A Martian attending Inauguration Day ceremonies might be curious about the book upon which the President lays his hand as he takes the oath of office. “That,” we would tell him, “is the Bible, a book of Scripture sacred to most American citizens.” “I see,” our alien friend responds, “and therefore your President is obligated to govern the nation in harmony with its principles.” “Not exactly,” we answer. “We believe in the separation of Church and State. The use of the Bible is just a nice tradition. If the President actually tried to implement many biblical teachings, he would run into serious legal and judicial difficulties. Indeed, if a teacher in a state-sponsored school were to teach out of the Bible regularly, he would be disciplined, dismissed, or perhaps even jailed.” Even with the usual Martian advantage of two heads, our visitor would probably be so confused at this point that he would start looking for a saner planet. Since this is the only country–and world–we have, we would do well to consider the paradox.

America, G. K. Chesterton believed, has “the soul of a church.” Actually it would be more accurate to say that America has the soul of a Bible. Decidedly Protestant, America’s attitudes toward ecclesiastical institutions have been problematic from the beginning. As late as 1800, only 7 percent of all Americans held formal membership in some church, though many more attended services and yet more read and believed in the Bible. Many of those who did hold membership in a church in 18th-century America belonged to what in England had been called a “dissenting” denomination, often one that allowed virtual autonomy to individual congregations. Writing in England in 1682, John Dryden complained that “the private spirit” of Protestantism was creating “a thousand daily sects” in England. The endless fissioning, sparked by disparate readings of the Bible, provided many of America’s independent-minded immigrants, who continued to multiply denominations in their newhome.

Given the American suspicion of church discipline, it is not surprising that the framers of the Constitution and Bill of Rights–most of whom were Christians of one sort or another–wrote into the First Amendment a clause prohibiting the establishment of a national church. (This antiestablishment clause, of course, applied only to Congress. Individual states were free to establish an official state church if they wished: Massachusetts and Connecticut in fact did so, and no one at the time viewed this asunconstitutional.) Certainly the antiestablishment clause was never intended to restrain the public or private practice of religion. Rather, the intent was to insure everyone’s free exercise of faith against the kind of religious persecution that many of the original colonists had fled.

The Founders also assumed that despite doctrinal differences, the free exercise of conviction would everywhere reinforce the ethical norms of the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule. Most political leaders realized that a shared moral consensus was the necessary foundation for a legal system that reflected that consensus. Without a shared moral vision, coercion is the only means for securing law and order. As George Washington observed:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness-these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens…. [R]eason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

American statesmen and jurists have often joined Washington in acknowledging their debt to religion. Aslate as1931 the Supreme Court referred to Americans as “a Christian people.” Usually, though, the vocabulary of political piety has been more generic, with vague references to “a Higher Power,” “a Supreme Being,” “Providence,” or “this nation under God.” Congress and the armed services have long employed chaplains and the students at the military academies have sung an occasional hymn, but seriousand specific theology was left to the numerous churches and the yet more numerous Bible-readers.

The current contrast between Europe’s moribund state-sponsored churches and the relative vitality of American religion confirms the wisdom of the Founders’ vision of nonestablishment and free devotion. Nonetheless, in late-20th-century America, the relationship between religion and government isuneasy and often troubled. Perhaps nowhere are the causes and consequences of the problems more evident than in public education. When the Constitution was written, public education was almost nonexistent. Certainly no Federal role in any national system was envisioned. Private schools meanwhile were usually under the control of some religious denomination. With the establishment of state educational systems in the 1800’s, the constitutional prohibition against government-supported churches (reinterpreted to include state churches) began to have unforeseen consequences. For the first time America had a state institution which claimed and exercised a teaching authority usually reserved to churches. When attendance became mandatory, this teaching authority became nearly universal.

Of course, the public schools did not claim authority to pronounce on religious matters. But it is impossible to avoid religious issues in education. Something will be taught about what man is and what the universe means, and these are finally religious questions. Even to adopt a pedagogical posture of evading ultimate questions in history, literature, social studies, or science is to imply that these subjects can be adequately considered while ignoring religion. “All education,” as T.S.Eliot has said, is religious education.”

Individualistic, Protestant America has been slow to recognize the significance of granting the state a monopoly on education. Catholics and some of the more ecclesiastically oriented Protestants have been more wary. At considerable sacrifice, they have maintained their own schools, even while compelled to pay taxes for the state system.

Long before “equal accesslegislation, the place of religious authority in the public schools was a sticking point. Horace Mann and his allies fought tirelessly–and successfully–to free the public schools from denominational control. Mann argued that since Protestants of many sorts, Catholics, Jews, and unbelievers were all sending their children to the same schools, ecclesiastical authorities could properly exert no control over the curriculum. Nonetheless, until late in the 19th century and well into the 20th century in some areas, most public schools continued to provide some religious, vaguely Protestant, training. Students read the Bible, prayed, and sang hymns.

The issue of religion in the public schools became much more thorny when many of America’s intellectual elite followed Darwin, Freud, and Marx into secular understandings of man and society while most of middle America remained deeply religious. Well positioned to affect the character of public education, skeptics have not only removed prayer, Bible reading, and most religious literature from the schools, they have also introduced a decidedly irreligious bias into texts and classes. The taxes of devout Christians and Jews thus often subsidize the destructionof their children’s faith. Professor Richard Baer of Cornell University, a leading scholar on the teaching of values in the schools, believes that we now have a “state-sponsored disadvantage for religion.” The public schools have evidently become part of a national antichurch.

Yet in weakening religion, the state has inadvertently undermined its own position. As Washington anticipated, declining appreciation among the young for the nation’s religious and moral heritage has resulted in personal irresponsibility, criminality, and political instability. Supreme Court justices and other unelected officials have grown more arrogant in their use of power, but public respect for their decisions has diminished. As the national moral consensus based on religion has shrunk, the juvenile courts, prisons, and other instruments of coercion have had to expand. Greed and radical ideologies have moved from the margins to near the center of American politics.

Responding to the collapse of standards in secularizing schools, millions of parents have transferred their children into religious of schools. This exodus has not been without opposition: religious schools have been harassed in several states–most recently in Louisville, Nebraska–and families have been hindered in their attempts to educate children at home. In the years of declining enrollments ahead, the state school system will surely become much more aggressive in pursuing its fleeing victims. But many of the nation’s newly created religious schools are–like the small, independent Protestant congregations they serve–ill positioned to stand against monolithic state bureaucracies and teachers’ unions.

What role the ecclesiastical leadership of America’s “main-line” denominations will play in the educational battles now shaping up is not yet clear. Their virtual abandonment of the gospel in recent years in favor of leftist and secularist agendas does not bode well. A national spokesman for the relatively conservative Lutheran Council in the USA recently declared that “there is greater harm in faulty theology and meanness of spirit [on the Religious Right] than in any existing humanism that opposes God and the teachings of the church.” Such pastors will offer little consolation, much less help, to parents trying to bring up their children in the faith. Many American Catholic leaders, too, appear more concerned with capturing headlines than with instilling faith in young people. Still much more religious than public schools, Catholic schools are appreciably more secular and less orthodox than they were two decades ago. Yet few church leaders appear concerned about reversing this drift. The American bishops’ proposed tax credits for parents who send their children to private schools is significantly lower on their agenda thandeclaiming on nuclear weapons or capitalism. Though such a measure would make it far easier to send children to church schools, the experience of Holland, where government subsidy for religious schools has resulted in virtual government control, has made many Americans cautious. Short of an unregulated voucher system, parental sacrifice maybe the necessary price for independent religious schools. But it should be of some comfort that the church has usually flourished better under persecution than under the benevolent attention of the state.