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Betsy DeVos, Constitutional Ignoramus

We have a social contract. Our Secretary of Education, like the president who appointed her, seems not to understand that. She wants to introduce a policy that badly violates our social contract.

The seventeenth century produced in England much political turmoil — one king beheaded, a civil war, and the Glorious Revolution, which deposed a second king, whom the people would likely have beheaded as well had they caught him — and two major figures in the history of western political philosophy, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Locke is the one we usually pay most attention to in the United States because his ideas had the most impact on the British colonies of North America that would become the United States, and Jefferson virtually plagiarized Locke in writing the Declaration of Independence.

Both get characterized as “liberals,” although Hobbes’ account of government, with “irrevocable surrender” as its operative principle, looks pretty conservative. According to Hobbes, any government is better than no government, so the governed should be happy with whatever government they get and just do what it says. Locke, in contrast, argued that humans have natural rights before they create government, and that government has the duty to protect natural rights, such that the governed retain always the right, the duty, even, to “alter or abolish it,” to borrow the language of the Declaration of Independence if it fails to protect their natural rights.

In the context of England in the seventeenth century, what makes Hobbes a liberal is that he describes government as emanating from a social contract, as does Locke. They just differ sharply on the contents and effect of that social contract. In our absurdly reduced universe of political philosophy, where the two options are “conservative” and “liberal,” monarchists occupy the entire field of the “conservative” option, so anyone who does not favor monarchy is a liberal even if, as with Hobbes, the character of the actual government he posits is not much different from a monarchy — sort of a monarchy without the monarch. With a monarch or without, both are totalitarian governments against which one may have no complaint or appeal.

In practice, our social contract is the U.S. Constitution. As a human creation, it is flawed. How badly is a matter for each to decide for her/himself. It plainly accommodated slavery, which is its biggest flaw, but one we then fixed some 76 years later. More recently, a peculiar feature of our Constitution, the electoral college, has twice within 20 years saddled us with grossly incompetent presidents. We could, in theory, fix that as we did the existence of slavery, by amending the Constitution. The Founders included a mechanism for that purpose, but they made it quite difficult, presumably because they thought that altering the basic social contract should be difficult and should reflect the opinion of a substantial proportion of the population.

In order to win over opponents of the Constitution, advocates of ratifying it agreed to a set of amendments right away, which we now call the Bill of Rights, so the prevailing sentiment at the time of ratification was that the Constitution was good enough, but only with ten amendments attached.

Arguably the most famous of those is the First Amendment, which reads (article the third here, since Congress passed twelve amendments, but two did not win ratification):

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

All human language is open to interpretation, but the Supreme Court has quite reasonably held that, Congress being the ultimate source of laws in the United States, what applies to it must apply to all of the federal government, so no part of the federal government may make an law respecting an establishment of religion. In short, no established religion.

To British colonists, that most obviously meant the Church of England, which, in England, enjoyed favorable treatment for its members over members of any other church. This favoritism is what drove some of the earliest settlers from England to America in the first place. More broadly, as the Founders well knew, official religious favoritism had been a common cause of various wars Europeans had fought among themselves since the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation some 250 years before. They hoped to avoid that.

Betsy DeVos thinks she knows better. Or, good Christians who are closer to DeVos than we should like think they know better. This is one of the worst aspects of good Christians. They always think they know better than anyone else, because they have this god guy on their side. Never mind that their god does not exist. They want everyone to kow tow to their mythical sky friend.

A Christian group has produced a plan for education in the United States that is woefully ignorant of even the most basic information about U.S. history. It includes this gem:

The report calls for the dismantling of the Department of Education, claiming it is “unconstitutional, illegal and contrary to America’s education practice for 300 years from early 17th century to Colonial times.”

The colonial period in U.S. history must start in 1607 with the founding of Jamestown, the first successful British colony in North America, and end in 1776, with the promulgation of the Declaration of Independence, which we now know was successful in creating a new, independent nation where British North America had once stood.

That’s not 300 years. “[F]rom the early 17th century to Colonial times” [sic] also makes no sense, since the early 17th century was “Colonial times” [sic].

The good Christians apparently want to abrogate the social contract, unilaterally — did they ask you? Did they propound an amendment to the Constitution and win enough support to ratify it, making it part of the Constitution?

They want to abolish the Department of Education, a goal of conservatives and libertarians since its creation, and replace it with a President’s Advisory council that would:

  1. Restore Ten Commandments posters to all K-12 public schools.
  2. Clearly post America’s Constitution and Declaration of Independence.
  3. Encourage K-12 schools to recognize traditional holidays (e.g., Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas) as celebrations of our Judeo-Christian heritage.
  4. Implement select bible classes, such as Chuck Stetson’s Bible Literacy Project.
  5. Encourage instruction on U.S. and world history from the Judeo-Christian perspective for middle school and high school history and civics classes.
  6. Develop and recommend in-service training on philosophy of education for K-12 faculty based on historical Judeo-Christian philosophy of education.
  7. Strongly push states to remove secular-based sex education materials from school facilities, and emphasize parental instruction.

The only item on this list that does not plainly violate the prohibition on establishment of religion is the second one, which refers only to the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, which any school in the United States should feel free to display as its teachers and administrators see fit.

Whether good Christians like it or not, many U.S. classrooms have students who come from families that are not Christian, and students who are from Christian families, but have decided that they find the ideas of Christianity either offensive or nonsensical, or both.

Good Christians don’t care. They want to force all U.S. school children to learn about Christianity, apparently in the hope that they will become good Christians themselves.

Happily, it seems that horse long since left the barn and this project is doomed to failure. We can continue to rely on our social contract.

Written by

Uppity gay, Buddhist, author, historian.

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