that required public prayers. It was clear to me that there was no connection between morality or godly behavior and the recitation of prayers in public schools.

          American Baptists were not alone in accepting the Supreme Court ruling banning school prayers. Southern Baptists agreed. The Southern Baptists came into being in the1840s when they segregated themselves from other Baptists. It should come as no great surprise that race was the dividing factor. The specific issue, as I understand it, was whether slave holders could be missionaries.

But even with the split, Southern Baptists maintained the same doctrinal positions as other Baptists. They believed that the Bible only authorized two sacraments—adult baptism by immersion and the Lord’s Supper. They also were without a hierarchy. There was a Southern Baptist Convention to which churches sent “messengers,” but the pronouncements of the SBC did not bind anyone; they were just recommendations or urgings or food for thought. As with American Baptists, the church was congregation-based with the congregants selecting a minister. And Southern Baptists also believed in the strict separation of church and state. Shortly after the Supreme Court held that public school prayers were unconstitutional, the President of the Southern Baptist Convention, praising the decision, said that it was “one of the most powerful blows in our lifetime, maybe since the Constitution was adopted, for the freedom of religion in our lifetime.”

          Soon thereafter, however, Southern Baptists started changing their positions. In 1982, the SBC supported a constitutional amendment that would have allowed individual or group prayer in public schools as long as the government did not require participation in the prayer. (This was a curious proposal since individual prayer was never outlawed, and, of course, silent prayer could not be. Surely, I am not the only one who reached out to the Almighty before a calculus exam. A spoken prayer might run into troubles with school authorities, not because it was a prayer, but because any vocalization in a classroom might be disruptive to school order. Part of the power of prayer, it seems to me, is that at least silent ones can be said anywhere, including in government facilities.)

When I was young, American Baptists opposed government aid to parochial schools on the grounds that it forced people, through taxes, to support religious practices, and no one should be forced—especially through government-imposed taxes–to support religion. Southern Baptists also opposed government aid to religious schools. Thus, in 1971, when a voucher system was proposed to allow public money to go to parochial schools, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution that said, “We reaffirm our belief that the use of public funds for education in church-controlled schools, regardless of the manner in which these funds are channeled to church schools, is contrary to the principle of religious liberty.” The Convention went on to “reaffirm its commitment to our system of public education.”

          But times change, and, apparently, so do religious principles. That adamant opposition to state support for parochial schools has shifted. The Convention passed a resolution in 2014 entitled “On the Importance of Christ-Centered Education.” The SBC now encourages lawmakers to enact policies and laws that maximize “parental choice.” It goes on to say, “We affirm and encourage support for existing Christ-centered K-12 schools as they engage in Kingdom work.”

          What, you might ask, accounts for this 360-degree shift? Although religiously tolerant, Baptists were quite opposed to Roman Catholics, who were not seen as real followers of Christ. (A Sunday School teacher of mine once announced that the United States had three major religions: Christians, Jews, and Catholics.) A generation or two ago, the term “parochial schools” was often seen as a coded term for “Catholic schools,” even though other denominations also had religious schools. (The father and a nephew went to Lutheran schools.) The adamant opposition for aid to parochial schools that then existed might have sprung from opposition to Catholicism, but, in fact, the position was consistent with long-held Baptist views that go back to Roger Williams.

          So, what changed? A generation or two ago, Baptists had few K-12 schools. (A fair number of colleges and universities have Baptist roots, including, for example, Wake Forest and the University of Chicago.) However, then came the school desegregation movement. Even though the Supreme Court outlawed segregated public schools in 1954, it was not until the 1960s and 1970s that meaningful desegregation got underway. And, surprise, surprise, Christian Academies started springing up in places–coincidentally, I am sure—where opposition to desegregation was strongest. Non-Catholic Christian Schools doubled their enrollment between 1961 and 1971. And while there were few Baptist K-12 schools before Brown v. Board of Education, they became more numerous just at the time when public schools were being desegregated.

          Many of the Christian Academies were originally unabashedly segregated. We tend to forget all the preaching that said the separation of the races was commanded by the Bible, and Brown did not apply to private schools. These schools, however, could get back-door government help in the tax code. In the 1960s, donations to the schools were tax-exempt, but that changed through a series of Supreme Court decisions into the 1970s that declared racially discriminatory private schools ineligible for the tax break.

          After these legal decisions, most, if not all, of the schools no longer claimed to be all-white, but not many became truly integrated. The schools increasingly said they existed to fight secular humanism and to oppose liberalism. That message and the costs of the schools attracted few non-whites. The schools no longer touted segregation, but that remained the implicit draw of many of them.

          Funding of a Christian Academy education, however, is difficult for many who desire it no matter what their reasons. Therefore, many of those seeking a religious education today support school vouchers. These vouchers are public moneys given to the parents for the education of their schoolchildren. Thus, parents, not the state, decide which school will get the government money. Conservative economists promoted the vouchers in the 1950s as a way to improve education. The claim was that allowing free market principles, under the slogan “school choice,” would work wonders for educational quality, but the vouchers raise questions about the separation of church and state.

          Because the voucher can be used at any private school including parochial ones, public money is used for religious purposes. The Supreme Court had earlier made it clear that governments could not directly aid religious schools, but vouchers, by giving parents control over the state money, is an indirect aid to religious schools. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court in 2002 held that a school voucher did not violate the federal Constitution.

          In 1971, the Southern Baptist Convention, espousing its traditional religious view, took a strong stand against vouchers as an improper state aid of religion. The Supreme Court, of course, cannot change the religious principles of Baptists, but since that strong stand against vouchers, many Baptist schools have been created, and, for whatever the reason, that adamant opposition by Southern Baptists has disappeared. Apparently, theological opposition to public moneys for religious schools dissolves when those schools might be Baptist institutions.

(concluded June 21)

Fund the Police . . . And Others, Too

I have avowed or suggested or implied that a police officer was a liar, had been incompetent, had been less than bright, had used excessive force, had been brutal. I have been personally wary and fearful when I have seen a cop. But I respect the police and what they do.

I didn’t have any contact with the police in the small town where I grew up until I was halfway through high school. Then one day I was asked to go the police station after school where I was questioned by detectives. The crime being investigated had occurred in my girlfriend’s neighborhood. I had dropped Wendy off the previous night. (Of course, I had walked her to the door; I was a young gentleman.) I had been driving my father’s two-toned Oldsmobile, and apparently a neighbor thought that the car had been involved in some sort of incident on the previous night. I seldom drove that or any other car, and although the police kept me for an hour, I was eventually dismissed. Perhaps it was my teenage arrogance (which did not necessarily end with my teenage years), but I was never concerned or scared or apprehensive. I was, after all, innocent. I thought it mostly amusing.

My other contact with a police officer in high school was more informal. On summer mornings I umpired younger kids’ baseball games that were held at what was once a minor league stadium. The program was supervised by a police officer, who, after his midnight-to-eight shift, came to the ballpark. He seemed like a nice guy, but I was shy around adults and learned little about him or his work. I regret my inability to talk more with him. I wonder now what it was like to patrol my hometown and the stories he might have shared. I did not think then about who his friends were or about his family. The kids I hung out with came from a wide economic swath of the town. My friends’ parents worked in factories, were tool and die makers, cabinetmakers, barbers, factory owners, lawyers, bankers, tavern owners, manufacturers’ representatives, physical education teachers, insurance salesmen, clergy, and jewelers. But I knew no one whose parent was a police officer. Whatever world this police officer and his colleagues inhabited, it was completely separate from my world.

I had no contact with the police at my isolated university either. I don’t remember ever seeing an officer on the campus. The police certainly did not seek to enforce the drinking laws. As long as we were on college property, we could have our beer and scotch. This only meant finding a senior to buy the goods and carry it across the street from the liquor store onto the campus. (Done in those genteel days without a fee or surcharge other than one beer for the senior.) There were drinking rules on the campus; underage students were not to drink openly on campus, but it was ok in rooms and certain outdoor places. This restriction was loosely enforced by university security personnel called proctors, and violations were usually met with a mere reprimand. Something more severe, such as breaking a bottle or window, might cause a report to a dean. Never once did it occur to us that such behavior could cause an arrest and trip to the precinct headquarters or to court—something I only thought about a decade later when, working as a public defender, I realized that comparable street corner actions in New York often brought out the handcuffs.

In my college years, I did have one contact with the police. I was sharing driving duties with classmates as we drove from New Jersey to Chicago, and I was stopped by an unmarked car for speeding (which I was) on the turnpike in the middle of Pennsylvania. I was asked to get into the cop car and was driven to a Justice of the Peace where I paid a fine while my college colleagues waited for my return. (I was a little miffed that they did not offer to pick up part of the fine since all of us drove over the speed limit.) I was polite and mostly quiet with the officer. As we got to the court, he said, “I could have charged you for going more than fifteen miles an hour over the limit, and I would have, if you were a wiseass, but you haven’t been.” I thanked him and said, “I was being careful to keep it at thirteen or fourteen miles too fast. I only went above fifteen because I saw you behind me and sped up to get in front of some cars in the right lane to pull over and let you get by me.” He smiled a bit. What I most remember about the drive from the turnpike to pay the fine was that this was my first sight of Appalachia and that many of the houses’ sagging porches looked as though they were being held up by a wash line strung between the corner posts.

Primarily, however, as I left college, I had given little consideration to the police, who they were, where they came from, how they learned their job, or the work they did. I, like almost anyone of my generation, had seen the televised police brutality with civil rights demonstrators, but that was in the South. I assumed that the South was a world apart.

I chose to go to law school in Chicago over what some assumed were more prestigious law schools elsewhere.  After growing up in a little Wisconsin town and going to college in a small, isolated New Jersey village, I wanted to live in a city. The University of Chicago certainly provided me with a new atmosphere. It was a beautiful campus in a beautiful neighborhood, but that neighborhood was small and bordered “ghettoes,” which meant black neighborhoods. We were told that these were not safe for university students, which meant young white people. This was the first time that I lived in a community where people were concerned about crime and their personal safety. These concerns, however, did not cause me to reflect much on the police. They did not seem to me to be my protector; they couldn’t really protect me if I were to become a victim. This was confirmed the first time I was mugged.

I lived in a terrible one-room, one-window apartment with a decrepit bed that came out of the wall. There was no air conditioning and the window faced a brick wall three feet away. During that first hot summer, the apartment was unbearable. I got up one night from my sweat-soaked mattress and decided to make an after midnight walk in hopes of catching a breeze. Instead, I was confronted by teenagers with knives who demanded money. They got it, but they agreed that I could keep my wallet when I said that I didn’t want to have to replace my papers. One said he wanted my watch. I said that a friend had only given it to me a week ago (true) and I would not give it up. The leader smilingly nodded to me, and they ran away without it.

It never occurred to me that a police officer should have or could have prevented this incident. The mugging took just a few moments, and it would have been the barest coincidence if a cop had been nearby when it happened. That was driven home twenty years later when I was robbed at knifepoint again, this time on the Brooklyn block where I live. I was walking from the subway to my home after work on a winter evening when a man walked past me, turned, and blocked my path. He made sure I saw the knife in his right hand and quietly, but menacingly, demanded my money. He got it, but again I retained the wallet. This only took a few moments. Other people were out on the block. I could see my next-door neighbor over the mugger’s shoulder. She yelled hello. She could not see the knife held by the man I was apparently chatting with. I merely nodded in response, and my robber sprinted off after getting my twenty dollars.

(continued Sept. 30)