Teaching American History in Michael Gove’s Britain

The controversy started by British Secretary of Education Michael Gove about how to teach history (exemplified in his Daily Mail column from January 2) has continued for quite a while. With the majority of it focused on the historical causes of the First World War, and the large number of events commemorating its centenary this year, it’s probably going to be a reference point among British historians (or historians based in Britain) for quite sometime.
But I was struck by a comment Gove made a few days earlier during a roundtable/interview on the BBC Radio 4 programme Start the Week on December 30. Towards the very end of the radio programme, Gove made a statement that got me thinking:

Kings and Queens are chapter headings.  They’re ways of dividing up the past and they’re also intriguing personalities.  If you talk about dividing history into Kings and Queens, that doesn’t mean you’re a monarchist.  It just means that you understand that one damned thing follows another.
…
In America, they break up their history by the personalities of presidents and what happened during that period.

 

This got me thinking, how do Gove’s pronouncements about how history ought to be taught pertain to the teaching of American history? Particularly, teaching that subject in the UK, as I am doing at present. Although my students all completed their compulsory history education before Gove’s efforts to reform the history curriculum took any effect, if I’m to continue to teach American history in the UK, I eventually would have students whose views of history are informed by Gove’s historiography. How could this matter?
Should I be breaking up my syllabus based on presidencies? The first week we barely discussed US presidents at all (topics: the Pig War, Fenian Raids and US-British relations post-Civil War leading to Canadian Confederation; the Homestead, Morrill Land Grant, and Pacific Railroad Acts of 1862; and the prairie wars with Native Americans from Red Cloud through Wounded Knee), but the second week we talked about Andrew Johnson’s impeachment, the debates over Reconstruction policies after Lincoln’s assassination, and the effects of Reconstruction on American industry, economy and culture. But are the periodizations we associate with US presidents equivalent to the reigns of monarchs?

So I put the question to my class, and asked for their reaction to Gove’s column. Several points came up:

Presidencies as Eras
With US presidencies, it’s sometimes easy to associate some of those with the terms of 8-year presidents (Eisenhower 50s, Reagan 80s, Clinton 90s, etc.) This led to some speculation as to whether the Obama era will be undervalued because it is split across two different decades. For that matter, why would we consider presidents as equivalent to monarchs, as opposed to, say Prime Ministers? For that matter, Obviously we hear talk about the Regency, the Victorian Era, and other monarchally defined epochs, but are future historians likely to be referring to the second Elizabethan Age as opposed to the Thatcher era or Blair era? Several students suggested that this was in part a function of distance. Thatcher and Blair are close enough to us now that we emphasize their differences, but historians a century from now might be more likely to group them together under the reign of Elizabeth.

Moralized Histories
We haven’t reached the First World War from an American perspective, but it is clear that the US perspective on the War would look very different. While US Secretary of State would have no problem agreeing that Germany had “the ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites, the pitiless approach they took to occupation, their aggressively expansionist war aims and their scorn for the international order,” (as Gove calls it) he nonetheless disagreed sharply that these elements “all made resistance more than justified.” Indeed, Bryan placed the blame for war not solely on the German governing elite, but in governments that were too supportive of promoting the industries that found war to be profitable. Decades before we seen Eisenhower’s warning of a military-industrial complex, its precursors can be seen in the conjunction of Bryan’s pacifism and economic populism. But perhaps for Gove, Bryan is another leftist who simply refused to acknowledge the existence of evil.

This led to a discussion of what I might call an Manichean approach to diplomatic and military history.  People don’t tend to call their enemies by names such as “the Evil Empire” with the caveat that their own force is only slightly less evil. That kind of rhetoric is designed to make a clear moral distinction. In our discussion of the US civil war, we discussed whether the victory of the North could be expressed in Moral terms, that the North won because its cause (against slavery) was morally superior to that of the South. We considered whether this explanation served better than a claim that the North had military superiority, or economic superiority. Whether the North had a technological advantage, or whether the South was beset by subversion within its ranks.
We then turned to the account of the war written by Confederate General Jubal Early. Early ridiculed the claims that the cause of the war was slavery, pointing out that the North had profited by it almost as much as the South. Slavery was “used as a catch-word to arouse the passions of a fanatical mob,” Early wrote in his memoir
The narrative that Early gives is one that shows the Souther fight for independence was just and moral, and that the Northern leaders invoked slavery to distract from their own desire for economic exploitation of the South through conquest. The North won not through moral right, nor through military skill, but through sheer force of numbers, the patriotic Southern soldier buried under a mountain of corpses. The story Early gives is one in which the South suffers a defeat, a punishment, almost in religious terms as a test of faith. Like the restoration from exile, or the tribulations faced by chosen people in the past, the true South will rise in messianic fashion.
As an experiment, I asked several friends and colleagues about a passage from Early, while withholding its context

“the people of the United States will find that, under the pretense of ‘saving the life of the nation, and upholding the old flag,’ they have surrendered their own liberties into the hands of that worst of all tyrants, a body of senseless fanatics.”

Out of context, people thought that it was a liberal critique of the Patriot Act or the NSA. This led to the question as to whether or not ‘fanatic’ was simply a term that anyone could invoke at any time, to demonize their opponents. At which point, referring to opponents as fanatics says more about the person using that rhetoric than it does about the opponents themselves.

Morality and Individual Agency
So did it matter whether Jubal Early, or a soldier killed in Pickett’s Charge thought that their actions were morally just and in opposition to unjust tyrants? Did it matter for the British Soldier going over the top in the Somme? It matters in a personal sense—it matters to them, and to the people who knew them. We can recognize the moral behaviors of individuals where the evidence permits, but does doing so explain anything about the outcomes of the war? The importance of the moral character of soldiers in the outcome of war is a question as old as Thucydides, but it does tend to suggest that history is a composition of individuals acting as personal moral agents. that there are no social facts that constrain, influence, or reward individual behaviors. It might be that the soldier in the Somme was conscious of the moral virtue of his action, or he may have felt trapped in a situation he could not control. A lack of emphasis by historians of the heroism of these individuals does not diminish their sacrifice or their heroism; it recognizes that there were other causes at work than simply individual moral actions. That despite the moral virtue of some individuals, they lost battles, or despite the moral depravity of their opponents, they won. At such a point, we need something else to explain historical cause and effect.
And this is where the issue becomes practically important, because if it’s the case that individual moral virtue is insufficient to be universally rewarded, then that has an impact on political ideologies that emphasize purely individualistic approaches to the solving of problems in society. If crime must be addressed solely by punishing criminals and never looking at the social systems that perpetuate criminality, if poverty and unemployment are seen solely as referenda on the moral heroism of the poor and unemployed (or the wealthy and employed) then they cannot be treated by social interventions.

History and Ideology
The conversation then moved to a more general question about history and ideology. If history explains how causes and effects work in human behavior, then it offers us guidelines by which we can assess personal and political action. Students generally agreed that it was in error all around to see the point of history as validating ideology – the point of history is not to compel all facts to fit into a grand narrative of class struggle, or a battle between forces of good and evil waged by heroes and villains, it ought to be a discussion of the balance of causes pulling at different levels. While Gove may have a point that some historians are committed to an ideology, replacing it with a different ideology seemed a poor fix.

Ideology and School History
What struck me as odd was the fact that so many people regarded the politicization of the history curriculum as something new. And yet my students were aware that it had been a longstanding issue in American education. Perhaps this was because there’s no single unitary curriculum under national control, but my class had looked at examples of US and Canadian politicians citing interpretations of history to support differing interpretations of the same event. For some, it was easy to recognize differences in political ideology lurking behind Columbus Day proclamations issued by Presidents Bush and Obama. We also discussed the recent debates over the history curriculum in Texas, raising a question for later: how can we remain historically detached when discussing the history of the history wars?

Where’s the Economists’ Stephen Jay Gould?

The Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Francis: Evangelii Gaudium, is a remarkable document.  It’s by no means indicative of a radical shift in Church teachings, dogmas, or theology, but it displays an emphasis on those theological precepts to bear in a an imperfect world: “a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.” (parag. 49)

There has been a lot of reaction among the American political right wing over the Pope’s comments on economic justice in this speech.  Most famously: Rush Limbaugh called the Pope “Marxist” for “attack[ing] unfettered capitalism as ‘a new tyranny’.”  According to Limbaugh: “Unfettered capitalism?  That doesn’t exist anywhere.  Unfettered capitalism is a liberal socialist phrase to describe the United States.  Unfettered, unregulated.”  The Pope never actually used the phrase “unfettered capitalism” anywhere in his exhortation, so it’s not clear how Limbaugh’s effort to draw “Marxism” from that specific phrase has any merit.  The pope decried ideologies proclaiming the “absolute autonomy of the marketplace,” which “reject the right of states… to exercise any form of control.” But the Pope doesn’t say that unfettered capitalism does exist anywhere, only that there are those who are devoted to an idolatry of the marketplace that holds that as an ideal.

It’s possible that Limbaugh never read the Pope’s words directly, but only the account of them in other reports which did use the words “unfettered” and “unregulated.” There’s a history of papal statements being criticized for things they don’t actually say, but I’ll return to the history of misreading later on.

The Pope makes several statements about how the moral call of the church and its mission ought to focus on “the need to resolve the structural causes of poverty” (parag 202.) There’s is a quite substantial discourse about the way that social policies and political concern for the long term can bring about a greater expression of human dignity.  But in addition to making normative statements about how political economic and social change should be improved, the Pope also makes statements concerning the validity of economic theories.

…some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system (parag. 54)

Critics of the Pope, like Limbaugh, have effectively treated this statement as an incorrect ethical pronouncement, an assertion of moral order that they either find wrong or inconsistent with other moral teachings of the Church.  Some have found it hypocritical given the Church’s wealth.

But this isn’t actually an ethical claim, but a scientific one.  The statement of whether or not ‘trickle down theories’ are actually valid descriptions of economic cause and effect in the world is ostensibly a testable theory.  The Pope is not saying that trickle down economics must not be practiced because it is inherently unethical.  He is saying that those who would try to bring about justice and inclusiveness through the practice of trickle down economic policies should be aware that the theory has never been empirically confirmed, and may be scientifically (not morally) wrong.

In the past, people on the American political left, including many who welcomed this particular papal statement, have been particularly wary about Church pronouncements on science.  Perhaps the most famous example of this is Stephen Jay Gould who introduced the term “Non-Overlapping Magisteria” specifically to discuss the proper (as he saw it) demarcation between science and religion.  It is proper for religion to proclaim ethical judgements, to tell us what is good and evil, and to tell us what aims we might achieve; but wrong for religion to pass judgement on an empirical theory.

I think it’s fair to say that Gould’s NOMA has never been an accurate description of the way science and religion actually relate, but Gould’s essay ought to be seen as a prescription for a a resolution to science-religion conflict.  (It might not be a good one, but that’s a separate matter.)  Regardless, Gould’s framing of NOMA has been quite influential, with plenty of scientists, particularly, citing it as a way to keep religion and science apart, even when there are questions of bioethics or ethics of technology that might reasonably need to cross that boundary.  It has some similarities with older ideas of church-state separation.

Perhaps Gould has been too successful.  Readers of the Pope’s statement seem to have presumed that he was making an ethical statement, perhaps because of his identity as the head of the Catholic Church and because the Apostolic Exhortation is an ethical and religious document.  And perhaps because people believe that the Pope ought to be making religious statements, they interpret his statements on economics as normative.  It’s surprising to me that no one has made the criticism that the Pope has no business making statements about whether a scientific theory is true with respect to this claim about trickle down theory.

This has not been the case in the past: In 1951, Pope Pius XII, speaking to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, addressed the question of how Aquinas’s “Five Ways” of demonstrating the existence of God from Nature fared in light of recent discoveries in 20th century science.  This statement was widely misinterpreted (partly though mistranslations, partly because of the selective republication of excerpts) as the Pope “endorsing” the Big Bang (This misinterpretation persists.)  In that event, Pius was criticized by cosmologists on both sides of the Steady-State/Big Bang debate, who effectively claimed that he had no business speaking on the issue.  Gould’s essay was directly prompted by Pope John Paul II’s effective acceptance of biological evolution as the scientifically accepted account for the origin of the human physical form (though not the human soul.)

It would seem like the Pope could be criticized for making a definitive pronouncement on the state of a scientific theory of economics.  One could raise a NOMA-like objection to the papal pronouncement that trickle down economics is a theory that is unconfirmed by facts.  But the question remains as to who would make such a complaint?  It’s a trap there for the American political right—people like Limbaugh, because they can’t embrace NOMA for economic sciences and then reject it for other science-religion issues like climate change and evolution.  But there have been plenty of anti-religious scientists who scoff at the thought that the church has any place acknowledging science, even when it’s a position they agree with.  Gould related that some of his evolutionist colleagues had that mindset in response to John Paul II in 1996.  Will any economists who agree with the Pope’s economic conclusions still object that it’s not his place to make them?

Boris’s New Reasons for Contentment – Addressed to the Labouring Part of the British Public

Whilst I was back in America (marking a holiday ostensibly commemorating the success of some dissident English people who were quite happy to be quit of that country) I discover that the Mayor of London – Boris Johnson, has stirred up many of my colleagues with a speech remarkable as much for its rhetorical bluster as it is for its deification of the late Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.  I don’t really pretend to understand current British politics at all, and my sense of Boris Johnson prior to this was that he was this bizarre advocate of bicycles who also blamed their riders for their inability to survive lorry strikes.  Perhaps giving people the means to kill themselves in the name of economic development is actually a Conservative thing in this era.  I don’t really know.

But it’s Johnson’s invocation of history, as well as science and religion, that has me more knowledgeably confused.  In particular I’m left wondering how he did on his own history A-levels (the exam which he so castigates) given his fond reminiscence for some gloried era of 1750-1865, when “we” as he puts it, “were by far the most politically and economically powerful country on earth.” While Johnson presumed to channel the dead and tell us what Thatcher would do if she were with us right now, I want to summon up a similar spirit from the vasty deep, taken from the midst of Johnson’s imagined golden age.

In 1792, William Paley (already well known for his book on Moral and Political Philosophy, and not yet the author of the Natural Theology) penned an essay whose very title is extraordinary: “Reasons for Contentment – Addressed to the Labouring Part of the British Public.”  This was published widely in pamphlet form by the Association for Preserving Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levellers, and Paley takes a rather conservative position (somewhat to the right of Burke’s reflections on the French Revolution)

The entire pamphlet is a rich feast for those whose preferences run to the shocking one-liner (perhaps we shall see the Mayor borrow from it in the future).  But I am personally partial to Paley’s affirmation:

 I (God knows) could not get my livelihood by labour, nor would the labourer find any solace or enjoyment in my studies.

Although Johnson seems to think that Britannia of this era was great economic power, that economic strength was certainly not felt by many people who lived in it.  At the very least, there was widespread discontentment.  The working classes who were drawing inspiration from the French Revolution, or from local movements against exploitive labour, or the nascent societies against British slavery (though Paley was also an outspoken abolitionist) give a pretty good indication that in imagining this to be an era of great economic success, a lot of people don’t count as part of Boris Johnson’s “we.”

Paley goes on to explain that there are great benefits to being of the labouring (or poor) class.  Benefits which the rich men of leisure can never understand:

Another article, which the poor are apt to envy in the rich, is their ease. Now here they mistake the matter totally. They call inaction ease, whereas nothing is farther from it. Rest is ease. That is true. But no man can rest who has not worked. Rest is the cessation of labour. It cannot therefore be enjoyed, or even tasted, except by those who have known fatigue.

There are a few presuppositions and arguments put forward in this, some of which find clearer expression in Paley’s other writings.  One is that people have natural inclinations towards certain types of labour pursuits, or to certain roles in society.  Those natural inclinations give each of us an indication of the type of occupation that we are suited to.  Paley, like many who understood the sciences of the human mind and of heredity of his day, presumed that there was an inherited component to this – that it made sense why those who had been artisans or farmers had offspring naturally suited towards those same occupations.  Johnson seems to echo this wholeheartedly in his claims about IQ and natural inequality.

The reason for this, and the reason that labourers should find contentment is Divine Providence (in particular that aspect of Divine Goodness which the Natural Theology also promises)

But Providence, which foresaw, which appointed, indeed, the necessity to which human affairs are subjected (and against which it were impious to complain), hath contrived that, whilst fortunes are only for a few, the rest of mankind may be happy without them.

People have natural inclinations towards different occupations.  These are largely hereditary, but they are also well-proportioned, so that society as a whole has the right ratio of artisans to famers to labourers to scholars to aristocrats.  Through a diverse society made up of people following their god-given inclinations, the society as a whole can best function and ensure the greatest amount of happiness for the people.

This is where the most controversial of Paley’s theological positions, his “utilitarianism” comes in.  A well functioning society produces the greatest joy and happiness for its consitutents.  It is for that reason that divine providence has made it possible for “the rest of mankind [to] be happy without” great fortunes.  One of the central arguments of the Natural Theology is to show that this principle of maximizing happiness occurs in nature.  (In fact it’s on exactly this point that Darwin draws from Paley in the Origin of the Species.)

But Paley’s notion of happiness or of utility is a religious one that marks him as a different kind of utilitarian than Bentham or those who use the doctrine to justify an unrestrained free market.  Ultimately, a divinely ordered society isn’t meant to bring about the most wealth or economic growth but the is supposed to bring about an ethical one, and one in which eternal happiness is also shared in greatest measure

It’s because of this religious vision of utility that Paley’s reasons for contentment don’t ring wholly disingenuous.  Although people might be suited to different social roles, Paley does not find any sense that wealth or leisure is an indication of moral value

…some of the necessities which poverty (if the condition of the labouring part of mankind must be so called) imposes, are not hardships but pleasures. Frugality itself is a pleasure. It is an exercise of attention and contrivance, which, whenever it is successful, produces satisfaction.

Here is where we begin to see a breakdown of the similarities between Paley and Johnson, and perhaps an interesting criticism of Johnson’s gospel of greed.  The idea that society functions better because of natural inequality is actually rooted in a overarching notion of divine providence (which is evidenced by both religion and by nature) and it is only able to work through the valorization of frugality and charity as means to an end.  This is summed up by Paley in his Moral and Political Philosophy in the claim 

that the condition most favourable to population is that of a laborious, frugal people ministering to the demands of an opulent, luxurious nation; because this situation, whilst it leaves them every advantage of luxury, exempts them from the evils which naturally accompany its admission into any country.

It is the role of other elements of society to give the labourers reasons for contentment, not just platitudes.  A society that treat natural differences as a basis for a non-egalitarian society can only function (and should only function) if it is done in a basis of strong personal ethics.  The strength of the British system for Paley, at the height of the period that Johnson seems to find most exemplary, is because of the cultivation of a personal virtue of frugality, not greed.

Whether or not Paley’s individually frugal but nationally luxurious society is sustainable (and divinely providential) is precisely what Thomas Malthus took issue with.  Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population states that it’s unrealistic for a society to function in a way in which mere frugality can stave off population distress inevitably.  However, in a footnote to the second edition of the essay (published after the Natural Theology) Malthus states that by 1802 Paley has come around to the idea that distress to some extent is inevitable.  And that this idea of divine providence leading to a fruitful and successful society can only work if the “spread of luxury” is minimized.  Even in the Moral and Political Philosophy, Paley had recognized that the society that the society that grows from the results of the laboring poor had an obligation to provide for their sustenance.  This is almost exactly the opposite of what Johnson advocates in his valorization of wage gaps.  Though Paley is by no means a revolutionary, his conservatism looks like a form of religious progressivism from the vantage of the 21st century.

Johnson’s present day claims of natural inequalities being good for society have their roots in the historical glorious era from 1750-1865 (leaving aside exactly from whom it was ever glorious) but the invocation of such a claim to valorize personal greed or advocate an abolition of the state’s responsibilities for the welfare of its people is a confusion of the highest order.

Muldrow and the costs of religion in schools

Last Monday the school district of Muldrow, Oklahoma voted to remove plaques with the ten commandments inscribed on them from the walls of its schools. This happened in response to a letter the Muldrow Superintendent received from the Freedom from Religion Foundation which threatened to sue the school district on behalf of a student who had contacted them.  Legally speaking this is not that interesting a case, but it seems to be part of a larger trend where the fear of lawsuits is determining the way that small school districts behave.  And that trend is itself an interesting development in the way religion-education issues are negotiated in the United States.

Despite the fact that locally the decision in Muldrow was met with protest, this was a pretty clear cut case of the school district running afoul of the laws and court precedents regarding an establishment of religion.  But this is the kind of breach that seems to happen frequently unless there’s an effort to enforce constitutional rulings.  It’s similar when the religion-in-schools issue involves the teaching of evolution.  Recent studies that have shown that despite various court rulings on the teaching of creationism, creation science, or intelligent design, many biology teachers do teach antievolutionary positions either either exclusively or in “balance” with evolution.  Legally speaking, it was never constitutional for Muldrow to have these plaques up, but it’s only when they were noticed by people willing to take them to court that the issue came up.  What’s interesting is that some of people the people protesting their removal pointed to the fact that they’d been up for so long as evidence of their acceptability.

But the Muldrow school board did not vote to remove the ten commandment plaques because they were legally required to do so, or even because they thought that they were wrong to have them.  Rather, they did it because they could not risk losing a lawsuit.  It wasn’t the lawsuit itself, but the potential expense, and the risk of losing liability insurance, that determined the outcome.

This was perhaps the real legacy of the 2005 Pennsylvania “Intelligent Design” trial Kitzmiller et al v Dover Area School District.  In that case, the Dover school board had instituted a policy requiring the reading of a statement about intelligent design.  Parents of some students sued and the court ruled that the board had acted in violation of the establishment clause and that intelligent design could not be taught in a science class.

But perhaps more importantly, as the losing party in a civil lawsuit, the school district was responsible for the plaintiffs’ legal expenses.  Even though the school district’s own legal defense was provided pro boon by the Thomas More Law Center, the Dover School Board  (whose membership had been replaced in a November 2005 election with people who opposed the teaching of ID) was responsible for over one million dollars in the plaintiffs’ legal expenses (a bill that could have been much higher.)

From the point of view of small town school districts, this was a more important consequence of the Dover trial than the fact that they couldn’t teach intelligent design.  Go to court and risk potential bankruptcy.  More importantly: adopt legally questionable policies and risk losing liability insurance.

That’s just what happened just a few months after Dover.  In the El Tejon school district in California, a schoolteacher proposed to teach a philosophy elective about intelligent design, and a parent of a student at the school sued that teaching the course would amount to advocating religion.  Rather than the case (Hurst v Newman) going to trial, the case was settled out of court with the school district agreeing not to run the course.

In Hurst v Newman, there were a lot of specific circumstances (such as the proposed syllabus for the “philosophy of design” class) that made that specific case an almost certain loss for the school district.  But the general legal question as to whether discussion of intelligent design could be taught in a philosophy or social studies class (and if so, how) was not answered by Kitzmiller, and is still widely contested in law journals and in public debate.

But part of the reason that Hurst v Newman did not go to trial was the fact that the El Tejon school district could have faced “projected legal costs of $100,000” (according to a 2006 article in Science)  El Tejon’s professional liability insurance is part of their insurance through a policy held with a group of several California school districts, called SISC.  According to the SISC description of coverage: While SISC affords coverage considered broad and inclusive of exposures typically faced by our member districts, SISC cannot afford coverage for damages resulting from willful or intentional acts or intentional acts or omissions for which insurance coverage would be precluded under [California] Insurance Code Section 533.

Note, I’m not sure if El Tejon’s professional liability insurance was the same in 2006 as it is now, but even if it is somewhat different, the issue is that it’s not just the possibility of a legal bill of $100K (which, given the costs in Dover, seems low anyway) that was a motivation to settle the lawsuit.  It’s the possibility that the school district could have its liability insurance policy dropped, or that its premiums would increase, or even the fact that the other school districts and country officials responsible for the group insurance don’t want to see their insurance costs increased because a single school district made a decision that was more likely to risk lawsuits.

El Tejon might have had a case that a “philosophy of design” course was constitutional (although the specific version of the course proposed was highly problematic.)  But the arguments could’t even be given a legal hearing because of the issues of expense, risk, and insurance.

For the past several years, I’ve taught a history of religion and science summer class.  In it I have had students stage a mock trial of Hurst v Newman, based on some of the affidavits and materials that were filed in the case. (Some of these documents are on the NCSE’s website).  In class, I judge the outcome of the mock trial based on which of the legal arguments the students make (given our previous study of the Dover trial, Scopes, McLean v Arkansas and other foundational cases) and it has been quite a successful classroom project.  Most interestingly, both sides of the case have won the trial at least twice, not because either side was ultimately right, but because one side made better arguments or better responded to the arguments made by their opponents.

It seems like some of the same financial/legal/insurability pressures motivated the decision in Muldrow.  And while I agree that the ten commandments posting in public schools was clearly unconstitutional, it worries me that these kinds of decisions are not being debated by school districts or citizens in terms of what’s right or wrong, nor are they being settled by courts guided by law and precedent.  Effectively these decisions are being made by the structure of liability insurance, and fear of bankruptcy.

People who might applaud the fact that intelligent design lost in California for this reason might reflect that this tactic can cut both ways.  School districts have a pretty strong incentive not to risk back up a teacher whose decisions might be perceived as risky or controversial, even if the law is on the teacher’s side.  Even going to court could be seen as risking a school’s insurance policy.

One of the most important differences between education in the US and in many other countries is the extent of local autonomy a single small district can have.  But that’s being changed by the push towards common standards on one hand, and a structure of legal expense that prevents major action by a district who has to worry about money and insurance.

Part of what that means is that if there’s going to be another major trial over the establishment clause in schools (like Kitzmiller, El Tejon, or what could have been in Muldrow) it’s more likely to be launched by a state body, not a small town school district.  If a state’s attorney general is politically motivated to challenge a law, they may not be impeded by concern over legal expenses.  It’s the financial precedent from Dover, not the legal one, that’s had the bigger consequences.

Science and Antidisestablishmentarianism

If you want to support religion, the worst possible thing you can do is let the government run it.

It’s more than a little ironic, therefore, that a political religious movement that typically decries the role of government helped introduce a bill in North Carolina that declared that the state had the right to establish a state religion (though the bill wouldn’t actually establish one.)  The religious right has turned to antidisestablishmentarianism, rejection of the notion that the state must not have an establishment of religion.

Despite the constitutional exegesis in the bill itself, it is manifestly unconstitutional—ignoring the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which effectively amended the Tenth by restricting the right of states over individual citizens.  In 1947, the Supreme Court recognized that the Fourteenth Amendment prohibited states from enacting laws that effectively caused an establishment of religion.

This week comes the news that the bill won’t receive further consideration, and so stands little chance of becoming law.  But the bill’s very introduction suggests that something very strange has evolved in the ongoing relationship between religion and the state.  In both the short and the long term, that relationship has had a very complex interaction with science.

It’s easy to see the short term impact of such a bill with respect to science.  By removing the requirement that laws need not to favor religion, state efforts to prohibit the teaching of evolution and climate science (for example) will be free of the judicial requirement that alternatives pass as “science”  Put another way, critiques of evolution such as creation science and intelligent design, which the courts have ruled are not scientific, would no longer have to ignore the religious aspects of their research programs in order to try to pass as science.

But it’s the longer term history of science, religion, and the state that sheds the most light on the question of religious establishment.  In Britain and its colonies in the century or so leading up to American independence, forced conformity to the doctrines of an official state church kept many people from attendance at universities, election to public office, and many other positions of responsibility, prestige and fortune.  Even though the North Carolina bill wouldn’t have singled out a particular denomination, it would have excluded atheists, and many other people whose particular religious beliefs would have conflicted with the interpretations of religion that might have been established.

The authors of the U.S. Constitution were parties to a long debate over religious toleration.  In the years leading to the Bill of Rights, the most important voices for toleration were not opponents of religion.  They saw themselves as defenders of true religion.  They argued that the state should not require oaths invoking God because it only tempts people to swear false oaths, putting their souls at risk.

Their reasoning was impeccable. If you offer an incentive— a job, education, social advancement—to someone for swearing an oath, mostly you get people swearing false oaths.  For members of the Church of England who argued for Toleration (such as Archbishop Edmund Law and Archdeacon William Paley) this was worse than having the wrong belief.  It was perjury. Taking the Lord’s name in vain. It could condemn your soul.

It was better, they argued, that oaths never be required.  If someone simply believed wrongly, then in time they could be converted and saved, but if they perjured themselves, they were already lost.  Paley and Law believed that their religion was right, but state power was the wrong way to win people to God’s side.

Today, religious toleration and American disestablishment are justified by appeals to pluralism, the view that no belief should be considered exclusively right or holds enough political clout to enforce their beliefs.  But this has made people wary of religious toleration when they know their own religion is true.  Toleration’s original supporters were not pluralists, but they might be strategically wiser (or more committed to a disestablishment principle) than those who would enlist the government to spare themselves the hard work of saving souls.

Where does science fit into this? Instead of converting people by threatening them or incentivizing them, advocates of toleration basically said that since their religion was right, their arguments ought to appeal to anyone who was open minded and could understand evidence and logic.  They therefore began with arguments that took very little for granted.  In the case of Paley, this is why he begins with looking at natural theology, because everyone can look at nature, and can be persuaded by rational argument from it.  It’s only later on that Paley argues for the reliability of Scripture as evidence, because not everyone would be willing to take that for granted.

Though it’s anachronistic to call this a “scientific method,” the arguments put forward by the writers who helped inspire the Establishment clause effectively said that religious reasoning ought to draw first from objective knowledge found in nature—knowledge that could appeal to everyone.  In effect, antidisestablishmentarianism isn’t just anti-science in a trivial or short term way (like making it easier to ban evolution.) It’s anti-science in a fundamental way, by claiming that objectivity, and empiricism have no better claim to knowledge than affirmed truths.

This history of religious toleration, and its intertwinement with the development of science in Europe in the modern era, also suggests that there may be deeper linkages between a separation model of the relationship between science and religion (in a manner such as Stephen Jay Gould proposed) and the idea of separating church and state.