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Topic: religious prejudice

School Choice Versus Religious Prejudice

Last week I wrote about the victory scored in Indiana by school choice advocates when a far-reaching bill allowing parents of poor and middle class children to send their kids to private and religious schools rather than a failing public system. The Indiana Supreme Court ruled constitutional a measure that rightly allows a percentage of state education funds to follow the kids to whatever school was best for them. The principle here is that allowing a government monopoly on public education is something that prioritizes the needs of unions and bureaucracies rather than then needs of children. Vouchers create more engagement of families in education and provide much-needed competition for a public system that needs it in order to be forced to improve.

However, there was one argument against school choice that I did not address last week. That is the possibility that public funds could be used to finance private or religious schools that teach hate or undermine democracy. Ironically, the emptiness of that point was underscored by a news story out of Tennessee where Governor Bill Haslam is trying to shepherd his own vouchers bill through the legislature. In contrast to other venues throughout the country where liberal ideologues who wish to defend the government education monopoly are the prime obstacles to reform, in the Volunteer State the problem is a faction of conservatives who have no objection to helping parochial schools, so long as the faith upheld in them is their own.

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Last week I wrote about the victory scored in Indiana by school choice advocates when a far-reaching bill allowing parents of poor and middle class children to send their kids to private and religious schools rather than a failing public system. The Indiana Supreme Court ruled constitutional a measure that rightly allows a percentage of state education funds to follow the kids to whatever school was best for them. The principle here is that allowing a government monopoly on public education is something that prioritizes the needs of unions and bureaucracies rather than then needs of children. Vouchers create more engagement of families in education and provide much-needed competition for a public system that needs it in order to be forced to improve.

However, there was one argument against school choice that I did not address last week. That is the possibility that public funds could be used to finance private or religious schools that teach hate or undermine democracy. Ironically, the emptiness of that point was underscored by a news story out of Tennessee where Governor Bill Haslam is trying to shepherd his own vouchers bill through the legislature. In contrast to other venues throughout the country where liberal ideologues who wish to defend the government education monopoly are the prime obstacles to reform, in the Volunteer State the problem is a faction of conservatives who have no objection to helping parochial schools, so long as the faith upheld in them is their own.

A number of Republican members of the Tennessee state senate have expressed opposition to school choice because they fear that it would mean some children would have the ability to choose a Muslim school. According to reports there is only one such school in the state that would qualify for the plan, but Senator Jim Tracy doesn’t want any money to follow students to any institution where the Koran might be taught. Tracy and other colleagues who share this concern don’t seem to have the ability to distinguish between Islamists who preach jihad on the West and those that do conceive of their faith as a religion of peace. Another senator who sponsored a 2009 bill to ban the application of Sharia law in the state is also willing to end any chance for reform because of his anti-Muslim agenda. Their position is that choice is OK so long as it is not extended to a religion they don’t like.

While there are legitimate issues with Islamist governments elsewhere in the world that persecute the followers of other faiths and support terrorism, any attempt to inject that discussion into one about school policy in Tennessee is an absurdity. The Muslim minority there and throughout the nation has no more power to impose Sharia law on non-believers than Jews can impose halachah—Jewish religious laws—on other Americans. While no religion should be allowed to impose its tenets on others, the position that the law can and should allow for reasonable accommodation of faith is one that most conservatives understand and intuitively support. But when Muslims are involved some people lose their perspective and adopt positions such as the ones espoused by Tracy and his friends that can only be described as prejudicial.

I have long maintained that the allegation that American Muslims labor under a wave of persecution as part of a post-9/11 backlash is a myth. If anything, the government and most Americans have bent over backwards to ensure that Muslims are protected against prejudice and negative images of Islam have been few and far between in our popular culture, despite the best efforts of al-Qaeda and Iran to identify that faith with America’s enemies. But accounts of what is being said in the Tennessee legislature are enough to convince me that while Islamophobia is rare, it is not entirely a figment of the media’s imagination.

But even as we condemn a position that seems to be rooted strictly in a bias against a specific faith, it is important to address the issue as it relates to school choice. Bigots in Tennessee aren’t the first ones to raise the specter of school choice being a boon for schools run by extremists. Liberals worry that they can be used to bolster Christian fundamentalists as much as others don’t want them to aid schools that might promote Islamism.

But the question of extremist schools is a red herring that ought not to be allowed to derail choice in Tennessee or anywhere else.

Public schools may not be the only kind of public education, but that doesn’t mean states don’t have the right and the responsibility to ensure that any institution, be it a public charter, private or parochial adhere to basic standards and teach core curriculum items such as civics. Whether a school is private, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim or Buddhist should not be an issue, provided that it adhere to general standards including instruction in democratic values along with reading, writing, arithmetic as well faith.

It needs to be remembered that prohibitions against public funding of religion-based schools dates back not to the founders of our republic–most of whom considered faith to be an integral part of education–but to the late 19th century. It was then that so-called “Blaine amendments”—named after James G. Blaine, the 1884 Republican presidential candidate—swept the nation fueled by a wave of anti-Catholic prejudice. Their purpose was to hamstring Catholic parochial schools because Protestant bigots saw them as tools of a papist conspiracy that would allow the pope to take over the United States.

Americans should look back on that madness with regret and shame, but it is no coincidence that an effort to undo a Blaine-style ban on funding non-government schools should be derailed by a different variety of the same hateful virus. Radical separationism of the sort that would prohibit allowing government funds to follow children to religious schools isn’t necessarily identical with prejudice, but is unsurprising to see this cause going back to its biased roots.

The cause of school choice is rooted in good public policy and the needs of children who deserve an escape route from a disastrous public school system that has heretofore only been the privilege of the wealthy. It can be defended against misleading charges that it will benefit extremists. But as was the case in our country’s past, it remains vulnerable to ancient hates that continue to resurface.

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Are Christians Guilty Until Proven Innocent?

Anti-gay violence is despicable and those who encourage it are to be deplored. The murder of an openly gay candidate for mayor in a Mississippi town has provoked some discussion about the source of such violence. That is a topic that deserves serious discussion. But there is a difference between sober soul-searching about instances of violence in our society and jumping to conclusions whose only possible purpose is to provoke a different sort of prejudice.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what Rabbi Brad Hirschfield has done in the latest edition of his On Faith blog for the Washington Post. Hirschfeld, whose day job is serving as president of the non-denominational Jewish group CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, leads an on-line discussion that he begins by admitting he doesn’t know why Marco McMillian was killed or who or what could have incited the brutal crime or if, indeed, anyone one or any group had any role in doing so. But that doesn’t deter him from beginning his piece with the provocative title “What role does Christianity play in the murder of the openly gay mayoral candidate in Mississippi?” According to Hirschfeld, Christians are clearly guilty until proven innocent.

One doesn’t have to condone the awful crime of anti-gay violence or even oppose gay marriage to understand that the assumption that an entire faith—or any faith that does not approve of homosexuality—is somehow responsible for what happened to McMillian is itself prejudicial. Of course, Hirschfeld doesn’t come right out and say that himself. But by posing that question and steering the discussion in a way that puts Christianity on trial in this manner, what he has done is to incite bias against traditional beliefs that are in no way connected to violence against gays.

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Anti-gay violence is despicable and those who encourage it are to be deplored. The murder of an openly gay candidate for mayor in a Mississippi town has provoked some discussion about the source of such violence. That is a topic that deserves serious discussion. But there is a difference between sober soul-searching about instances of violence in our society and jumping to conclusions whose only possible purpose is to provoke a different sort of prejudice.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what Rabbi Brad Hirschfield has done in the latest edition of his On Faith blog for the Washington Post. Hirschfeld, whose day job is serving as president of the non-denominational Jewish group CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, leads an on-line discussion that he begins by admitting he doesn’t know why Marco McMillian was killed or who or what could have incited the brutal crime or if, indeed, anyone one or any group had any role in doing so. But that doesn’t deter him from beginning his piece with the provocative title “What role does Christianity play in the murder of the openly gay mayoral candidate in Mississippi?” According to Hirschfeld, Christians are clearly guilty until proven innocent.

One doesn’t have to condone the awful crime of anti-gay violence or even oppose gay marriage to understand that the assumption that an entire faith—or any faith that does not approve of homosexuality—is somehow responsible for what happened to McMillian is itself prejudicial. Of course, Hirschfeld doesn’t come right out and say that himself. But by posing that question and steering the discussion in a way that puts Christianity on trial in this manner, what he has done is to incite bias against traditional beliefs that are in no way connected to violence against gays.

Hirschfield does try and have it both ways in his blog by claiming that he is not so much pushing the case for blaming Christians as just trying to sort out “the biggest and ugliest public issues.” But these are mere weasel words to evade his personal responsibility by skewing the discussion to put those who are not in favor of gay marriage on the defensive.

But he isn’t shy about saying that he has no problem with saying that he considers the concept of collective guilt “a VERY valuable way to think about things” since it forces groups to ponder their own role in crimes that are committed by members of their group or faith.

There are instances when groups, faiths or even whole peoples have good reason to ponder collective guilt. When their faith or national leadership preaches hate in the name of the entire group then those who are implicated in this matter have a duty to speak out or act against those who have made such pronouncements or committed such crimes. Examples of this sort of behavior aren’t hard to think of. Under Nazi leadership, Germans killed Jews in the name of the German people. Iran’s religious leaders and many others in positions of influence throughout the Arab and Muslim world preach hatred of Jews in the name of all Muslims. Not all Germans killed Jews and not all Muslims believe their faith should be interpreted to condone violence. But all have an obligation to disassociate themselves and their nationality and faith from hate. The same rule would apply to Jews if most rabbis promoted hate in that same manner.

But except in the case of small outlier extremist sects, there is no plausible case to be made that any mainstream branch of Christianity does preach hatred of gays, let alone violence against them. There is, after all, a big difference between not approving of something and endorsing violence against anyone who is associated with it. While in response to one reader’s damning of “the church” Hirschfeld calls into question collective guilt against all Christians or churches, what he has done here is to set up an argument in which the premise of the discussion is one in which normative Biblically-based faiths are put on trial for the act of someone who may know little or nothing of their doctrines or practices.

The gradual demise of anti-gay prejudices in American society is a positive trend that should be applauded. But equality for gays or even approval of gay marriage ought not to come at the price of encouraging prejudice against faiths—Christian and non-Christian alike—that do not approve of homosexuality. And that is the direction that Hirschfield seems to be encouraging here.

What is so offensive about the column is not just his role in legitimizing bashing Christianity. The sheer dishonesty of his pose of objectivity and openness to all views is equally repulsive.

Hirschfeld can’t have it both ways. He can’t structure a public discussion about Christian guilt for a crime and endorse collective guilt while also claiming that he is nonjudgmental about faiths that won’t endorse gay marriage.

In other periods of history various branches of Christianity condoned and practiced discrimination and even violence against those who differed from their beliefs. But in popular American culture it seems that Christians are the one group that can be denigrated or labeled prejudicially with complete impunity. It is nothing less than a disgrace that the head of a group that has tried to speak in the name of Jewish unity and interfaith comity should play a role in this disgusting trend.

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Would Bloomberg Mock Islam Like That?

Two years ago when the Ground Zero mosque controversy was at its height, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was not only among the most ardent defenders of the plan to put an Islamic center in the shadow of the site of the 9/11 attack, he was also among the loudest of those accusing the project’s critics of bigotry. Saying that those who questioned the appropriateness of the plan should be “ashamed of themselves,” the mayor proclaimed that nothing less than the principle of religious liberty was at stake in building the center. But as the cover of the latest issue of Bloomberg Businessweek demonstrates, squeamishness among our elites — even those who run a magazine that is named for the mayor’s business empire — about even the appearance of prejudice is often limited these days to things that might offend Muslims. When it comes to Mormons, anything still goes.

The cover, which takes a piece of Mormon iconography in which Jesus is depicted as speaking to Mormon prophets, provides a caption bubble in which he instructs them, “And thou shalt build a shopping mall, buy stock in Burger King and open a Polynesian theme park in Hawaii that shall be largely exempt from the frustrations of tax…” to which one of the prophets responds, “Hallelujah.”

While the business affairs of the Mormon church are fair game for coverage, one has to ask the same question about this cover that can be posed about many of the cheap shots at the Mormons (or Catholics, for that matter): Would Businessweek be any more likely to mock the Prophet Mohammad in this manner than the veterans of the South Park comedy series were when they produced a Broadway hit satirizing the church?

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Two years ago when the Ground Zero mosque controversy was at its height, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was not only among the most ardent defenders of the plan to put an Islamic center in the shadow of the site of the 9/11 attack, he was also among the loudest of those accusing the project’s critics of bigotry. Saying that those who questioned the appropriateness of the plan should be “ashamed of themselves,” the mayor proclaimed that nothing less than the principle of religious liberty was at stake in building the center. But as the cover of the latest issue of Bloomberg Businessweek demonstrates, squeamishness among our elites — even those who run a magazine that is named for the mayor’s business empire — about even the appearance of prejudice is often limited these days to things that might offend Muslims. When it comes to Mormons, anything still goes.

The cover, which takes a piece of Mormon iconography in which Jesus is depicted as speaking to Mormon prophets, provides a caption bubble in which he instructs them, “And thou shalt build a shopping mall, buy stock in Burger King and open a Polynesian theme park in Hawaii that shall be largely exempt from the frustrations of tax…” to which one of the prophets responds, “Hallelujah.”

While the business affairs of the Mormon church are fair game for coverage, one has to ask the same question about this cover that can be posed about many of the cheap shots at the Mormons (or Catholics, for that matter): Would Businessweek be any more likely to mock the Prophet Mohammad in this manner than the veterans of the South Park comedy series were when they produced a Broadway hit satirizing the church?

The article that the cover illustration teases actually doesn’t do much, if any, harm to the Mormons. Despite the best efforts of the magazine to find disgruntled ex-employees who would dish some juicy dirt about Mormon skullduggery, there’s little here to disgrace the church. If anything, what comes across is the portrait of a prosperous faith community that has applied the values of its church to the business world and produced entities that are largely successful as well as popular.

Much of the scrutiny of the Mormons is clearly the product of Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy. But rather than the prospect of the first Mormon president being the subject of stories emphasizing the historic nature of this potential breakthrough for a minority group that comprises slightly more than one percent of the population and which suffered terrible discrimination in its early years, the tenor of most of the coverage comes from a very different frame of reference. Much like the Obama campaign’s desire to portray the Republican candidate as “weird,” the notion that there is something unwholesome or unusual about a faith group that runs thriving businesses is rooted in a view of the otherwise all-American Mormons as aliens in our midst.

Unlike Muslims who have reacted to even the mildest of satire about their faith with terror and violence, the Mormons are too smart and too sane to even take much notice of insults directed at their faith. But while the Mormon business empire should not be exempt from scrutiny, the attitude that treats anti-Mormon prejudice as a species of prejudice that is somehow acceptable in mainstream and even liberal publications is an indication of the selective definition of religious bias practiced by some in our chattering classes. Mayor Bloomberg doesn’t make decisions about the magazine that bears his name. Yet when you put the cover in the context of the mayor’s speech about the mosque, the double standard about religious prejudice that is the norm these days is all too obvious.

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Dip in Anti-Mormon Bias a Plus for Romney

One of the unpleasant aspects of analysis of the 2012 election is the fact that religious prejudice is likely to play a not insignificant role in determining the outcome. That’s confirmed once again by a Gallup Poll that reaffirms the persistence of anti-Mormon bias among the voting public. As previous surveys have shown, more Americans are still willing to say they won’t vote for a Mormon for president than those who refuse to support a Catholic or a Jew. And whereas the numbers of those expressing such prejudice against Catholics and Jews have declined during the last half-century, resistance to a Mormon commander-in-chief remains more or less constant during the same period. This makes it a possibility that to some degree Mitt Romney’s chances of being elected president will be diminished by lingering anti-Mormon attitudes.

However, the good news for Romney is that the number of those saying they will not vote for a Mormon has actually declined in the last year from 22 to 18 percent. Of course, that means the number is pretty much the same as it was in 1967, a sobering realization for those who might think religious prejudice is a thing of the past. But the decline may have more to do with support for the Republican candidate than anything else. Because there has probably been more Mormon-bashing in the mainstream media and popular culture in the last 12 months than in recent memory, for there to be a drop in anti-Mormon prejudice means rather than feeding bias, the Romney candidacy has put a dent in it. That bodes well for the GOP in the fall.

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One of the unpleasant aspects of analysis of the 2012 election is the fact that religious prejudice is likely to play a not insignificant role in determining the outcome. That’s confirmed once again by a Gallup Poll that reaffirms the persistence of anti-Mormon bias among the voting public. As previous surveys have shown, more Americans are still willing to say they won’t vote for a Mormon for president than those who refuse to support a Catholic or a Jew. And whereas the numbers of those expressing such prejudice against Catholics and Jews have declined during the last half-century, resistance to a Mormon commander-in-chief remains more or less constant during the same period. This makes it a possibility that to some degree Mitt Romney’s chances of being elected president will be diminished by lingering anti-Mormon attitudes.

However, the good news for Romney is that the number of those saying they will not vote for a Mormon has actually declined in the last year from 22 to 18 percent. Of course, that means the number is pretty much the same as it was in 1967, a sobering realization for those who might think religious prejudice is a thing of the past. But the decline may have more to do with support for the Republican candidate than anything else. Because there has probably been more Mormon-bashing in the mainstream media and popular culture in the last 12 months than in recent memory, for there to be a drop in anti-Mormon prejudice means rather than feeding bias, the Romney candidacy has put a dent in it. That bodes well for the GOP in the fall.

As Gallup notes in its analysis, John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960 despite the fact that a quarter of Americans said they couldn’t vote for a Catholic. But as bad as anti-Catholic attitudes were at the time, the spate of openly prejudiced pieces against Mormons in this year may stand out even more in the current context in which the expression of such sentiments are considered beyond the pale in a secular American culture where religious divisions are generally treated as irrelevant if not antediluvian. Given the hysteria in the media that anyone might think President Obama has any connection to the Muslim faith in which his father was raised, the willingness to mock Mormons in the op-ed pages of the New York Times and on Broadway makes it appear that this prejudice is one of the last socially acceptable forms of bias among the chattering classes though Catholics could rightly complain that the scorn directed at their beliefs puts them in a similar position.

If the number of those willing to chime in with the contempt of a Maureen Dowd or a hit Broadway play is going down, it may be a barometer of Romney’s personal appeal more than anything else. That may be especially true with evangelicals who don’t think Mormons are Christians but regard the defeat of President Obama as a higher priority. The president has many advantages in the coming race, including the power of incumbency, the historic nature of his presidency and the lapdog quality of much of the mainstream media’s coverage of his administration. But though prejudice against Mormons is still considerable, it is no guarantee of Romney’s defeat.

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