Separation of Race and State

Separation of Race and State — No, that’s not a typo. I meant to say race, not church. But first we in fact do have to go to church. By now I know you’re probably all tired of vouchers, but please bear with me. I want to suggest that the principle articulately defended in the minority opinions in the recent voucher case [Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002)] unwittingly provides a convincing argument why the principle of religious neutrality they advocate compels neutrality regarding race as well as religion.

The dissenters dissent because in their view vouchers violate the principle of neutrality. Since 96% of the students with vouchers chose to attend religious schools, they argue, the fact of intervening private choice was not sufficient to insulate the government funds from the charge of impermissibly favoring — which in the current understanding is tantamount to establishing — religion.

What I want to emphasize, however, is not that familiar argument. More important, I believe, is the repeated, emphatic recognition throughout the dissents that the principle of neutrality itself derives not so much from the text of the Constitution as from something deeper in the very structure of our society. That something is the overriding fact of religious pluralism, a pluralism that in the absence of official neutrality would lead to constant strife and conflict. The dissenters, in short, recognize that the small “c” constitution of American society of necessity dictates the meaning of the large “C” Constitution.

To quote the references proving this point would be to reprint the dissents, but here are more than a few examples, particularly from Justice Breyer, of what I’m referring to:

• For the reasons stated by JUSTICE SOUTER and JUSTICE BREYER, I am convinced that the Court’s decision is profoundly misguided. Admittedly, in reaching that conclusion I have been influenced by my understanding of the impact of religious strife on the decisions of our forbears to migrate to this continent, and on the decisions of neighbors in the Balkans, Northern Ireland, and the Middle East to mistrust one another. Whenever we remove a brick from the wall that was designed to separate religion and government, we increase the risk of religious strife and weaken the foundation of our democracy. (Stevens)

• I join JUSTICE SOUTER’s opinion, and I agree substantially with JUSTICE STEVENS. I write separately, however, to emphasize the risk that publicly financed voucher programs pose in terms of religiously based social conflict. I do so because I believe that the Establishment Clause concern for protecting the Nation’s social fabric from religious conflict poses an overriding obstacle to the implementation of this well-intentioned school voucher program. (Breyer)

• See also Lee v. Weisman, 505 U. S. 577, 588 (1992) (striking down school-sanctioned prayer at high school graduation ceremony because “potential for divisiveness” has “particular relevance” in school environment) (Breyer)

•In Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U. S. 602 (1971), the Court held that the Establishment Clause forbids state funding, through salary supplements, of religious school teachers. It did so in part because of the “threat” that this funding would create religious “divisiveness” that would harm “the normal political process.” Id., at 622. The Court explained: “[P]olitical debate and division . . . are normal and healthy manifestations of our democratic system of government, but political division along religious lines was one of the principal evils against which [the First Amendment’s religious clauses were] . . . intended to protect” (Breyer)

• [I]n Committee for Public Ed. & Religious Liberty v. Nyquist, 413 U. S. 756, 794 (1973), the Court struck down a state statute that, much like voucher programs, provided aid for parents whose children attended religious schools, explaining that the “assistance of the sort here involved carries grave potential for . . . continuing political strife over aid to religion.” (Breyer)

• (Of early Protestantism in schools): Those practices may have wrongly discriminated against members of minority religions, but given the small number of such individuals, the teaching of Protestant religions in schools did not threaten serious social conflict. (Breyer)

• (Quoting Justice Rutledge in Everson v. Board of Education): “Public money devoted to payment of religious costs, educational or other, brings the quest for more. It brings too the struggle of sect against sect for the larger share or for any. Here one [religious sect] by numbers [of adherents] alone will benefit most, there another. This is precisely the history of societies which have had an established religion and dissident groups….” The upshot [Breyer continued] is the development of constitutional doctrine that reads the Establishment Clause as avoiding religious strife, not by providing every religion with an equal opportunity (say, to secure state funding or to pray in the public schools), but by drawing fairly clear lines of separation between church and state. (Breyer)

• The principle underlying these cases — avoiding religiously based social conflict — remains of great concern. As religiously diverse as America had become when the Court decided its major 20th century Establishment Clause cases, we are exponentially more diverse today…. Under these modern-day circumstances, how is the “equal opportunity” principle to work” without risking the “struggle of sect against sect” against which Justice Rutledge warned? (Breyer)

• In a society as religiously diverse as ours, the Court has recognized that we must rely on the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment to protect against religious strife…. (Breyer)

• … fear that this present departure from the Court’s earlier understanding risks creating a form of religiously based conflict potentially harmful to the Nation’s social fabric. Because I believe the Establishment Clause was written in part to avoid this kind of conflict, and for reasons set forth by JUSTICE SOUTER and JUSTICE STEVENS, I respectfully dissent. (Breyer)

You get the idea. Breyer and the other dissenters argue with great force that the very constitution of American society, i.e., the social necessity of avoiding sectarian conflict, dictates the strict separation of church and state that they see expressed in the First Amendment.

Race and Sects in American History

Although I think the dissenters are mistaken when they conclude that vouchers violate the principle in, and underlying, the First Amendment, I think their vision of American history, and of the neutrality principle that history has generated, is compelling.

One of the most cherished myths of American history is that our foremothers and forefathers fled the Old World for the New to escape religious bigotry and build a new society based on religious freedom. In fact, the Puritans’ strongest complaint against the Old World was that it was too tolerant, that it was swimming in a sea of such moral sloth and corruption that it had lost all interest in purifying the church. The New World appealed to them because it was empty (except for the “heathens” ripe for conversion), and they could establish Godly communities the way they were quite certain God intended.

And yet within several generations religious toleration had broken out all over. Despite the best efforts of the Puritan divines, diversity could not be denied. The Baptists and Quakers proved irrepressible. Mennonites appeared, and Methodists sprouted like weeds in the wake of itinerant ministers. Even many Congregational churches split asunder as revivalist “New Lights” walked out and founded competing congregations.

What happened? Unintended and unplanned, America began to happen. What Voltaire said cynically about England came to be celebrated here: “If there were one religion . . . , its despotism would be terrible; if there were only two, they would destroy each other; but there are 30, and therefore they live in peace and happiness.”

Toleration developed not because it was valued but because it was necessary. “Freedom came to the Western world,” wrote Reinhold Niebuhr, one of our greatest theologians, “by the inadvertence of history. Toleration was an absolute necessity for a community which had lost its religio-cultural unity and could find peace only if toleration and freedom were accepted.”

America discovered, however, that toleration alone was not sufficient. Strict neutrality was also required, a prohibition against the state favoring any of the contending sects. As Justice Hugo Black wrote in Zorach v. Clauson (1952), “it is only by isolating the state from the religious sphere and compelling it to be completely neutral that the freedom of each and every denomination and of all nonbelievers can be maintained.” Or as the Court held in Abingdon School District v. Schempp(1963), “the government is neutral, and, while protecting all, it prefers none.”

But if the very structure of American society requires a principle of neutrality that in turn requires a separation of church and state (as the dissenters and I believe it does), should it not also compel a separation of race and state? After all, as the eminent Berkeley historian David Hollinger has written, in our time “ethno-racial affiliations have come to play a role similar to that played by religious affiliations at the time of the founding of the republic and throughout most of American history.” (POST-ETHNIC AMERICA, Basic Books, 1995, p. 123). Surely racial and ethnic preferences are at least as “divisive” today as debates over school vouchers, which seem to have bothered a few litigants and the courts much more than the society as a whole.

As a perceptive if fickle critic of affirmative action has written, racial and ethnic preferences predictably lead (and in fact have led) to

a real Balkanization, in which group after group struggles for the benefits of special treatment…. The demand for special treatment will lead to animus against other groups that already have it, by those who think they should have it and don’t….

The rising emphasis on group difference which government is called upon to correct might mean the destruction of any hope for the larger fraternity of all Americans.

That was Nathan Glazer, in AFFIRMATIVE DISCRIMINATION (Basic Books, 1975), and if anything he underestimated the divisiveness of bestowing governmental favors on the basis of race and ethnicity. Now that liberals have abandoned the formerly core value holding that every individual is entitled to be treated without regard to race, creed, or color in favor of multiculturalism and group rights, the very idea of “the larger fraternity of all Americans” is regarded by many as nothing more than right-wing cant.

Or consider the current mantra of “diversity.” Harvard law professor Christopher Edley — former White House aide, co-author of President Clinton’s “mend it, don’t end it” review of affirmative action policies, advisor to Clinton’s race commission, fervent advocate of racial preferences (he described Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom’s America in Black and White as “a crime against humanity”), and advisor to the 2000 Gore campaign — has written that “our rich religious diversity” provides a model for racial diversity. “We are fairly united as one of the most religious nations on earth,” Edley wrote, “but we worship differently, celebrate that fact, and recognize that religious differences should play only a limited role in our social and economic lives. Perhaps a model along these lines is what is needed in race.” (Edley, “Why Talk About Race?” Washington Post OpEd, 7 December 1997, p. C1.)

Indeed it is, but this “model” suggests a conclusion that Edley and other preferentialists will not like. If ethnic and racial groups are now analogous to religious sects, why should it be permissible for the state to grant preferences to the former when it is clearly prohibited from doing so to the latter?

Perhaps Justice Breyer and his like-minded brethren, on and off the Court, can be called on to explain why they fear “the risk” of “potential” divisiveness in what they see as religious preferences but not the clear and present divisiveness of racial and ethnic preferences. Or, in the alternative, they could explain why a principle that they believe justifies racial preferences does not also justify religious preference, for certainly they recognize that religion provides as good or better basis for “diversity” as race. Would they look on religious preferences in admissions and hiring with the same favor they bestow on racial and ethnic preferences? What is it precisely that would make a preference for Arabs acceptable but for Muslims unacceptable? Are not evangelical Christians “underrepresented” among the students and on the faculties of our elite, selective universities? Why must the Michigan law school have a “critical mass” of blacks and Hispanics but not of Missouri Synod Lutherans? Why was the old quota system that restricted the number of Jews in the Ivy League (presumably) wrong, but the de facto quota system that restricted the number of Asians admitted to Berkeley and UCLA under the reign of preferences not wrong?

In short, perhaps it is time to insist on a separation of race and state, to insist in the ethnic and racial sphere, as well as the religious, that government must be neutral, that it protect all of its constituent groups but prefer none — not because the First Amendment compels neutrality in this sphere, but because of the same social reality that led to the First Amendment in the first place.

Say What? (2)

  1. Race And Sects September 8, 2011 at 8:20 pm |

    […] the reasons I think this question is so important is that, er, I’ve written about it myself, here. Posted in […]

  2. […] Nathan Glazer (whom I quoted in “Separation Of Race And State” over a decade ago) predicted back in 1975 , affirmative action has thus led […]

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