Trump, DeVos, and the ‘Kuyperizing’ of America

Edd Doerr

With Donald Trump’s accession to the presidency, his appointment of billionaire Betsy DeVos as education secretary, and his choice of ultraconservative former Indiana governor Mike Pence as his backup, the stage is being set for something we might call the “Kuyperizing” of American education. Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920), though virtually unknown in this country, was the conservative Dutch politician/theologian most responsible for the Netherlands’ early twentieth-century division into three vertical social “pillars”—Protestant, Catholic, and everyone else (liberals, socialists, Jews, humanists, and so on). What resurrects this idea up now is a fourteen-page chapter authored by former Virginia Solicitor General William Thro and titled “A Kuyperian Perspective on American Religious Freedom” in the otherwise excellent new book, Religion and Law in Public Schools, about which more later.

Kuyper was very influential in certain conservative religious circles in the United States, especially at Michigan’s Calvin College—the institution that produced Betsy DeVos, who has spent much of her life and money on crusades to undermine public education and promote the diversion of public funds to religious and other special-interest private schools and for-profit charter schools. He also inspired such religious-Right nabobs as James Skillen (whom I debated at a conference in Washington years ago), Francis Schaeffer, and Chuck Colson. Princeton Theological Seminary (Presbyterian) awards an annual Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Public Theology, which caused a ruckus earlier this year when the award was to be presented to high-profile preacher Rev. Tim Keller, who does not believe that women or LGBT persons should be allowed to be ordained (see Julia Baird’s “Is Your Pastor Sexist?” in the New York Times, April 19, 2017).

Make no mistake: although Trump and most Republican lawmakers federal and state would not know Kuyper from a diaper, if they and DeVos succeed in diverting to private schools a flood of public funds through vouchers, tax credits, and such gimmicks as Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), we will see our already underfunded public schools, which have for well over a century served 90 percent of our children, Kuyperized. Our school population will be increasingly fragmented along religious, ideological, social class, ethnic, and other lines. There are already at least two dozen sets of private schools—Catholic, evangelical, Baptist, Adventist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Quaker, Episcopal, Jewish, Muslim, and so on, not to mention an assortment of more or less elite secular private schools. Only groups large enough to bring enough students together to make a school viable will be able to take advantage of Kuyperization, which will not only reduce already inadequate public school per-student spending, down 7 percent in thirty-five states since 2008, but also increase education costs. And all that in addition to forcing all taxpayers to contribute involuntarily to religious institutions, which are not controlled by elected school boards, in violation of their religious liberty and our constitutional principle of church-state separation.

Given our country’s incredible diversity, Kuyperizing our schools will inevitably lead to the Kuyperizing of our whole society. The obvious response is serious resistance.

But back to Religion and Law in Public Schools (edited by Steve Permuth, Education Law Association, 2017): this well-documented book with essays by thirty-one law school professors, attorneys, and others (I cowrote two chapters) traces the history of religion in American public schools and clearly lays out where the law stands today on such issues as prayer and Bible reading in schools, teaching about evolution and religion, graduation exercises, prayer at football games, and other matters too numerous to list. The book examines the history of public education and church-state separation in our country and summarizes the relevant court rulings. It is an indispensable five-star guide for teachers, administrators, parents, school boards, and legislators. And it shows that religious Right claims about alleged public-school hostility toward religion is just paranoid nonsense.

Reproductive Choice’s Unsung Hero: Bill Baird

Bill Baird
Bill Baird pickets the National Right to Life Convention in June 2012.

On the ides of May, the Trump (mal-)administration extruded a new policy misleadingly titled “Protecting Life in Global Health Assistance.” This expansion of the “global gag rule” is intended to halt or disrupt nearly $9 billion in U.S. aid for health programs in developing countries that are deemed to promote abortion through family planning and counseling programs, referrals, lobbying, or simply by providing information. But what this irresponsible new policy will actually do is increase the worldwide abortion rate, already well over fifty million per year; moreover, far too many of those abortions will be illegal and unsafe. That will lead to increases in women’s death rates from abortions, already over twenty thousand per year worldwide, and increase the already staggeringly high rate of women’s serious health problems in third-world countries with inadequate maternal health programs and increase the already large number of orphans in those countries and set back the already struggling efforts to deal with the climate-change crisis, which is fueled by human overpopulation. (See “Expansion of Abortion ‘Gag Rule’ Will Restrict $8.8 Billion in US Aid,” New York Times, May 16, 2017 and “Trump Rule on Abortion Will Affect Much More,” Washington Post, also May 16, 2017). The ignorance, indifference, and misogyny of Trump and his followers are astonishing.

Let’s back up a bit and recall that abortion has been legal and, therefore, safe, in the United States and other developed countries for less than fifty years. In this country, we chalk that up to the Supreme Court’s rulings in 1973 in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton. The path to Roe began with the Court’s rather timid 1965 ruling in Griswold v. Connecticut, but that only swept away state barriers to contraceptive use by married couples. What really paved the way for Roe was the Court’s 1972 ruling in Eisenstadt v. Baird, authored by the only Catholic justice at the time, William J. Brennan, which fully legalized contraception for unmarried women. The Roe decision is as strong as it is because of Eisenstadt v. Baird, the powerful logic of Brennan, and the many years of tenacious effort by one man, Bill Baird.

Baird has been the leading activist for contraception and abortion access from coast to coast since the early 1960s. In 1967, he lectured on abortion, contraception, the environment, and overpopulation at Boston University and gave a female student a condom and a package of contraceptive foam. That got him arrested and jailed. His five-year legal battle over that produced the Eisenstadt v. Baird ruling. He won two other Supreme Court cases on abortion rights in 1976 and 1979, Bellotti v. Baird I and II . He has been jailed in several states for his activism.

In their 1979 best-seller The Brethren, Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong discuss Brennan’s use of his opinion in Eisenstadt v. Baird to establish the constitutional right to privacy that Justice Harry Blackmun then used in Roe. As Brennan put it, “If the right to privacy means anything, it is the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted government intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child.”

In 2006, Baird was invited to speak at the New York State National Organization for Women’s fortieth anniversary celebration. Its president, Marcia Pappas, noted that Long Island’s Newsday had listed Baird as one of the one hundred most influential people in the last one hundred years. Baird, the founder with his wife, Joni, of the Pro-Choice League, has been called the “father of abortion rights” by journalist Georgie Anne Geyer in the Los Angeles Times.

Edd Doerr

Edd Doerr is a senior editor of Free Inquiry. He headed Americans for Religious Liberty for thirty-six years and is a past president of the American Humanist Association.

With Donald Trump’s accession to the presidency, his appointment of billionaire Betsy DeVos as education secretary, and his choice of ultraconservative former Indiana governor Mike Pence as his backup, the stage is being set for something we might call the “Kuyperizing” of American education.

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