On Public Purposes of Private Schools

The Supreme Court’s ruling this week will help mend America’s frayed culture by strengthening its religious institutions. It couldn’t have come at a better time.

Roy Rochlin/Getty Images.

Roy Rochlin/Getty Images.

July 3 2020
About Jonathan

Jonathan Silver is the editor of Mosaic and the senior director of Tikvah Ideas, where he is also the Warren R. Stern Senior Fellow of Jewish Civilization.

As those of us in the United States approach Independence Day tomorrow, we see that our country’s social fabric is frayed, and we know that the nation’s confidence is shaken. It’s not only the cultural left that’s down on the United States. Creative and learned authors on the intellectual right have also grown critical of the American founding and its philosophical foundations. But even in these anxious days, America deserves the thanks of its citizens—including, and perhaps even especially, the religious among us.

Statues of Americans past are much in the news, and my favorite story about an American statue comes from the writer and journalist Andrew Ferguson’s curious 2007 book, Land of Lincoln.

On location in Chicago, Ferguson locates a Thai restaurant whose owners, the Esche family, have erected a small shrine to America’s 16th president. When they arrived in Illinois in 1973, Mrs. Esche had seen the phrase “Land of Lincoln” on all of the license plates, and so she set out to learn about this man who was apparently a figure of significance in their new home. Mr. Esche, translating for his wife, recalled their thinking back then to Ferguson: “She says, in our country it is our custom that we pay respect to the person who is in charge of the country. And here it is Lincoln’s country. He’s the head man in history. You see him everywhere. Everyone loves him.”

The Esches eventually learned about America’s civil war and the country’s continuing effort to live up to its own ideals, and they came, in their own way, to love Lincoln too. In time, they began an annual pilgrimage to Lincoln’s tomb in Springfield, just over three hours from Chicago by car. “We want to pay respects for Lincoln,” they told Ferguson. “We bring flowers, and when we are there, we sit, all the family, and we sit by his grave and we pray to him, to give him thanks for such a wonderful country. We just want to show thanks.”

Thanks, and food. Back in the Esches’ Thai restaurant, they bring choice delicacies before the Lincoln statue each day. “It’s a full meal—everything, entrée, dessert, appetizer, drink also. . . . We change the meal every day, so it’s always different. We serve him everything.” Then Mrs. Esche interrupts her husband. Accepting her rebuke, he translates once again: “Everything but no pork.” To Ferguson Mr. Esche explains, “We do not want to be disrespectful . . . ” for “he is Abraham Lincoln, yes? Jewish people, they don’t eat pork.”

That’s the way that America makes, out of many, one. The Esches’ admiration of Lincoln is no less sincere than the admiration of any other Americans. Part of what belonging here means is that you see yourself in the national story, and the history of the United States becomes a part of your own. We are bound together by sharing common objects of reverence.

The Esches’ reverence for Abraham Lincoln teaches us something about how American citizenship relates to our inmost—often religious—identities. America, at its best, does not ask the Thai Buddhist to relinquish his deeper obligations in order to become a patriotic citizen. In fact, very often civic patriotism in America wells up from those more fundamental sources of the self.


That is the context I think our community should have in mind as background to comprehend the significance of this week’s Supreme Court ruling in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue. Back in 2015, the Montana state legislature passed an income-tax credit that could be claimed by citizens who send their children to private schools. The state’s Department of Revenue refused to implement the program, for fear that parents might use that tax credit to offset the costs of religious schools, thus enabling state dollars to fund religious institutions. A lawsuit ensued, and the whole program was terminated by the Montana Supreme Court on the grounds that if religious institutions were going to benefit from state funds, then no one should. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court overruled this decision. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Roberts explained that “a state need not subsidize private education. But once a state decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.”

The court’s Espinoza decision dramatically limits—if it does not decisively nullify—the Blaine amendments that until this week held sway in most American states. The Blaine Amendment: a failed 19th-century amendment to the national constitution forbidding state support of religious schools that eventually over 30 states would individually ratify to their own constitutions. Of course, in those days American public schools were themselves more religious, imbued with the spirit of an ecumenical Protestantism. So in effect, and very often in intent as well, the Blaine amendments were less an effort to separate religion from state altogether than a Protestant move against American Catholics.

Since the 19th century, of course, those public schools have become more secular (at times encouraged in that direction by the American Jewish community), and the same legal instrument that once gave American Protestants a civic advantage was turned against them. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” the First Amendment reads, “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . ”. But, until the court’s Espinoza ruling this week, the Blaine amendments enabled states to discriminate against religion’s free exercise in the name of what very much seems like an established secular religion.

Jewish schools in America should welcome the Espinoza ruling because it could make financially possible the attendance and religious formation of many more Jewish children. But all Americans, secular and religious alike, should see the civic renewal and patriotic devotion made possible by private religious schools. To the deeply rooted, liberal worry that religious faith could undermine American attachments, I point to the very religious faith through which the Esches, and many millions like them, came to embrace American memory and national patriotism.

America is now suffering from a crisis of meaning. If the public schools of our country are designed to improve the reading and math skills of our children, then religious schools are designed to cultivate membership, believing, and belonging. It’s those latter capacities of democratic self-government that the United States most need replenished.


A few years ago I found myself sitting in the gymnasium bleachers of my son’s elementary school at his Flag Day assembly. We parents were invited to watch our children—six year-olds, mostly—recite patriotic poetry, sing American songs, and salute “the emblem of/ the land I love/ the home of the free and the brave.” The children were proud of what they had learned; it was the culminating performance of a year-long kindergarten curriculum in American civics. It was there, in the gymnasium bleachers, that I found myself sitting before a mystery set at the foundation of the American regime.

To enter into this mystery, you have to understand that the boys in the Flag Day performance were wearing kippot. Next to the gym bleachers hung an oversized red banner that read “God Bless America.” This pageant of American pride took place not in a public school but in a private Jewish day school. The sentiments expressed in that Flag Day assembly are likewise expressed in many religious schools across the country, not only Jewish day schools but Catholic parochial schools, Mormon schools, and Bible academies affiliated with any number of Protestant confessions. America does not ask that we amputate our Judaism; our attachment to America is strengthened through our Judaism.

That morning I wondered how many American public schools consciously attempt to foster a similarly full-throated patriotism. You might think to find even more civic spirit in public schools, since they have a long and inspiring history of precisely this: of instilling national sentiment in American children. After all, that’s what they’re for. Back in the year of American independence, John Adams wrote that “laws for the liberal education of youth, especially of the lower class of people, are so extremely wise and useful, that, to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant.” A remarkable consensus formed around the need for public support for the education of children.

That consensus was grounded in a reasonable republican argument. The argument held that prudential knowledge and moral virtue were essential for self-government. Only prudential knowledge would allow citizens to elect and to hold responsible their governing representatives, and only moral virtue would predispose them to keep license at bay and freedom within reach. It follows that, because these qualities of character were necessary for the operation of republican government, educating the young deserved public support.

These days, public schools do not, for the most part, consciously teach prudence and virtue. But it would be disconcerting indeed if the very institutions founded to fashion American citizens, and funded by them, lacked the confidence and will to carry out their animating civic function.

My son’s Jewish Flag Day assembly and the Esches’ Buddhist Lincoln shrine lead me to think that the very qualities that led the American framers to support public schooling are now more widely cultivated in the religious schools that public schooling was designed to supersede.

That may be a paradox, but it reveals the public purpose of private schooling. It may well be that the narrower, more particular sub-communities of religious faith are better carriers of American meaning than a thinner, secular, public culture. Membership in a particular community does not necessarily make national commitments harder, and perhaps it can even serve as a healthier basis for embracing the national culture.

On that note, a brief aside for my friends on the intellectual right who worry—rightly, in my view—about the overly abstracted and atomizing tendencies found in America’s philosophical antecedents: the freedom we celebrate this weekend does recall that most Lockean document, the Declaration of Independence, which puts before us the natural rights given to mankind by our Creator. But remember that the Declaration is not only a Lockean document, and the United States is not only a Lockean nation. This year, we celebrate the 400th anniversary of quite another American founding, the Mayflower Compact of 1620, which spoke less about our rights than about our character.

The moral horizons that lead from the particular inheritances that form us into little platoons all the way to national patriotism may seem to be an American mystery, but this Independence Day, in light of the Court’s Espinoza ruling, it’s a mystery to wonder at with gratitude.

More about: Abraham Lincoln, America, American Civil War, History & Ideas