Constitutional Oblivion

I know I’m a broken record when it comes to the appallingly low level of civic literacy in this country, but bear with me for one more installment of “Is it really possible to be that ignorant?” 

Valarie Hodges is an actual, nonfictional member of the Louisiana legislature, which means Louisiana citizens elected her to that body. She enthusiastically supported Governor Bobby Jindal’s school voucher program; however, it turns out that her support rested on the premise that school vouchers could only be used for Christian schools.  As she explained her position,  “I actually support funding for teaching the fundamentals of America’s Founding Fathers’ religion, which is Christianity, in public schools or private schools. I liked the idea of giving parents the option of sending their children to a public school or a Christian school.”

Where to start?

There’s the bad history, of course. While the nation’s founders were all nominally Christian–Protestant, to be more specific–their actual beliefs varied. Some were traditional believers. Many were Deists. Jefferson famously re-wrote the bible to eliminate all the metaphysics (pardon me, Valerie–that means ‘the God stuff’), leaving only the moral instruction. Adams opined that the attribution of divinity to Jesus was a great heresy. Franklin was openly skeptical–and, unlike Valerie–famously tolerant.

Then there’s the Constitution. People we elect to public office take an oath to support the Constitution of the United States. Is it too much to expect that they have some minimal acquaintance with that document?

Read together, the religion clauses of the First Amendment are a prescription for government neutrality in matters of conscience. Government is prohibited from favoring one religion over another, or religion over non-religion. That’s what we mean by separation of church and state–government, even in Louisiana, has to keep its grubby hands out of our souls. From the tenor of her remarks, its safe to assume that Valerie had never encountered references to or explanations of the Establishment Clause or the Free Exercise Clause, and would be surprised to learn that they prohibit teaching Christianity in public schools, let alone authorizing vouchers to be used only in Christian schools.

But finally, there’s reality. Are there no non-Christians in Louisiana? I can understand why there might not be a Buddhist Temple or Hindu shrine close by, but really, are there no synagogues or mosques? Has Valerie ever met an atheist? A Unitarian? Does she watch television or read news on the Internet? It is incredible that she seems never to entertained the possibility of neighbors who do not share her particular beliefs.

I hope–I believe–that Valerie is an outlier, that her incredible ignorance of the law and history and composition of her own country is unrepresentative. But we have a lot of anecdotal and survey data that suggests she isn’t as much of an anomaly as we might hope.

I’m not sure what we do about people like Valerie, or about the people who educate and elect the Valeries of our nation, but several of us at IUPUI intend to find out.

Tomorrow, I’ll explain how.

1 Comment

  1. All I could do was shake my head when I read about this. It made me a little sad that this was something that happened in real life and not in The Onion.

Comments are closed.