What If We Had Public Churching?
by Jacob G. Hornberger
Let’s assume that for the past 100 years, the United States has had a system of public churching, modeled on the public-schooling system that America has had for more than a century.
Under the public-churching system, there would be mandatory church-attendance laws that would require parents, on pain of fine and imprisonment, to send their children into the public-church system every Sunday for one hour. The purpose of the law would be to ensure that children receive a basic minimum of religious education in order to ensure that everyone grows up to become a virtuous citizen with strong moral and ethical values.
Under the public-churching system, the state government would be providing the overall guidelines and standards as to how the churches would be operating, and it would be local church districts that would be running the public churches. Every church district would be managed by a board of trustees, whose members would be elected by the citizenry within the church district.
Funding for the public-church system would be through taxation of the local residents, including those people who don’t have children. After all, everyone benefits from a citizen trained in virtue, goodness, care, and compassion.
The textbooks used in the public churches would have to be approved by the state. All church teachers would be state-licensed employees.
As with public schooling, parents would be free to send their children into private churches, in order to satisfy the state’s requirement for one hour of religious education each week. But the private churches would have to be approved or licensed by the state to ensure that children are receiving a proper religious education. Of course, parents who do use the private-church system would nonetheless have to continue funding the public-church system through payment of taxes.
To satisfy conservatives, who would favor a “free-market” approach to public churching, there would also be a voucher system, one that would enable parents to use a state-funded church voucher to send their children into the private-churching system. Of course, they too would have to continue paying church taxes to fund the church schools.
After 100 years of public churching, it would not be difficult to predict the results. Children would hate religion and possibly even God. They would celebrate state holidays and snow days that enabled them to skip their weekly public-churching session. There would be huge political battles over which religion should be taught, with the majority coming out on top. Superintendents would come and go. Expenses would be out of control but more tax money would always be proposed as the solution to the mess.
The federal government would undoubtedly enter the picture with financial grants, with strings attached, and federal standards on religious education.
No one would be happy. There would be endless calls for reforms and endless battles. Yet, no matter which reform was adopted, it would not make the situation any better and, most likely, would only make it worse.
The only solution to the public-churching mess would be to totally dismantle the public-churching system and end all state involvement in religion. No more state church buildings. No more church compulsory-attendance laws. No more church districts. No more state religion teachers. No more church taxes. A total separation of church and state.
Arguing over which public-churching reform should be adopted would never cause people to think at that higher level — that is, at the level at which people question the public-church apparatus itself. That’s because reform necessarily presupposes the continuation of the apparatus.
The only way to convince people to abandon their 100-year-old public-church system would be by causing people to question the apparatus itself. That means causing people to ask such fundamental questions as: What should be the role of government in a free society? Is religious training for young people a proper function for government? Are mandatory church-attendance laws consistent with the principles of freedom? Should people be forced to fund public churching? Why not make church attendance a purely voluntary act? Why not leave religious education in the hands of parents and the free market?
Of course, one can imagine how the proponents of public churching would freak out over the idea of dismantling, not reforming, the public-church system. They would say that parents can’t be trusted with the religious education of their children. Most everyone, they would say, would end up rejecting God. Without public churching, they would cry, children will grow up to be faithless, uncaring adults.
My hunch is that most Americans living today would reject a system of public churching if it were proposed to them. They would think at a higher level and say that government has no business in the religion business.
Too bad all too many of them are, as of now, still unable to bring themselves to think at a higher level with respect to public schooling, mandatory charity, and all other aspects of the modern-day welfare state.