Many Americans resent the Catholic Bishops’ blockbuster technique of grasping for sectarian benefits with no regard for national policy and majority interests. The Bishops’ attitude toward the “federal aid to education” program has had the unfortunate air of a ransom demand (“cut us in, or the baby dies!”). A sectarian demand was obstinately injected into national debate in a manner unsettling to the national welfare. Such pressure tactics are an offense to the American spirit; they are resented both by those who oppose the broad principle of federal aid to education (because they wish to guard against government encroachment rather than to encourage it) and by those who favor such federal aid (whether merely as a concession to the present political drift, or through outright sympathy for big government). There is some reason to believe, in fact, that the Bishops’ ultimatum not only exasperated many Roman Catholic laymen, but also embarrassed even the National Catholic Welfare Conference, which promotes the hierarchy’s ambitions with great subtlety.
This is no mere Protestant versus Roman Catholic squabble. Students of church history do not expect the Roman Catholic hierarchy to abandon its peculiar view that government is the temporal arm of the church, nor do they expect Roman Catholic taxpayers to repress free expression of sectarian convictions in the dialogue between citizens of a free land.
But a flood of American conviction is cresting against pressures for federal aid to nonpublic schools. Citizens are increasingly aware that unless challenged head-on demands of the Roman Catholic hierarchy for government benefits to parochial schools would swiftly transform long-established national patterns. Accordingly, such Roman Catholic pressures are being criticized as hostile to American constitutionality and to sound public policy.
This mounting opposition to federal loans and grants to nonpublic schools is uniting Americans from a variety of backgrounds on a virtually unanimous front. Standing firm against pressures of public funds for nonpublic elementary and secondary schools are the National Council of Churches, the National Association of Evangelicals, Southern Baptists, the Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod), Seventh-day Adventists, Protestants and Other Americans United, and other agencies (see News Section for chart of positions, p. 28).
Unfortunately, the Protestants themselves are not untarnished in the use of public funds for nonpublic agencies. The questions that need to be answered in this connection are: Where did the encouragements for such involvement (both by Protestant and Roman Catholic agencies) arise? Can a valid line be drawn between acceptable and unacceptable kinds of federal aid, or must each provision be viewed simply as a precedent for additional expansion of federal help? Is it too late to acknowledge mistakes of policy, to make amends, and to call a halt?
The story of Protestantism’s progressive involvement in “partnership with American government,” whereby denominational welfare executives and college administrators welcomed government aid together with Romanists, needs sometime to be told in detail. (See CHRISTIANITY TODAY, Feb. 2, 1959, issue, for a survey of such involvements in surplus food distribution, Hill-Burton funds for hospital construction, and so on.) Federal partnership in church welfare activities soon led to federal partnership in church higher education.
Guaranteed construction loans for dormitories had already been made available under FHA in 1947, and government grants for medical research have been offered for many years.
In the chaos after World War II pressures arose to provide tuition for veterans pursuing higher education at college and seminary levels. Roman Catholics joined Defense Department spokesmen in favoring the G.I. Bill. Protestants at first had reservations. When the G.I. Bill was approved, Protestant colleges and seminaries participated eagerly with others; not a few administrators, in fact, now recall gratefully that the G.I. Bill “saved our hides in economic trouble and depression.” Although the G.I. Bill was part of an emerging wartime demobilization program, it is nonetheless held aloft today as a public policy precedent for federal aid, and Protestants are frequently reminded of their participation.
The 1958 National Defense Education Act provided loans to students, long-term, low-interest loans to high schools for improved scientific equipment, and graduate fellowships with matching grants to colleges and universities—both public and nonpublic—in view of their contribution to the national defense effort. CHRISTIANITY TODAY then warned that the NDEA “elevates government incursion into American educational life to the status of permanent national principle. Moreover, it enlarges private school participation in government funds” and “virtually … gives advocates of tax funds for parochial schools what they want” (“Government Intrusion Widens in American Education,” Dec. 8, 1958, issue, pp. 21 ff.). In fact, by applying the term “public” to academic institutions that do not “include a school or institution of any agency of the United States, the NDEA skirted the question whether or not private schools are public schools!
The National Council of Churches was already on record as favoring federal aid to states unable to provide adequate public schools. Only where segregation was maintained did it withhold its support from federal aid to education. Despite considerable dissatisfaction in National Council ranks over NDEA, NCC’s Division of Higher Education prevailed to favor acceptance of federal loans to higher education. The pressure to support federal aid came mainly from college administrators who, because their church-related colleges are important denominational structures, therefore have a powerful voice in the general boards. These college presidents were being pressured for bigger and better academic institutions by their denominations which, at the same time, failed to provide adequate support for such goals. Hence Protestant school administrators welcomed public funds to create an “educational empire” even as some welfare administrators before them had welcomed Hill-Burton funds to build a denominational “hospital empire.” They insisted (the arguments remain to be examined) that no precedent was being provided for federal aid at elementary and secondary levels. Their lone anxiety was to avoid government curriculum pressures while accepting government aid. Some gloated that limited government controls gave their campus “better buildings than before.”
NCC’s General Board is on record 87 to 1 in favor of federal aid to education (some spokesmen justify this move as a practical adjustment to the political realities of the time). Under pressure from its Division of Higher Education, NCC, all told, has supported federal loans to higher education for scholarships, for school construction, research grants on a matching basis, and full grants. The position of the National Association of Evangelicals is also compromised. Although the national convention repeatedly has opposed federal aid to education, none of its institutions refused G.I. Bill benefits, and one evangelical college after another has scrambled for federal loans. At its last convention, NAE had to modify its position on federal aid to accommodate the college administrators. But NCC and NAE are committed against federal aid to elementary and secondary nonpublic schools, and NCC prognosticates opposition along with NAE to federal loans to such schools. And while not opposed to viewing tuition as a tax-deductible contribution, NCC definitely opposes tax credit for tuition.
We now face a sequel to the G.I. Bill and to the NDEA. Congress has before it two bills. One sponsored by Congresswoman Edith Green of Oregon is widely regarded as the administration bill, H.R. 5266, and would provide students with federal scholarships, grants up to $350 to accepting institutions, academic construction loans to public and nonpublic institutions of higher education and loans for academic facilities as well. Bill H.R. 4970 introduced by Congressman Thompson of New Jersey would provide $2,298,000,000 to state education agencies for public school construction, teachers’ salaries, and special projects.
Knowing that Protestant no less than Catholic educators have already relied on government power and machinery to advance religion in higher education, the Roman Catholic hierarchy has found its opportune moment to demand “across the board” loans to nonpublic and public schools alike. Romanist spokesmen insist such a program is constitutional and nondiscriminatory. Protestant spokesmen refuse to rest the whole case on constitutionality (since the Constitution may be amended); they oppose such loans equally on the ground of sound public policy. In reply, the hierarchy notes that former Protestant participation in federal benefits to church-related colleges and seminaries strips away any principled objection.
While Romanist spokesmen for the moment are stressing the difference between federal loans and federal grants, with the immediate objective of securing loans as favorable rates for nonpublic schools, they simultaneously ridicule the Protestant differentiation between higher and elementary and secondary education as a legitimate area of federal involvement. It is important, therefore, to survey the distinctions being urged between different levels of possible federal assistance to education. Is there a qualitative difference between these levels, as many Protestants assert? Or is Protestant policy so compromised on federal aid that it now lacks any principle by which it may consistently object to Roman Catholic parochial participation?
Under the category of federal aid to education, one may distinguish such categories as grants, loans, fringe benefits, and welfare services. In successive stages of their drive for federal help, champions of Roman Catholic parochial schools have shrewdly contrasted federal aid with provision of welfare services (medical and dental services; minimum cost school lunches); then with fringe benefits (transportation; textbooks at public expenses); and now with long-term, low-interest construction loans. The Protestant rejoinder is that all these services are but varieties of federal aid to which nonpublic schools are not entitled. This objection may be vulnerable, however true it is that Romanists promptly tend to exploit every exception as a precedent.
Can we really distinguish legitimate and illegitimate areas of public assistance to nonpublic education?
Through the years the principle of church-state separation has restricted welfare benefits such as medical and dental services and token-cost cafeteria lunches only to students in public schools. But as the federal government has intruded more and more into the welfare field, including distribution of surplus food in partnership with church agencies, Roman Catholic educators have increasingly gained these benefits for parochial schools by insisting that welfare implies concern for individuals irrespective of religious distinctions. Such welfare benefits are now widely approved. Had Protestant educators discerningly insisted that welfare benefits should be handled not as an educational consideration but as a community welfare decision, they might have preserved the line between church and state in educational matters and safeguards against subsequent exploitation of welfare services for even larger fringe benefits. As it was, those seeking federal support for parochial schools soon transformed every concession into a precedent by which to gain larger participation in public funds.
Wherever Roman Catholic voters predominate, such community pressures increase and the pattern of state benefits for private education accordingly widens from year to year. In other communities, Roman Catholics systematically aspire to election as public school trustees, and in some cities faculty changes have revolutionized the character of the public schools. For years the Roman Catholic hierarchy has found state resistance to its ambitions greater than federal resistance. But more recently the strength of sectarian demands has increased at state level; the Rockefeller scholarship plan in New York is the latest boon. The flexible emphasis on “federal not state” and “state not federal” is expediently adjusted to gain larger participation.
This is especially apparent in respect to fringe benefits such as public provision of parochial transportation and public subsidy of parochial textbooks. When the transportation debate was carried to the New Jersey courts, the Supreme Court in the Ebersole case approved bus pickup of nonpublic school children only along routes to and from the public schools. But in New York State a statute passed three years later approves bus transportation for nonpublic school children within 10 miles of an established school district’s boundaries, which virtually creates a new mandatory, vastly enlarged school district. Once pressures for parochial transportation are firmly registered—on the ground that it is descriminatory and un-American to allow Roman Catholic children to walk to (parochial) school in the rain and snow while other children are transported to (public) school—the parenthesized words being softened for propaganda purposes—the pressure for public subsidy of parochial textbooks soon follows. While some educators think they can justify transportation under the category of welfare—especially if confined to pickups along existing public school routes—it is difficult to justify textbooks this way.
The decisive entering wedge for Roman Catholic pressure for federal loans, however, was the G.I. Bill and the NDEA, which provided government tuition payments and government graduate fellowships with matching grants to institutions. On the surface, a great gulf might seem to separate huge construction loan proposals with small tuition grants; it would appear that the latter in any case could not justify a transition from fringe benefits to government loans and grants. But the argument now used against opponents of federal loans to nonpublic schools is that Protestant educators, having approved outright federal gifts (in the form of tuition and scholarships) to both public and nonpublic institutions, cannot consistently oppose loans which are repayable and which “cost the government nothing.” Once the argument is stated this way, Protestants defending their previous involvement in government grants are on difficult terrain.
The pressure for federal loans by Roman Catholics (other denominations with a total of 350,000 parochial students are not demanding such funds) can hardly be justified by distinguishing them sharply from grants. Legislative history shows that loans are frequently forgiven once they are approved (distribution of World War II surplus equipment on credit preceded cancellation of the debt). It is far less difficult for government to collect from delinquent individuals than from delinquent institutions identified with a large constituency of voters, so that the likelihood of cancellation is increased. The distinction between loans to individual students and loans to colleges (sometimes compromised by proposals for matching grants to student and school) is really evasive, since nobody can determine where such help assists the student and not the institution. A federal loan (sometimes pictured as “non-cash” support) is actually a form of support requiring administration of credit and depriving the government of tax income from commercial institutions.
If the Catholics are in trouble with logic, so are the Protestants in their grab for federal funds. Aware that the National Council of Churches has no unclouded objection to federal loans (in view of participation in hospital and higher educational programs), Catholics readily join (and with some private amusement) in the sentiment that government controls are more dangerous than government loans. Since Romanists, too, want to shape their institutions their own way, they are quite ready to unite in any effort that makes controls the main issue in accepting federal loans. But when Protestants ask for loans that do not involve the functions of the church, Romanists indicate that Protestant schools already have welcomed such assistance.
Protestants then zealously seek to justify loans and grants to higher education—their only compromise with federal funds to date—while they condemn such federal aid at elementary and secondary levels. The following reasons are usually advanced by Protestant spokesmen to establish a philosophical distinction: 1. Historically the churches have had a greater interest in higher education. 2. Higher education is noncompulsory, whereas elementary education is compulsory. 3. College education centers in the intellectual exercise and extension of learning and development of leadership, whereas elementary and secondary education consists of indoctrination, the transmission of cultural legacy, and the development of mature skills. Since these distinctions are relative and not absolute, Protestants are in trouble.
Objection to federal aid to parochial schools is more likely traceable to the belief that in a democracy education preferably takes place in a community context, and that the public school champions the essentially Protestant principle of the right of individual conscience, while the Roman Catholic parochial school undermines church-state separation.
“Once federal funds go to parochial schools,” one Protestant churchman declares, “the face of America will be quickly changed. There will soon be sectarian candidates and parties at state and local levels. Within a century the American people will be more divided than by the present conflict over the race issue.” Some Protestant educators warn that virtually every Protestant schoolhouse in America will become the nucleus of a Christian day school if Romanists achieve a sectarian breakthrough at the parochial school level. They stress that Catholic intentions to confine federal loans only to “presently existing” schools (presumably to avoid the “fragmentation” of the American school scene) will be promptly countered by other groups. Hundreds of Christian day schools, in fact, have already sprung up throughout the United States, without a sectarian ambition for federal funds, to compensate for the secular tendency of the public schools. This movement is growing.
Are Protestant leaders wholly unready to admit the erosion of conviction and principle that followed their compromises with expediency—in the Hill-Burton Act, the G.I. Bill, the National Defense Education Act? Does the NCC General Board’s 87 to 1 support of federal aid to higher education accurately reflect its own constituency? Is there no desire to acknowledge that Protestants have already “gone too far down the road” of federal involvement, that the time has come for a halt, and even for a reversal insofar as that is possible? Have denominational leaders enough courage to confess that, in cooperating with Roman Catholics to advance welfare and educational causes in partnership with government, they were blind to the dangers of such compromise? Will they admit that they did not realize that, when appealed to later as precedents, such involvements imply a revision of the Constitution of the United States in church-state relationships?
Since the election of President Kennedy, one hears more and more the emphasis that present educational patterns are compromises to Protestantism. The emergence of a pluralistic society in America, it is added, requires that these compromises be balanced by similar contributions to Roman Catholics. Will Protestant spokesmen accept the Romanist verdict: “The precedents are here.… It’s too late to protest!” Having been trapped in their past compromises, will Protestant leaders now engage in still another?
The immediate threat lies in Romanist demand for federal aid to non-public schools. The long-range threat is posed by federal incursion into public education. Legislative allotment of loans to parochial schools and then of grants would be a decisive blow to American constitutional traditions and to sound public policy. Federal and state intervention in public school affairs—whether in higher education or in elementary and secondary education—sooner or later will also modify the American heritage.
Christian citizens can and must act now. Write your representatives in Congress today—even if only on a postcard—to register your personal convictions while they still count.
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