Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Why exploit religion for politics?

While a lot of other people got these last week, I saw the new report from the Sutherland Institute last night. The more I read, the more I was amazed at the lengths that some parties in the voucher debate are going to push their case. So I set aside what I was doing for a while and made notes.

Because it's a Sutherland report, it may have been researched and written by interns, but the name on it is Paul Mero, who wrote last week's pro-voucher commentary in the Standard and who leads Sutherland. So I'm going to assume that this is his work, and he gets the credit -- or the blame -- for what is written in it. At the very least, he was in a position to approve what was written in it and to take the bias out of it, if he really intended it to be a review of Utah's historical record.

Here's what I thought.

First, this is 2007. We are weighing an important issue under the circumstances we face in 2007. In this "report," Mr. Mero digs up and rehashes the same issues and arguments that people argued before Utah ever became a state -- that the federal government imposed public education on Utah as a means of "cleansing" or "bleaching" the church community's culture. And so far as I can tell, he did this for only one reason: To inflame feelings about those ancient issues in hopes that voters will behave emotionally, not rationally and deliberately, in considering this present challenge. It looks like he's done this just to distract attention from the real issues at hand.

And this is not a religious issue. As an exercise of voting rights as citizens of Utah and the United States, this referendum on vouchers is the same as a referendum on toxic waste dumping, or any other referendum we might consider.

To weave this slanted view of religious history into the argument supporting this voucher referendum is dishonest, intellectually. It does a real disservice to Utah voters and Utah children. And more than that, it is morally suspect, too, because it demonstrates a willingness to do or say anything to accomplish a political goal. It's using faith and traditions as a political tool -- when the newsletter distributed last week by PCE criticized others for engaging in "political games."

This is shameful. It makes me the same question I've asked since the beginning: Why can't we just take a piece-by-piece look at the proposal that is spelled out in House Bill 148? And I think I know the answer: PCE and the Sutherland Institute and others may be afraid that if we look bit-by-bit at the real language of the voucher referendum, we won't like it. It means the only plan they have to support their proposal is to draw attention away from it. What does that say?

In his paper, Mr. Mero goes a great distance to equate "anti-voucher" with "anti-LDS," and in doing it, he shows his contempt for Utah voters of every faith tradition. Is there any other way to describe it? If you respect someone -- or a group of people -- so little that you're comfortable casting them as anti-religious -- and you respect a religious community's ability to see through it so little that you're comfortable slanting their history for your own agenda, that's contemptible.

Rather than being a religious issue, the referendum is an issue of how we as citizens of Utah will choose to spend the tax dollars that provide for the common good, and we will all have a say in that matter.

As Mr. Mero knows, the exercise of parental rights by the church community is not incompatible with the establishment of public schools in the Constitution. Rather than illustrating conflict or strife between the two, our real history shows that these principles have co-existed, and do co-exist, in Utah as effectively as anywhere in America. Maybe they co-exist even more effectively than anywhere else, because we have a real awareness of, and sensitivity to, the intersection of individual and community responsibilities that support them. Is there any better example of that co-existence than the seminaries that work side-by-side with our public schools? Utahns have always been a people who take community responsibilities as seriously as individual responsibilities, both inside and outside of faith and tradition.

So this is not a report of real history, because Mr. Mero clearly adopted a point of view beforehand and used whatever rhetoric was available to fit that perspective. And he discarded all else.

And it isn't a report of real religious doctrine, because it pushes the very same kind of isolation-thinking that Utahns have sought to avoid, historically and now.

Mr. Mero says that Utah suffers from a lack of its own "education identity," but it must not, if public schools have well-educated more than 95% of its children during the period he describes.

But it may well suffer a lack of political will to completely support public schools, and that is a matter of public policy, to be handled or resolved through democratic processes.

In my opinion, his paper is further evidence that Mr. Mero and those to whom he looks for financial and moral support promote problems, not solutions. (Which may explain further why none is willing to publish a point-by-point explanation of the referendum.)

Here are some examples that jumped out at me, where he laces his paper with quotations from famous speakers without context and lays them side-by-side with his own invective. He asks, "Who really controls (or should control) the education of children in Utah (5)?" The obvious answers is that Utahns do, and their capacity to vote on the voucher referendum in November is evidence of this. But that's not the answer he hopes we'll think of. And he says, "government coercion is exactly what built...our public school system through the 19th century" (35), as if Utahns aren't their own government and do not elect their own policymakers.

He writes, "The last fifty years in the history of education in Utah have witnessed the struggle between advocates of progressive education (the 'experts') versus happy families and educated children. Progressive educators, who felt they knew what was best for us, continued to push for more control over the lives of Utah families and their children, while Utah’s families, seeking the aspirations expressed by Justice Oaks for family autonomy – the right to control the upbringing and education of their own children – pushed back (30)."

But the premise of this statement is false. In fact, the last fifty years have witnessed the opposite of struggle, as community leaders, parents and educators have worked diligently together to produce educated children with public finances that have ranked consistently among the lowest in the nation.

In fact, a lot of them have lobbied together for greater financial support, for stronger standards and accountability in public schools, for public policies that ensure safe, secure teaching and learning environments for all of Utah's children. So where Mr. Mero would like to have seen conflict, there has been harmony. And where there is presently harmony among parents and educators opposing the voucher referendum, Mr. Mero would like to sow discord.

The bottom line is that Utahns have the liberty to make their choices freely. People can freely choose to adopt the political agenda of Mr. Mero and his financiers, or they can choose a different agenda for the future. Reports like this one don't add to anyone's awareness of the issue at hand.