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The Diversity of Life.

Bill and Hillary, an Arkansas couple newly residing in Washington, D.C., chose in January to enroll their daughter Chelsea in an excellent, pricey Quaker private school - Sidwell Friends. This decision has evoked considerable comment, as Bill is the new president of the United States, a strong supporter of public education (Chelsea attended public school in Little Rock), and an outspoken opponent of the voucher plan for taxpayer support of nonpublic schools promoted by his two immediate predecessors in the White House (as well as by conservative, sectarian special interests and a number of economists who may know something about counting beans but little about the complexities of education).

The New York Times, mildly critical of the decision not to send Chelsea to one of the D.C.-area public schools (branded as "unstable and mismanaged" by an outside audit in 1992) and noting that voucher advocates are needling Clinton as a "hypocrite," urged the president to "fulfill his promise to restore and improve public schools so that all families will have better choices." The Washington Post sympathized with the Clintons and agreed with Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos that their choice "is all the more reason...to make sure the country's public schools receive the federal government's scarce resources." Predictably enough, the Washington Times - linked to the Reverend Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church and a consistent supporter of ultraconservative causes - used the occasion to do its own lobbying for taxpayer funding of private schools.

Yes, Sidwell Friends is an excellent school. It ought to be, as its tuition is over $10,000 per year - nearly double the amount the average public school is able to spend per student - and as it is academically selective. Not only do our public schools have far less money to spend per student than the finest private schools, but the public schools must serve to educate poor, disadvantaged, and handicapped children (well over 10 million of them) and children from a wide variety of dysfunctional families.

Furthermore, as a society we Americans spend a smaller percentage of our country's gross domestic product on elementary and secondary education than any other advanced Western country except Ireland (no public schools, only tax-supported denominational schools) and Australia (which spends more per capita in federal funds on private than public schools).

So what matters is not where the Clintons send Chelsea to school but that President Clinton provides leadership in moving toward solutions to the complex problems of our neglected public schools. As a progressive and as a Southern Baptist who holds strongly to his tradition's historic support for church-state separation (unlike the fundamentalists who have come in recent years to control that denomination's national machinery), Clinton is certainly pointed in a better direction than his two predecessors, who learned little from the history of church-state relations.

But enough already with Chelsea. Let's turn our attention elsewhere.

As James Madison observed two centuries ago, religious pluralism is good because it reduces the likelihood that any one "faction" will be able to take over. But in the 1990s, we will see increased efforts to pull together in a grand cultural-political coalition two groups which have long been antagonists: orthodox evangelicals and orthodox Catholics. These are the terms (which I would render as fundamentalist) used by William Bentley Ball in the new book he has edited, In Search of a National Morality: A Manifesto for Evangelicals and Catholics, published jointly by Baker Book House, an evangelical publisher, and Ignatius Press, an ultraconservative Catholic outfit.

Ball, a Pennsylvania lawyer noted as an able advocate for the aims of the Catholic church hierarchy, has brought together 18 Catholic and evangelical writers to discuss a variety of church-state and "culture war" issues. The authors nearly all cluster at the far right end of the religio-political spectrum and generally weigh in against the traditional U.S. arrangement of church-state separation. Their particular targets are abortion rights and the separation principle that bars tax support for sectarian private schools.

The essays range from an off-the-wall attack on abortion rights by Harold O. J. Brown to an excellent piece on human rights by Mennonite historian John A. Lapp. The book completely ignores most of the important social justice, civil rights, civil liberties, and environmental issues challenging the United States and the world today. While civil libertarians would disagree with most of the book, Ball's analysis of the impropriety of "landmarking" religious structures is sound, while Robert P. Dugan, Jr., appropriately criticizes the 1978 proposal by the IRS to remove tax exemptions of church schools with "insufficient" percentages of minority students, a wholly unworkable plan. (At the time, I joined Dugan in criticizing the proposal at an IRS hearing. The IRS attempt, which got nowhere, was successfully used by Jerry Falwell and others as an organizing tool before the Reagan election in 1980. My attempts to get the Carter White House to pull the IRS back were unsuccessful.)

Dugan also sharply criticizes Catholic leaders for opposing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (reintroduced in Congress in January), which is intended to overturn the Supreme Court's 1990 ruling in Employment Division v. Smith, which denied free-exercise protection to Native Americans and (by implication) other religious minorities. The struggle over the RFRA pits the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans for Religious Liberty, and mainstream Protestant and Jewish groups against Catholic church officials and the anti-choice movement.

But just as the William Bentley Balls, Pat Buchanans, and Pat Robertsons are trying to forge a Catholic-fundamentalist alliance to undermine church-state separation, mainstream Protestants, Catholics, Jews, humanists, and others are coming together in a very loose alliance to defend individual liberties and progressive policies.

With fundamentalists continuing their attacks on evolution and with popular knowledge of science at a low ebb, we should especially appreciate the new book by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: A Search for Who We Are (Random House, 1992), a fascinating and extraordinarily comprehensive review of evolution and human origins. Both scientists and the educated general public can read this book with profit.

Just as extraordinary, but of even more pressing importance, is Edwin O. Wilson's The Diversity of Life (Harvard University Press, 1992). Wilson, the dean of biodiversity studies, gives us a beautifully written, encyclopedic survey of the development of life forms and their diversity on our planet and sounds a clear warning that human population growth and resource exploitation now seriously threaten not only a large percentage of living plant and animal species but also the survival and health of our own species. Like Vice-President Al Gore in his excellent Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit (Houghton Mifflin, 1992), Wilson calls for citizen and government action to halt the rapidly accelerating destruction of our global biological environment. We ignore their warnings at our peril.

Both Wilson and Gore make it obvious, though perhaps with inadequate emphasis, that human population growth must be held to levels that can be comfortably sustained by the biosphere. This implies that clericalist and other opposition to sensible, humane population-growth-control programs is both criminally stupid and socially irresponsible.

Edd Doerr is executive director of Americans for Religious Liberty and a former vice-president of the American Humanist Association.
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Author:Doerr, Edd
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
Words:1200
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