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In the middle of the 20th century, when Nazism had only just been vanquished and Soviet Communism was still on the march, C. S. Lewis could already see the next permutation of tyranny appearing on the horizon of the 21st century:
Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be “cured” against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.
A better description of the pencil-pushing, bureaucratic middle-managers of the moral life who have come to dominate our administrative institutions one could never hope to read.
The totalitarianism of today is soft around the edges. It’s a gentler kind of tyranny that seeks to helicopter-parent its victims into submission. It has replaced the figure of the strongman with that of the virtuous scold, who promises to accomplish through sheer force of relentless, haranguing activism what armed revolution failed to deliver during the last century.
And so we shouldn’t be surprised to discover the vanguard of these new tyrants advancing on our elementary schools. After all, the duties of a public-school administrator are catnip for would-be revolutionaries of the new stripe. Men and women of this profession get paid to act as “omnipotent moral busybodies” who manage and prop up “a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims,” which is sadly what our progressive, state-monopolized education system has become.
Take the recent case of nine-year-old Lydia Booth in Mississippi, for example. Lydia’s parents sent their daughter to school on October 13 with the requisite face mask. Lydia’s happened to bear the words “Jesus Loves Me.” The principal of the school, Antoinette Woodall, forced Lydia to remove her mask and provided her with a plain one. Woodall claimed that expressions of Christianity violated the school’s policy.
According to the lawsuit that Lydia’s parents filed against the school, they were unable to find any such school policy prohibiting religious expression. Two days after the incident, however, the school’s superintendent allegedly updated its face-mask policy to read: “Masks cannot display political, religious, sexual or any inappropriate symbols, gestures or statements that may be offensive, disruptive or deemed distractive to the school environment.”
The lawsuit, brought on behalf of the Booths by the Alliance Defending Freedom, alleges that the school has violated Lydia’s First Amendment rights and is seeking damages in light of the distress this incident has inflicted on her. The suit also alleges that, prior to Lydia’s being compelled to remove her mask, other children had worn masks with sports-team logos and political messages such as “Black Lives Matter” without incident.
To Christian families, this lawsuit serves as the latest exhibit in a long line of evidence that public schools are inimical to their faith.
For a century now, progressives have been using the disestablishment of religion in the United States as a pretext to drive religious Americans out of the public square. Moreover, the kind of aggressive secularism they’ve extracted from their reading of the Constitution is both ahistorical and egregiously cynical. The disestablishment clause in the First Amendment prohibits the federal government from establishing one particular church denomination or another as the official creed of the state. It does not prohibit the presence of religious expression and speech in government institutions. Indeed, the Founders would have regarded such an idea as laughable and scandalous in equal measure.
Even before the Constitution was written, the Confederation Congress clearly didn’t intend to wall off religion from governance. The Northwest Ordinance, legislation enacted in 1787, created the Northwest Territory and served as the basis for admission into the Union of more than half of the eventual 50 states. Its article 3 lists religion first among the three main reasons for the existence of government-supported schools: “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”
Progressive education activists are ignorant of, or more likely have willfully misread, our foundational documents, quoting selectively and in bad faith from the Founders where religious liberty is concerned. Their deliberate and deceptive attempts to read French-style laïcité into the First Amendment has allowed them to banish the traces of religious life from our public schools. The Booths have an excellent First Amendment case, but it’s not enough to litigate cases like this on the grounds of individual liberty alone. This creeping progressivism has mutilated the disestablishment clause beyond all constitutional recognition. If the steady encroachment of soft secular totalitarianism in public schools is to be halted, the conservative legal movement will have to set about dismantling the corrosive precedents of progressive jurisprudence.