By Rob Boston
Some religious schools teach intolerance. This is an unpleasant fact, but it must be acknowledged.
There are fundamentalist Christian academies that bash gay people with impunity, mock other religions and promote inaccurate and exclusionary “Christian nation” views of American history. Some ultra-orthodox Catholic schools tell students that anyone outside the true faith is hell bound.
This is America, and people have the right to believe these things. Parents have the right to teach them to their children. Religious leaders have the right to run schools that promote these concepts – with their own money. They don’t have the right to ask you and me to pay for it. That’s one reason why tax aid to private religious schools is such a bad idea.
Interestingly, some conservatives seem able to grasp this concept, but only when the schools involved are in other countries.
Recently, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) issued a report on Muslim madrassas in Pakistan. The report notes that many of these religious schools teach inaccurate and inflammatory views of other faith groups, especially Jews, Christians and Hindus.
In a Washington Post blog post, Leonard A. Leo, chairman of the USCIRF, decried this tendency. Leo wrote that Pakistan’s madrassas “have an unmistakable tendency to devalue minority religious groups, fostering a climate conducive to acts of discrimination and even violence against them. These acts violate religious freedom and threaten the security not only of Pakistan, but also its neighbors, including Afghanistan.”
There’s no doubt that many of these Islamic schools are doing a bad job. Their default position is that Pakistan is an Islamic nation and that the rights of religious minorities depend on what the majority decides to grant them.
It’s good that the USCIRF report is calling attention to this problem. What I find troubling is that some of the people behind the report don’t seem to recognize that the same issue exists here in America.
Take Leo, for example. He’s executive vice president of the Federalist Society, an ultra-conservative legal group that frequently puts on programs featuring Clint Bolick, a prominent advocate of voucher subsidies for religious and other private schools.
Under the voucher plan, tax money would flow to fundamentalist academies, many of which use books and curriculum materials that are rife with religious intolerance. A report by the website Rethinking Schools found that many fundamentalist Christian schools rely on materials produced by A Beka Press, Bob Jones University Press and Acelerated Christian Education and found religious intolerance in many of these books.
Books produced by these outfits assail Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and even Roman Catholicism. One A Beka text refers to Hinduism as “pagan” and “evil.” Islam is called a “false religion,” and the Catholic Church is repeatedly accused of teaching a “distorted” version of Christianity. (One wonders what Leo, who heads up Catholic outreach for the Republican Party, thinks of this?)
Again, people have the right to enroll their children in private schools that teach these things. I wish they wouldn’t do it, but they have the right. But it’s definitely not in society’s interests to promote religious bigotry, and it would be nothing short of insane to award these schools public funds through vouchers. That’s true for both Pakistan and the United States.
Why are so many on the far right unable to see this? I think there’s a good deal of paternalism around this issue. TV preacher Pat Robertson frequently rants and raves about Islamic governments in the Muslim world and demands separation of religion and government in those places. A minute later he’ll start bashing the church-state wall in America and calling it a myth.
The attitude of such people seems to be that a mixture of church and state is all right for the United States because we won’t let it get out of hand. But those people in the developing world can’t deal with it, so we have to make them separate the two institutions.
It’s nonsense. Actually, we could easily let it get out of hand here. The theocrats have proven time and again that if you give them an inch, they’ll grab as many miles as they can get. It’s better not to give them the inch.
If we want to serve as a model for other nations, we would do best by embracing our concept of religion-government separation and holding it up as the gold standard. We have no moral authority to lecture other nations on how bad it is to subsidize religious intolerance if we’re doing it ourselves.
Yes, religious bigotry and intolerance are bad things in private schools. Pakistan should not subsidize them with public funds – and neither should the United States.