Betsy DeVos Wants You to Pay for Someone Else’s Religion

President Donald Trump’s cabinet is full of men and women who simply aren’t qualified to do the jobs they’ve been assigned. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

Having had no experience in education before Trump tapped her for the job, DeVos doesn’t actually believe in or support the concept of public education. As the head of a pro-voucher group called the American Federation of Children, she spent most of her time plotting ways to siphon money away from the public schools into private (mostly religious) institutions. The culmination of her efforts occurred in 2000 when DeVos and her allies secured a spot on the Michigan ballot for an initiative that would have established a voucher plan in the state. Thankfully, Michigan voters saw through it, and the scheme went down in flames: 69 percent to 31 percent.

The bruising loss didn’t slow down DeVos. From her perch in Washington, DC, she’s now working to establish vouchers nationwide. As part of her crusade, she’s taking aim at provisions in thirty-seven state constitutions that bar direct taxpayer funding of religious entities.

In a recent speech, DeVos attacked these “no-aid” provisions as anti-Catholic. She asserted that they were formulated in the late nineteenth century, a time when there was a certain amount of anti-Catholic animus in the country.

The main problem here is that DeVos simply doesn’t know what she’s talking about. She’s abysmally ignorant of American history and, as a result, she’s little more than a fount of misinformation.

The fatal flaw in DeVos’s argument is that opposition to taxpayer-funded religion in the United States goes way back—in fact, it predates our existence as a nation. It’s not something that suddenly sprang up after the Civil War. In fact, it’s fair to say that opposition to compelled support for religion was the impetus for the separation of church and state. Remember, the first white settlers to these shores were steeped in European experiences of church-state relations. Thus, the idea that houses of worship (or perhaps just one established church) would receive tax aid seemed natural.

Many of the early colonies had officially established churches. All residents had to support those institutions—whether they were members or not. People naturally chafed at this system of required support for religion. Some began agitating for change. Their solution was to put some distance between church and state.

A key battle took place in Virginia. The colony had an Anglican establishment that was retained after the Revolutionary War. All Virginians were required to support the church, and dissenting clergy could be imprisoned if they dared to preach their doctrines in public.

Thomas Jefferson tried to disestablish the Anglican Church in Virginia as early as 1776. While that effort went nowhere, the issue resurfaced in 1784 when Patrick Henry proposed a bill forcing all state residents to pay a “general assessment” (that is, a tax) to support “teachers of the Christian religion.”

Henry might have thought his bill was a step forward, because under it Christianity 
would be supported in a general sense as opposed to just one church getting all the money. But James Madison, then a state legislator and an ally of Jefferson, would have none of it. Madison knew that it was time to end church taxes once and for all.

In response to the Henry bill, Madison wrote one of the great classics of reli­gious freedom—the “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments.” It’s a list of fifteen reasons why no one should be forced to pay a church tax—and its arguments still resonate today.

Madison’s third point contains a particularly succinct passage: “Who does not see…that the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?”

In other words, a church tax just opens the door. Once the government can force you to support a religion against your will financially, it can compel religious conformity in other cases.

But Madison did more than just pen a powerful broadside. After he defeated Henry’s proposal, Madison pushed Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom through the legislature.

That law, which to this day remains part of the Virginia Constitution, puts it bluntly: “[N]o man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever.”

Many other states included provisions in their constitutions making it explicitly clear that religious entities would be supported by voluntary contributions, not public funds. The idea was in no way as hostile to religion. In fact, the no-aid principle was designed to spur religious groups to stand on their own two feet.

Benjamin Franklin expressed a common sentiment in a 1780 letter to a friend, observing, “When a Religion is good, I conceive that it will support itself; and when it cannot support itself, and God does not take care to support, so that its Professors are oblig’d to call for the help of the Civil Power, ’tis a Sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.”

It’s true that during the post-Civil War period, many of the new states that were formed in the West included “no-aid” amendments in their constitutions, and some did so at the prodding of US Sen. James G. Blaine, a Maine Republican who aspired to the presidency. DeVos and her supporters who want to divert taxpayer money to private religious schools have painted a caricature of Blaine as an outrageous anti-Catholic bigot, but the truth is more nuanced.

The funding issue was entangled in an ongoing debate over the role religion would play in the emerging system of public schools (then called “common schools”). In some states, a generic form of Protestantism was promoted in common schools, which quite rightly annoyed Catholic parents. Some of these parents argued that since the common schools were Protestant in character, they should receive state-funded Catholic schools.

But many political leaders, among them President Ulysses S. Grant, believed there was a better way: reserve tax funding for common schools but secularize them, thus making the schools truly public and hospitable to Catholic parents. As early as the late 1860s, some state supreme courts began striking down mandatory Protestant worship in common schools. It took some time, but eventually, Grant’s vision became national policy.

DeVos didn’t even try to give an accurate rendering of this complicated story. To further her political ends, she asserted that state no-aid amendments are somehow vestiges of old bigotries. She could not be more wrong. In fact, the states that adopted no-aid amendments in the late nineteenth century were hardly doing something radical. They were simply honoring the great American tradition of ensuring voluntary support for religion.

Advocates of church-state separation have used these no-aid amendments to block voucher schemes in several states. That’s what’s really bothering DeVos. She wants to remove these amendments and open the floodgates to taxpayer support for sectarian schools. In the process, she would take us back to the bad old days when Americans were compelled to support religions that were not their own.

Although James Madison outlined the problems with that approach 230 years ago, the secretary of education seems woefully miseducated on the matter.