The Supreme Court and Young Minds

Religion originally designated that which was forbidden because it desecrated the sacred or holy. Incredibly, the sacred itself is becoming taboo, forbidden, unmentionable in this vast land of Federally united smaller nations, or states. Religion is becoming forbidden not because it is the will of the majority of the people but because it is the will of the majority on the Supreme Court. What is happening to religion in this democracy, through a twisted reading of the Constitution, has never before happened in the history of the world, except once briefly as an excess of the French Revolution and during the failed effort to crush religion under the communist dictatorship of the USSR.

U.S. citizens have become confused about the relationship of religion to politics, society, and art. We might, therefore, begin by considering not religion itself but its relationship to other aspects of life. If you wished to compare Greco-Roman civilization with that of ancient China, or medieval Europe with that of Islam at the time of the Crusades, how many aspects of each culture would need to be compared? Hundreds? Dozens? No, only six. Every society, however primitive or however advanced, has had all six and no more. These six aspects are the political, economic, religious, social, intellectual, and aesthetic. A handy mnemonic help, the initial letters of the six make the word PERSIA.

A few words about each of the six. Political means government or authority, whether the Old Man of the tribe or an elected parliament. Economic is how man gets his living, involving agriculture, trade, or barter—whether one slave for three cows or the complex operations of Wall Street. Religious means God or the gods, the towers of a cathedral or a faceless stone idol in a cave. Social has to do with classes or rank as well as marriage—one wife or many, and whether she is bought, run off with, or persuaded. Intellectual is man thinking—the one who strung a bit of gut between the ends of a flexible stick in order to hurl little spears into his enemy or who sent the Hubble telescope into space. Aesthetic, finally, is the appreciation and creation of beauty—the great poets, Homer and Sophocles and Shakespeare, echoing down the ages, or the mighty painters and composers, El Greco and Bach預ll in their different ways concerned with God or the gods as well as society.

PERSIA is a splendid tool for examining the past, as thoughtful men wishing to understand the problems of today must do. As Cicero said, a man who doesn’t know what happened before he was born remains a child for life.

What needs to be stressed is that every society that has ever existed has had all the six, each one influencing all the other five. Any society that, unimaginably, lacked any one of the six would be crippled. And, more important, every student in the schools needs to begin an understanding of all six and their interaction, especially in relation to his own society, which, for Americans, regardless of ancestry, is Western civilization.

How is it that our schools neglect—are forced to neglect—one of the six, the religious, thus crippling or limiting the minds of their students? How can they understand history—the Crusades, for instance, or the European settlement of the Americas—without understanding the driving force and passionate power of Christianity? Economics and politics, too, of course. But if religion is played down or ignored, there can be no real understanding or wholeness, only distortion. Or how can they understand great literature without understanding the authors’ deepest beliefs?

Some students graduate barely knowing the name of Jesus, who shaped the history of Western civilization and the United States in particular. It’s a neglect that seems, at first glance, almost insane. They will perhaps have heard of Patrick Henry—but how many know that he said, “It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded … not on religions, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ”? How many public schools would dare to mention that? The truth is that wholeness in education requires understanding of all the six aspects and must not neglect the Christian faith that raised the great cathedrals, founded the ancient universities, and launched the Crusades. This same religion brought settlers to America, founded the future states, and in time formed the federal union. In short, the religion of the majority is just as important as that majority’s political opinion or economic practice. Why this deadly distortion of the educational mission?

Because teaching the Christian faith, let alone saying a prayer, is unconstitutional. But how is it that we have just discovered that? Patrick Henry never noticed that, nor did anybody in his day. The Constitution is not a secret document. Thousands of thoughtful men in every generation, including lawyers and judges—even earlier Supreme Court justices—have carefully read the Constitution without discovering the ban. From the time the Constitution was adopted, until the late twentieth century, no one dreamed that school prayer was forbidden or the Ten Commandments on the school wall or creches on the courthouse lawn. No boy or girl was rebuked for carrying a pocket New Testament or for making the sign of the cross over his lunch. How is it that nobody ever noticed that these things were forbidden? Was the ban written in invisible ink?

What, precisely, does the Constitution say about religion anyhow? In the Constitution itself, not one word about religion. But, in effect part of the original Constitution itself, ten amendments were at once added, designed to limit still further the federal government in relation to the states. Indeed, the tenth of these amendments, says that the federal government is to have no powers except those granted in the Constitution, all others being reserved to the states. What do these ten, called the Bill of Rights, say about religion? A few words only, in the First Amendment.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Congress meant the federal government; no one then foresaw the Supreme Court’s discovering hidden meanings in the Constitution to strike down state laws. The First Amendment was intended to put certain freedoms—free speech, free press, free exercise of religion—beyond the reach of the federal government. Or so the writers of the amendment and those who voted for it thought. Does the Supreme Court of the federal government enhance—or deny—the freedom of religion by forbidding the state to allow it in its schools?

How does the Supreme Court get away with it? The Supreme Court, loyal servant of ever-increasing federal power, has suddenly discovered through tortuous reasoning that the “Establishment Clause”—that the words “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” are charged with meaning that the men who wrote those words never dreamt of. Nor did thousands of others dream of it. What did the words mean to the men who wrote them? We had just broken away from England, which had an established church, the Church of England, supported by the taxes of the nation. A similar “Church of the United States” was precisely what Congress was forbidden to establish. All the states were Christian, but Virginians didn’t want to be in a Connecticut Church, or Marylanders in a Church of Pennsylvania. An official Church of the United States was thus forbidden. Nothing else.

Each state could do what it liked; and so the schools taught the form of Christianity of their own state. There was no intention of forbidding prayer or the Ten Commandments on the school walls or a painting of Jesus or a creche on the courthouse lawn. The Supreme Court simply twisted the plain meaning of the Establishment Clause and made that twisted meaning the law of the land: court-made law. The First Amendment, instead of protecting the states in the free exercise of religion, was used against the states in order to throttle the teaching of Christianity. One can only suppose that the Supreme Court intends to drive Christianity out of public life.

Whatever Thomas Jefferson said in a private letter about the “wall of separation” between government and religion, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights intend no such thing. And, judging from Patrick Henry’s remark, and many others, it is probable that if the Founding Fathers of the Republic had foreseen immigrants who worshiped other deities, they would have deemed it advisable to instruct such immigrants

not only in the political system of their new country—democracy—but in its religion—mere Christianity—as well. The immigrants might not have accepted that religion—or indeed that political system—but they would, at least, have understood it.

When the independent and sovereign states voluntarily joined the federal union—ever doubting that they could later withdraw if they chose—they feared that the Congress, despite all the limitations built into the Constitution and Bill of Rights, would overstep those boundaries. Later men came to fear that the power of the president might lead to dictatorship: hence the two-term limit. But no one thought of fearing the Supreme Court until it began to hand down virtuous, but arbitrary, commands to the states on separate-but-equal practices. It is now very clear that the greatest danger to the federal union of sovereign states is neither Congress nor the president, but the Supreme Court. Even Lincoln’s conquest of the Southern states that had exercised their reserved right to withdraw from the Union was perhaps less dangerous than the court’s ability to find whatever it wants to find in the Constitution. And the supreme irony of the Supreme Court’s recent opinions is that what was intended to protect the states from a national church is now used against the states to deny their power to run their schools as they wish.

The Bill of Rights—the rights of the states and their peoples—forbids the federal government to set up a national church and forbids it in any way to prohibit the free exercise of religion. And that’s all the Constitution says about religion: two limitations on the federal government. It nowhere and in no way authorizes the court to forbid the states to have prayers in their schools or to have the Ten Commandments on the schools’ walls or to have a creche on the courthouse lawn. But the Supreme Court answers to no one, not to voters, not to the president, and yet, maybe, to the states that never gave the federal government the power to regulate or forbid religion. But the Court has simply taken that power, despite the Tenth Amendment. And what court can judge the Supreme Court?

Only the court of public opinion, perhaps; but too many of the opinion makers in the media are themselves hostile to Christianity. And yet, according to the National Opinion Research Center, 82 percent of Americans believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God. Overwhelmingly, the sacred Scripture of the majority; yet at least five of the unelected justices of the Supreme Court can shut Christianity out of the schools of fifty sovereign states by twisting the meaning of a limitation on federal power.

What the court has done is to interpret passages in the Constitution in order to fit the ideology of the day. There’s no question that the Court is the arm of the federal government that is most dangerous to democracy. It seems clear that the majority of the court that twisted the Establishment Clause wished to diminish or even destroy the power of religion in the United States. Their decision would have horrified the men who created the Constitution. Indeed, had they, fearing federal power, foreseen the possibility that the Supreme Court could become the supreme maker and destroyer of laws in the states, they would certainly have limited its powers. The best argument for a Constitutional Convention is to curb the court.

Democracy means the rule or power of the people―the majority expressing their will through their right to vote. Thus we vote, indirectly, for or against laws. But we cannot any longer vote for the teaching of the majority religion or to forbid abortion. It is the Supreme Court, unelected and unchallengeable, that limits our freedom and denies democracy, for when it can find in the Constitution “laws” that the Founding Fathers never intended, democracy is endangered and diminished.

The Supreme Court’s distortion of the Constitution denies the wholeness of vision in our young people, encourages the breakdown of morality, and weakens our democracy and freedom. And I would warn that the court, and the powerful forces arrayed in its support, are out to undermine or even destroy the Christian faith.

  • Sheldon Vanauken

    Sheldon Vanauken (1914 — 1996) is an American author, best known for his autobiographical book A Severe Mercy (1977), which recounts his and his wife's friendship with C. S. Lewis, their conversion to Christianity and dealing with tragedy. He published a sequel, Under the Mercy in 1985.

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