A few years ago I attended a most joyful ceremony, held in the chapel of Providence College, where I teach. Sixteen young people were to be confirmed in the Catholic Church; four of those had never been baptized, and would receive that sacrament first. Among them was a student of mine who had been brought to the Christian faith by various instruments of grace working at once: the friendship of a devout roommate, the guidance of a brilliant and generous priest, and his reading of medieval and Renaissance poetry. “I love this place,” cried that priest as we gathered outside the chapel, laughing and cheering.
Providence College, by law, may receive federal money—the fiction of a federally-backed student loan is raised or dropped depending upon political expediency. Thus, it is a loan when it is desirable to enlist the gratitude of the borrower and to hide the taxpayer’s losses, and it is a grant when it is desirable to compel the college receiving the grant to bow to the grantor’s wishes. But another school nearby, the San Miguel Middle School for boys, may not receive public money, nor may taxpayers transfer a portion of their bills to that school to enroll their sons there.
The problem, of course, is held to be the Constitution. San Miguel is a religious though non-sectarian school, under the directorship of the Christian Brothers. It is also a hugely successful school, serving boys from what I well know to be some very rough neighborhoods. They mold the boys into bands of brothers, and hold before them the ideal of the San Miguel gentleman. Ninety percent of the boys graduate from high school, and seventy percent enter college or the military. But the numbers fade into insignificance, when compared with the strong bonds of loyalty and gratitude that the graduates profess.
Now this is a contradiction that cries out for explanation. Providence College does not serve a disadvantaged group, does not create good citizens but presumably accepts them already made, and is if anything more obviously a religious institution than San Miguel is, being affiliated with a specific church. But Providence College may accept the state’s money, while San Miguel may not. Two responses are commonly given. Neither one is morally sound, and neither really does explain the matter. The real explanation, I fear, lies elsewhere.
The first response is this. San Miguel competes with an established system of public schools. Money that should go to the one cannot go to the other. But a public school system exists, one supposes, not for itself, but for the education of children. If that end may be served better, for some students, in some other fashion—and in the case of schools like San Miguel, in a far less expensive fashion—then the raison d’être for the public system fairly demands that the other system be supported.
The alternative is to compel as many young people as possible to attend schools that are dangerous or chaotic, in moral and spiritual ruins; as, for instance, one of the public schools of nearby Pawtucket, where one is hard pressed to find more than a few students in any class who live in the same house with their married mother and father. People whose hearts are wrung for the plight of the poor should be able to find some reasonable construction of the Constitution—easy enough to find—to allow at least for tuition vouchers, while protecting schools against state control.
The second response is more sinister. My student at Providence College was old enough to make up his own mind about religious faith. But the boys at San Miguel are still impressionable children. In other words, a convert here or there at Providence College won’t matter much, but if schools like San Miguel should proliferate, we’d have a problem. But what problem, exactly? Here we see revealed an animus against religious faith. It is all right, in the public schools, to try to form the minds of young people, giving them moral lessons in whatever happens to be the crusade of the day, while bullets fly and drugs are downed and eyes glass over with pornographic images. But it is not all right to spend a dime for San Miguel, if a tenth of a penny will be devoted to reading Scripture.
This animus is irrational. It wasn’t Scripture that fertilized the fields of the Ukraine with the corpses of millions of peasants. Those weren’t Mennonites under Mao who murdered fifty million of their countrymen and called it a Cultural Revolution. Hitler wasn’t obeying the Ten Commandments or the Beatitudes, much less the exhortations of an Italian prelate, when he sent six million Jews to their deaths in the concentration camps, and millions of others with them. We did not fight in Korea or Vietnam over the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Kaiser Wilhelm did not unleash his bitter and utterly pointless war so that Ein Feste Burg would be sung in Notre Dame de Paris. The tremendous evils of our time have not been watered at Jacob’s well. Islam is the outlier—but the animus has long preceded the emergence of Islam as a threat to the modern west.
It’s irrational for another reason, too. Not only is there no good reason to be suspicious of people of faith. There is every reason to encourage them and to be grateful for them, because even by worldly standards they make good citizens. The boys at San Miguel are not robbing convenience stores. Some of them will carry guns—in the army. They are a lot less likely to father children out of wedlock. Many of them set down deep roots in their school, which becomes for them a community that spans generations; they volunteer for the school, they contribute what they can when they have established themselves in business. If a person hears, on a Sunday, “Whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me,” it is just possible that he will take it seriously enough to reach out to the poor, in love. If a person hears, in the synagogue, that the man who walks uprightly will dwell upon the Lord’s holy hill, it is just possible that he may take the lesson to heart, and that his life will bear witness to the holiness of truth and right dealing.
Yet the animus against religion is natural—if we understand the ambitions of the modern state.
In his autobiography Witness, Whittaker Chambers describes how reading Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables brought him to communism, even as it was teaching him the Christian faith. The Bishop of Digne became his hero, the man who, in Hugo’s words, “inclined toward the distressed and the repentant,” for “the universe appeared to him like a vast disease; he perceived fever everywhere,” and “without trying to solve the enigma, he sought to staunch the wound.” The good bishop came to Chambers’s mind when he recalled an incident at Union Station, in Washington. He was standing in the ticket line with J. Peters, an underground agent of the Communist Party, when a man came up to Chambers, begging to exchange tickets with him. Chambers felt sorry for him and did what he wanted, whereupon Peters called him a fool, though, he added gently, “The party needs more fools.”
In saying so, Peters the man got the better of Peters the politician. For it was the party’s policy, as Chambers makes clear, to discourage charity. The sting of poverty must move the poor to action. The individuality of the persons involved in a private gift—the love that might bind them—was to be dissolved in the progressive march towards the ideal State. The poor of Providence must not be allowed an alternative; they must feel the sting of the bad schools, so that those same schools may claim greater exactions from the people who might give privately to charities like San Miguel, and so that the State will grow.
It is a mistake to believe that a totalitarian State regulates all the actions of its individual members. The Communist Party, says Chambers, encouraged promiscuity; and certainly the public schools of Providence do not discourage it with any effectiveness. Individuals may well be granted great leeway in habits that destroy the competitors to the State: the family, the community, and the churches. We drive “government” out of the bedroom, by which we mean that common people will have no say in the most determinative matter of their common life, in order the more firmly to entrench the State in the living room, the classroom, the town hall, and the sanctuary. For the State does not want to keep separate from the churches. It wants to absorb them.
Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence Rhode Island, and the author of Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Ironies of Faith. He has translated Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata and Dante's The Divine Comedy.