SepCon '98: Religion, Separation, and Fritz's Strategies
by Ari Armstrong, January 1999
Marshall Fritz, head of the Alliance, holds that all aspects of life should be directed toward a Christian purpose. Judging from the time I've spent around him, he tends not to be particularly subtle or reserved about this point. It was not surprising to me, then, that he chose to give the '98 SepCon a more religious bent. SepCon was held in Colorado Springs largely because the town is a haven for conservative Christians like those at Focus on the Family. In fact, participants at the conference were invited to tour the facilities of that organization.
Fritz embraces the cooperation of those of all intellectual stripes, though. He is by no means shy about voicing his opinion, but he is also respectful of alternate views and always ready to engage in sincere debate.
One panel early in the conference included a Jew, Yarden Weidenfeld; a Christian, R.C. Sproul, Jr.; and a Muslim, Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad; all of whom argued for getting the government out of education. I was struck not only by the significance of the historical succession, but also by the overwhelming sense of benevolence and camaraderie among the participants.
Walter Olson in the November '98 Reason Magazine takes Fritz to task for inviting Christian Reconstructionists to his conferences. (Through a series of quotes from the sect's members, Olson notes that some people in the Reconstructionist movement have called for the political suppression of non-Christian religions and for public executions for a wide variety of "sins," including homosexuality and blasphemy.) However, Fritz has also invited atheists, pantheists, and supporters of State education, including Bill Spady of Outcome Based Education fame.
While such Reconstructionists as R.J. Rushdoony have signed Fritz's "Proclamation for the Separation of School and State," so have such relative main-streamers as new Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo, CATO's David Boaz, and George H. Smith. (Interestingly, Fritz claims early influence on the Separation issue from Smith, who is a social-liberal libertarian, an admirer of Ayn Rand, and the author of Atheism: The Case Against God.) Still, in reference to the Reconstructionists, we must weigh Olson's reservation: "How serious do differences have to become before it becomes inappropriate to overlook them in an otherwise good cause?"
In a quote collected by Olson I simply must reproduce here, Gary North, a Reconstructionist and Editor of Remnant Review, a newsletter which worries about "Y2K" and global economic meltdown, actually calls for his future theocracy to forcibly restrict freedom in education (and everything else):
So let us be blunt about it... We must use the doctrine of religious liberty to gain independence for Christian schools until we train up a generation of people who know that there is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government. Then they will get busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God.
So much for liberty. However, Reverend Ellsworth McIntyre, an admitted Reconstructionist, the owner of several private schools, and the author of How To Become a Millionaire in Christian Education (a title purposely intended to strike some Christians as peculiar), told me at SepCon '98 that North is not representative of the Reconstructionist movement, saying, "Gary's a controversial guy." According to McIntyre, the Reconstructionist movement "takes no direct political advocacy views." While this is anything but a firm denial of the beliefs North expresses, it also suggests that Reconstructionists aren't necessarily homogeneous in their thinking.
SepCon certainly was not overwhelmed by conservative Christian theism. Some sessions dealt with issues like evolution and the Bible "as literature," but most covered issues of interest to a broader audience. Subjects included accreditation, Constitutionality, vouchers, and history.
Two of my favorite lectures covered the history of philosophy, presented by Christians but from an academic perspective. Charles MacKenzie, former President of Grove City College (which spent millions in court fighting Federal intrusions), gave a talk on Rousseau, while Vincent Fitzpatrick discussed the works of Paul Quay, a recent philosopher of Catholic persuasion.
So what is the significance of the religious bent of SepCon '98? In my view, the strong religious emphasis poses at least a couple of serious problems. First, it tends to lead the casual outsider to associate the Separation movement, which is much broader than Fritz's organization, with conservative Christianity. (I almost wrote, "fundamentalist Christianity," but Fritz explained to me that "fundamentalism" refers only to a narrow range of conservative, highly devoted Christians.) I saw this confusion with the supporters of government schools Fritz invited. This doesn't help to ward off stereotypes of libertarians as "right-wing." Of course, Fritz is under no obligation to run an "umbrella" group, but it does worry me that the "alliance" aspect of his organization is weighted toward Christian theists.
A second problem with the religious emphasis of SepCon '98 is that people both supportive and dismissive of private education tend to think only of particularly Christian reasons for getting the government out of education. Personally, I'm not greatly offended by "sex education," and I want evolution taught in the classrooms (not as dogma, but as testable science). "Creation science" strikes me as oxymoronic. Over and over various speakers decried the "humanism" in today's government schools, but that to my mind is not an issue of concern. I want Separation of school and State, but in order to root out Statist indoctrination and inept bureaucracy so children will have the opportunity to learn to their full potential. It strikes me that the arguments which appeal to me have a better chance of appealing to the broader population.
For some at Fritz's conference, the goal is not so much free-market education as Christian education. The free-market part of it is only an after-thought. This may be cause to worry. It is, after all, the Protestants who first supported government education, to suppress the Catholicism of immigrants. (Fritz, himself a Catholic among a majority of Protestants, did not stress this point.) To the extent that Gary North's ideas resonate with others, the fact the hard-core Christians seem unlikely to regain cultural dominance is reason to cheer.
Some of the Christians at the conference made caricatures of their opponents, thereby making it easy for the main-stream to caricature the market education movement, or at least the Christian wing of the movement. On several occasions and from several speakers, I heard the view that Christianity stands on one side of the cultural divide, while a package of atheism, relativism, Marxism, "secular-humanism," Post Modernism, and hedonism stands on the other. This view is a gross over-simplification. Earlier in the summer, I had heard a lecture from an atheistic, libertarian, humanistic, ethically principled Objectivist philosopher who criticized essentially the same list of Post Modern thinkers as did the Christian David Noebel at SepCon.
Even though the religious bent of Fritz's organization creates some difficulties, Christians and those in other religions obviously have a stake in Separation. Fritz actively seeks the support and participation of all groups, but for strategic reasons he is pursuing the Christians with particular vigor.
Fritz sees the various Christian groups as particularly alienated from the present system of government schools. Issues of evolution, sex education, and non- or anti-Christian teaching render Christians more susceptible than most to the notion of Separation. Not only that, but Christians are fairly well organized, making the task of "spreading the word" easier. In Fritz's words, "When you go fishing, go where the water is."
According to Fritz's theory, which I find basically compelling, our task in getting the government out of education is to attract those parents "at the margins" of Separation who are nearly ready to place their children in private education. Once the number of students in private education increases, a new group of parents will be closer to "the margin." At some point, a "critical mass" will be reached, and the government control of schools will come tumbling down like the walls of Berlin.
Fritz, then, is banking on there being enough Christians currently "at the margins" to lead to this "critical mass." This is where I fear the theory may fall apart.
I can think of several possible ways the idea might fail, in terms of getting the government out of education. First, the Christians could gain such political momentum that they would simply push their will onto the government schools. Former Congressman William Dannemeyer advocated just this approach at the conference. Second, the State-education establishment might get wise and put enough Christian stuff back into government schools to lure back the Christians. "Well, I guess we can teach Creation along with evolution. I suppose we can have silent prayers in school." I fear that if the focus is on Christian rather than libertarian goals, just this end might result.
Fritz has been careful to talk about the "sin of over-rendering:" the surrender of one's parental responsibility to the State. Fritz argues that parents should turn neither the responsibility of controlling the curriculum nor the responsibility of financing education over to the government. I like Fritz's argument, and I hope it "sticks" among Christians. If it does, this will prevent Christians from being lured back to "Christian-friendly" government schools. However, Christians have not traditionally been overly hesitant about enforcing their version of "responsibility" on others; hopefully conservative, non-libertarian Christians will remain a small enough minority that they won't be able to theocratize the State.
A third potential problem with Fritz's strategy is that the general culture might become so alienated from the Christian schools that they look on private education with increasing disdain. This might prevent the attainment of "critical mass." Fritz told me bluntly that his religious focus may well alienate some non-Christians. On the other hand, perhaps the religious schools will focus on solid, universal education rather than on religious dogma, so that even the private Christian schools will appeal to the non-theistic masses. This seems to me a likely outcome -- today's Christian schools frequently do a good job of educating their students.
I should note in closing this section that the focus of SepCon varies year to year. While Fritz will always invite many religious speakers, the future emphasis may well shift to more "secular" concerns.