Christian schools and colleges enjoy a rich measure of parental financial support. I neither minimize nor ignore this ofttimes sacrificial loyalty when I argue that if our Christian educational system is to play an ever extending role in American life, we must seek supplementary financial aid from state sources.

Of course, state aid to Christian education is given and accepted daily, a fact of which the Higher Education Facilities Act (now Public Law 88–204) is the most recent evidence. The disputant who is unaware of this has yet to let his principial right hand discover what his practical left palm has grown calloused with taking.

We all know, for example, that tax exemption is tax support, for the community together pays for certain services to our schools through property taxes. If we are really opposed to public aid for religious schools, let us initiate petitions to set matters right.

And there would be much more than tax exemption to set right. For the various GI bills have poured, and still do in lesser measure, billions of dollars into pedagogical lifeblood regardless of whether it flows through public, private, or religious arteries. Again, the Surplus Property Act of 1944 enriched educational institutions supported by some thirty-five religious denominations with grants of land, buildings, and supplies, all paid for by public funds; and this continues today. The College Housing Act makes long-term, preferred interest federal loans available to religious schools for dormitory construction; and the worth of the preferred rate on the loan my own Christian college now enjoys will amount to some $400,000 before it is amortized. The Defense Education Act puts millions of loan-dollars into student pockets on all campuses, on deferred interest and with promise of half-cancellation to future teachers. Faculty members share in outright grants under the same act, regardless of confessional status or institution.

There are, in short, forty-one federal programs now in effect that siphon tax monies into educational coffers without distinction between public recipients and private and religious recipients—and let him who shares in none of these directly or indirectly cast the first stone. In 1957–58, private and religious colleges took 15.8 per cent of their total budgets from federal sources (while public schools took less, 14.8 per cent). Therefore the point I am suggesting is ineluctable; for most religious institutions the question of the hour is not, Should we take federal aid? We simply do! The vital question is: How much, and in what form should such aid come to us?

Article continues below

To put the matter this way robs our discussion of a certain aura of principial virtue but keeps our feet nearer the ground. The fact is that this year 60,000 American college and university faculty members—at all types of schools—get a part (and some get all) of their salaries through federal grants; one out of four faculty members at the eighty-five United States medical schools does, too. And the total federal contribution to American education, now running nearly $3 billion per year, will be over $5 billion annually by 1970.

To Share Or To Stare

This is what the situation is. Discussion is not enlightened by imagining it otherwise, nor by supposing that wolf-shouting is likely to reverse the trend. Christian education may plan now fully to share or simply to stare. Our fate is in our own hands.

For this is our challenge: Do the nation’s religious schools propose to share more and more in the distribution of tax dollars that belong no less to us than to our public school neighbors? Or are we so out of touch with the realities of pedagogical expense that we will deliberately forego our birthright for the crumbs we surreptitiously catch from the public table?

Say that by 1975 there will be at least 5.9 million students enrolled in higher education, with proportionate strains upon lower levels. Say, as does the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, that by 1980 the United States will have added twenty new medical schools and will require 80,000 engineer graduates annually. Admit that the demand upon all levels of educational structure will, in respect to dollars, be trebled, and that the urgent need for qualified teachers at all levels will still be, as it is now, critical.

This “Wave of the Future” is coming; we can hear its mighty roar not far away. Will Christian schools mount it or be overwhelmed by it? We are probably unanimous in the theoretical answer: Christian education, on all levels, must swell with that wave; ride its crest; give climate, vision, context to the lives of as many of those millions of students, those hundreds of thousands of teacher graduates, those engineers—and the like—as possible. Those new medical schools: shall not some be set on Christian campuses? Those teachers on whom so much, so incalculably much, reposes: how many will come from Christian classrooms?

The Function Of Money

The answers to such questions are not exclusively bound up with money; but it would be incredibly naïve and irresponsible to ignore the critical function money plays in the quality and quantity of Christian education available to the nation—in its faculties, its facilities, its capacities. Over-burdened teachers whose loyalty dissipates their energies, antiquated laboratories, laggard libraries, limited curricula: these are not the promise of creative tomorrows. But if not these, then only because increased funds are to be found, staggering in prospect: a college handling 2,500 students today on a budget of $2 million, anticipating 4,500 students by 1970—on a budget of $4 million. And this in annual operating costs alone. Add another, say, four—or six—or ten—million for plant and modernized equipment. Study the nearest state university for yourself, and you will find this but a moderate anticipation—no frills, and perhaps many students turned away from the door.

Article continues below

There is little use talking leadership and not talking money, money coming in regularly and without constant promotion; and crass or not, big leadership in education involves big money. Just ask where leadership comes from now: Harvard, Yale, Columbia, California … very big money!

Nor is talking money a depreciation of faith in God’s power to provide. It is precisely money we ask him to provide! To seek it is not to minimize trust but to implement it.

Let us face it squarely, then: Why federal money?

Well, first of all, let us remind you, many of us already take federal money (as well as local tax exemption). Find out why we do, and you have your first answer. And there are others, all good.

1. We know, as many of our more secular-minded contemporaries may have forgotten, that widespread religious practice and sensitivity are indispensable to a democratic way of life. Our republic rests upon an explicitly Christian conception of man, whose rights are inalienable because God-given, man being (our Declaration says) God-made. This consciousness must flourish—we know—if our liberties are to flourish. Christian education therefore has high moral claim upon federal tax support. It is indispensable to national political health. Moreover, the Christian educator who is persuaded of this intimate and causal connection between his work and his country’s welfare finds in this persuasion not only clear conscience but also moral imperative in seeking federal aid, for it is his country whose freedoms concern him.

2. We ask, further, only for what is our own. Each of us pays, it is estimated, no less than three hundred tax dollars annually for the nation’s schools. Should not a just share of that sum be given to our own schools?

Article continues below

3. We ask, indeed, only just payment for work well done. Christian schools do a civic job, under public supervision. They graduate citizens, most of whom take useful and honorable places in American life; citizens, indeed, especially exposed to the spirit of our founding documents, as I have argued above. For this service, the nation owes in simple justice adequate recompense. We need not be shamefaced to ask for it; by what strange reticence do we delay presentation of our bill?

4. Nor have we any right to watch Christian education progressively priced out of many parents’ market. Tuition fees go steadily up. How many children today whose parents earnestly desire a Christian education for them are not enrolled in a Christian school because the last tuition hike stepped out of their ability to pay? What school contented itself with accepting only the “best” of its applicants, thus foreclosing its Christian teaching to others of God’s image-bearers because it lacked funds for additional salaries, equipment, plant (thus ensuring, too, that in four years there will be just so many fewer Christian college graduates to teach forthcoming applicants)? What agonized parent was obliged to choose this year to commit his children either to ordinary laboratory equipment, a small library, and weary teachers on some Christian campus, or to the burgeoning facilities of the public, secular institutions springing up like mushrooms on tax (also our) support? These are matters of conscience! They concern every member of the Christian community. They involve the very character of our nation. They are not resolved by proclamations of principle, nor by mumblings of fear. The Christian educator is his brother’s children’s keeper—every last hopeful, earnest, seeking one of them.

5. And, finally, to share with the educator, and with us all, that awesome responsibility, God has placed at our right hand one of his good gifts: the state, a great and good democratic institution under whose wings we praise him. The Bible leaves no doubt of this, that the state is a God-ordained gift intended both to regulate and to serve the community. We owe it allegiance, obedience, and prayer; it owes us discipline, order, and good. We owe it our taxes; it owes us a return upon that investment in services. Yea, more, in our great land, this “it” is in fact “we.” Demean the state and we demean ourselves. Fear the state and we cower before our own political poverty and ineffectiveness. This agent is our own. We thank God for it. Let us honor him, too, by using it as a supporting hand in Christian educational enterprise.

Article continues below

Nor need we blink the stock objections to so doing.

1. Why, once more, the federal government?

First, obviously, for an equitable distribution of support. Again, for an equitable collection of that support, for the federal income tax is as nearly just a system as can theoretically be devised. And, contrary to some popular delusion, federal monies are collected and distributed with remarkable efficiency. Finally, because we are one nation, one people, with one concern in the just availability of education in sufficient quantity and quality.

2. But to risk, then, federal control? What good to gain the world but lose the soul?

Let us neither ignore the possibility nor fear the shibboleth. He who pays the piper may wish to call the tune. Who pays our bills now? Must we not always be on guard against being obliged to pipe an alien tune? The price of liberty is always vigilance. But the forecasters of federal coercion must strain at the gnat and gulp down the camel to find any footing for their fears. Did not the GI bills pour their billions into education (including Christian education) with no hint of coercion? Federal grants in research total more than one-half of the current operating budgets of schools like M.I.T.—without any invasion of administrative initiative. Indeed, Howard University of Washington, D. C., subsists on federal funds but has an independent administration. No strings trail from grants in land, buildings, equipment; no student is warped or governed by his loan, nor is the student whose diet is enriched by the federal lunch programs. We need not speculate about the doom of tomorrow; let us simply study objectively the practice of today, when billions of dollars of federal money do flow into teaching, and leave (indeed, make) it free. And this pattern is not, in fact, unique to America: in England the state pays the piper, but governing local school boards freely set the tune; in the Netherlands the religious schools receive nine-tenths of their budget from the state, which they spend in complete autonomy. We give God small thanks, and display little faith, if because of magnified forebodings we reject the extended hand of government he has made to serve us. Be men of faith, indeed! Also in the matter of trusting that God gives not in vain.

Article continues below

Federal coercion is neither a certainty, a probability, nor a trend. It is simply a problem, nay more a challenge! Does anyone suppose that if our democratic state falls prey to tyranny, it will need the fact of tax support of schools to justify an invasion of educational integrity? On the contrary, the best antidote to tyranny is a flourishing panoply of Christian schools, feeding into American life graduates who know why they, and all men, are entitled to liberty! And such a panoply of Christian schools will never flourish more than if nourished by adequate funds, in generous measure from federal aid.

3. There is, though, the vexing question of constitutionality. This must finally be settled in the courts. All that we know now is that few cases seem to bear—and none conclusively—on direct federal grants to Christian schools. And we know that indirect grants, in many forms, now come into our hands. The problem is, it appears, not one of constitutional authority but one of method.

And is not this the essence of the whole matter?

How can we obtain tax assistance, the very dollars we pay to the state—on all levels—in such a way that the full integrity of our program is assured while at the same time the survival, let alone the extension, of that program is guaranteed?

If we can convert our abstract controversies about whether into concrete discussions of how this should be done, our schools, our country, our children, and our God will be well served.

View From An Apartment Window

The sun is coming up again.

Remember when it hid obscured by clouds and smog?

The combined efforts of men keep us from the full measure of spiritual strength, now realized once more by means of heavenly intercession.

Smell the foggy mist!

See the dissected rays of the eastern sun, pierced by grey streaks and yellow blotches and reflections!

Is there not hope in the brightness of that ball?

Will not the day bring forth new joys?

Man’s fickle, neon glimmer shrinks in contrast.

God arises this morning.

The dew of Hermon permeates the air.

The words of the Preacher echo in the morning sights and smells.

The vanity of hammering and roar is mute by divine intervention,

As the silhouette of a sparrow glides effortlessly in the oriental gold.


Lester DeKoster, director of libraries at Calvin College and Seminary, has the A.B. from Calvin College and the A.M. and A.M.L.S. from the University of Michigan. He is the author of “Communism and Christian Faith” and also of “The Vocabulary of Communism.”

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.