Swedes R Us—NOT
Sectarian and secular special interests promoting school-voucher plans (tax aid for faith-based and other private schools in the United States) are a long way from giving up their crusade despite overwhelming popular opposition in more than twenty-five statewide referenda; from liberal Massachusetts and California to conservative Utah; clear constitutional bans in three-fourths of the states, and strong opposition by the Democratic Party. A new move by the conservative Heritage Foundation seeks to use Sweden’s school-voucher experiment, begun in 1992, as an example for the United States to follow.
The Heritage Foundation overlooks the profound differences between Sweden and the United States: in particular, between what might be politically acceptable in Sweden but not in America. First, Sweden is far more secular than the United States (though it does not have a tradition of separation of church and state). It is much more culturally and ethnically homogeneous and vastly more egalitarian than the United States. (FYI: Enrollment in Sweden’s nonpublic schools is about the same as in the United States, about 10 percent, but while the overwhelming majority of U.S. nonpublic schools are faith-based, only about 10 percent of Sweden’s nonpublic schools are.) Further, schools participating in Sweden’s voucher program may not discriminate in admissions, may not charge additional tuition or fees, are required to cover the content of Sweden’s national curriculum, and must participate in national testing and be open to government inspection.
In contrast to Sweden, America is a far less secular and egalitarian but far more heterogeneous society. In the United States, faith-based and other nonpublic schools would not stand for anywhere near the level of government regulation that Swedish nonpublic schools accept. Finally, vouchers seem to have found support in Sweden that they never would have in the United States.
Population and Climate Change
A study released in September by the London School of Economics has reemphasized the obvious: rising population inevitably increases the production of greenhouse gases and contributes to global warming and climate change. In 1975, the Ford Administration produced the National Security Study Memorandum (NSSM) 200 report, making it abundantly clear that worldwide population growth accelerates resource depletion and environmental degradation while provoking political instability and unrest. The NSSM 200 report recommended universal access to family planning assistance. Curiously, the report was mysteriously “classified” and buried until almost the eve of the Rwanda massacre and the U.N. Cairo population conference. Although—thanks to population scientist Steven Mumford*—the report has been out for a decade and a half, few writers onour growing climate change problem seem emboldened to discuss the importance of action to curb population growth.
One of the main obstacles to action is the enormous influence of various fundamentalist, clericalist, patriarchalist, and theocratic interests, mainly the Vatican and conservative Christian and Muslim fundamentalists. Catholic and Islamic influence have tied the hands of the U.N. and the American government. We see the baleful impact of the Mexico City “gag rule” policies of the Reagan and Bush I and II administrations, whose opposition to worldwide family planning aid not only shortsightedly impeded programs dealing with population but also caused untold damage to the lives, health, and welfare of countless women and children in the developing world.
All of this certainly raises serious church-state problems. Plainly put, promoting or imposing pro-natalist and anti-reproductive choice policies harms real people. It threatens the life, liberty, and happiness of billions alive today and more to come tomorrow, and it runs counter to the religious liberty protections of the First Amendment.
In a little over a decade,Louisiana’s peculiar “covenant marriage” law has had few takers. The state’s Department of Health and Hospitals has reported that only 1 percent of the marriage licenses issued from 1997 through 2007 were for covenant marriages. Only two other states, Arizona and Arkansas, have followed the example of the Pelican State. Covenant marriages require pre-marital counseling and can be dissolved by divorce only when one partner has committed adultery, there has been sexual or physical abuse of a child or spouse, one partner has committed a felony or has been sentenced to death, or one partner has abandoned the other for more than a year and refuses to seek counseling or to return. Religious Right groups may push Governor Bobby Jindal and clergy to promote covenant marriage. Personally, I can’t see this being successful, even in Louisiana.
* See Stephen D. Mumford, “Overcoming Overpopulation: The Rise and Fall of American Political Will” (Free Inquiry, Spring 1994)