Public education violates the Constitution by subsidizing secular humanism.

The greatest challenge facing Christian colleges today is the survival of quality education. We need not fear the demise of the Christian college; we do need to fear the demise of its quality. And this is tragic. No young person should have to choose between an institution that is Christian but provides only an inferior education and an institution that is non-Christian but truly educates.

The problem of survival becomes, to put it bluntly, the problem of adequate finances to sustain an educational program of high quality.

What can be done? Our solution is simply this: the government should assist qualified students in all qualified institutions where they gain admittance. Under such a system, the government would continue to collect taxes for higher education, but college students would determine where to invest their portion of the educational revenue.

The editor confesses that this represents for him a radical 180-degree reversal in his thinking. His past opposition to such governmental subsidy was based on five arguments:

First, that sacrosanct fundamental of American religious freedom—separation of church and state—was at stake. Second, genuine Christian colleges in our American pluralistic society were doing well. Third, governmental support would inevitably bring governmental control (this was the most decisive objection). Fourth, evangelical organizations were doing an effective work on our public campuses, thus tempering the need for the Christian college. And, finally, as citizens of two kingdoms, evangelicals could not logically object to supporting public institutions—nor could they morally refrain from penetrating university cultural centers with Christian faith.

What new insights, therefore, justify this radical reversal regarding government subsidy of Christian higher education? First of all, public institutions are no more neutral with respect to religion than are evangelical colleges. Church and state are not separated in our American universities: most of them either directly or indirectly promote the religion of secular humanism. Thus, though committed to neutrality, our government is in fact providing billions of dollars annually to promote institutions whose primary religious emphasis is antagonistic to Christian faith. This violates the First Amendment: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. No matter what the intent, our present system normally establishes the religion of secular humanism in most of our large government-supported universities. We may fail to recognize this because of too narrow a definition of religion; but if we define it in terms of ultimate commitments and values that govern life, surely secular humanism is a religion. Just as surely, it is the religion of our great American universities. Not only does this violate the constitutional guarantee against establishing a particular religion, but it also grants to that religion a near monopoly of government-supported religious training in our nation. We must recognize this stranglehold for what it is—a violation of our basic constitutional rights. And it must cease.

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But government support of the monopolistic religion of secular humanism in our public universities violates not only the first half of the religious clause of our constitution, it also destroys the second, prohibiting the free exercise of religion. It does so by economically penalizing those who choose to attend Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish colleges or universities. They must pay taxes to support secular institutions and their “established” religion of secular humanism, and they must pay again when exercising the privilege of enrolling in institutions sympathetic to their own beliefs and values. An interpretation of the Constitution that is supposed to guarantee religious freedom has become in effect the constitutional basis for discouraging evangelical faith and inhibiting the freedom of parents to educate their young in their own faith.

Moreover, in view of American religious pluralism, the state has no way of creating through any single educational institution a religious commitment or lack of it that will satisfy everyone. The present system of higher education thus works against the American way of free enterprise, which fosters competition and freedom of choice. But by granting subsidies to students and not to the schools themselves, the government would further true freedom. Unfortunately, our present government-supported institutions do not want competition. Surely, however, they would be healthier if, instead of automatically receiving state funds, they were forced to compete with the quality of private institutions.

Some argue that the payment of tuition and basic costs to college students attending the school of their choice would force nonreligious people to pay for religion. Such is not the case. In granting subsidies directly to students, the government pays for the education of its citizenry. Time and again our Supreme Court has supported this principle. Laws whose primary purpose is to foster nonreligious goals sought by the state or federal government are legitimate even though they may indirectly prove to aid religion. The aim of the government is not to foster religion, but to produce an educated citizen.

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Government payment of tuition with student freedom to choose the institution has long been an established part of the relation between government and education. GI grants functioned in this way on a massive scale following World War II and the Korean War. No one objected that such payments represented government support for religion, though thousands of GIs chose to secure their college or university education in a religious institution. (See Blanton Case, 1976, in which the Supreme Court approved 9 to 0 the granting of tuition to college students no matter where they choose to enroll.)

This same system is widely applied to the support of higher education in Britain. Neither there nor in the U.S. do we find evidence of damaging control over religious institutions. This should allay fears of evangelicals that all forms of government support of Christian students must necessarily bring government control of religion. In practice it has just not worked out that way.

But by granting tuition to enable students to choose a Christian education, will we destroy our public institutions? To suggest this betrays a serious lack of confidence in their quality. If they offer so poor an education, then for that reason alone they certainly warrant no near monopoly of public financing. Our public institutions certainly were not destroyed in the days when GI subsidies flourished. Neither would they be destroyed if this proposed system were introduced. Public institutions would survive quite well; but the taxpayer who prefers education from an alternative religious perspective would be able to secure it without facing financial discrimination.

Others criticize the proposed plan by saying it proliferates institutions. If this would mean a great variety of quality institutions from which students could choose, that would be desirable. On the other hand, if proliferation means creating countless marginal or substandard institutions just to receive their share of the tax base, this would obviously be undesirable. The government should require institutions to meet certain academic and financial standards before their students could receive public grants.

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Finally, would this plan isolate Christians from their culture, destroying America as the traditional melting pot? This is probably not the place to discuss the institutional isolation of a Christian college. We are convinced that wisely structured, a Christian college offers a broader and more truly liberal education than most of our public institutions. And such a plan would promote citizens’ freedom of choice, thus increasing social freedom on a more equitable basis.

The greater need of America today is not for more conformity, but for more independence, more individuality, more creativity, more freedom. In this, our fear is less for the Christian than for our nation. The Christian needs the public institutions less than the public institutions need Christians. Christian scholars need to penetrate our American citadels of culture where God is unknown, ignored, or under direct attack. The proposal set forth here is not a panacea for problems in a Christian approach to higher education, but only one step. Christians will still need to function as salt in secular society.

But student subsidies for higher education will protect those who wish to secure either a Christian education or a non-Christian education by providing for them true freedom of choice—their American constitutional right.

Christian college students are already leading the way into the 1980s by showing us how mind and spirit come together in the form of a servant. After the Pattaya Conference on World Evangelization, we visited with students from Seattle Pacific University who were serving as volunteers in Kampuchean (Cambodian) refugee camps. We found them with partners from Christian colleges, Bible schools, and seminaries from every sector of our continent. Their understanding of an alien culture encouraged me. Their creativity and competence amazed me. Their spirit of servanthood shamed me. When I returned home, I tried to put that spirit into an open letter to our community.

A copy went to Pat McCarthy, the man from whom I buy my clothes and a Roman Catholic brother with whom I share the grace of God. On Labor Day, Pat’s 13-year-old son fell and crushed his skull. After three days on a respirator, he died. I couldn’t go to the funeral Mass, but mustered the courage to call Pat one hour before the service. Words and tears got mixed when I tried to console him. Pat broke through my awkwardness by saying, “By the way, thank you for that letter about your students in Thailand. I have already shared it with many people. David, we are changing the world.

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I was shamed again. A new believer, one hour before his son’s funeral, had said something to me about the Christian college that I had never said before. Either I didn’t believe it or feared the critic’s charge of triumphalism. Now I do believe without fear. Our task, however difficult, is infinitely worthwhile. On the portal of every Christian college in the 1980s should be etched the words, “We are changing the world.” I predict that the Christian college in the next decade will have integrity in American higher education; and will have impact upon the church for world evangelization.


David McKenna is president of Seattle Pacific University, Washington.

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