As Oklahoma’s battles over education policy have grown especially heated this year, some religious leaders have chosen to contribute more heat instead of bringing light. The state’s religious left has used their clerical authority to baptize what is known in education circles as “the blob.” The blob is the collection of special interest groups, including administrators’ professional associations and employee unions, that have spent decades capturing ever-bigger chunks of school budgets for their own benefit while blocking reforms that would benefit students.
During Oklahoma’s teacher walkout, a group of clergy organized a prayer event in the state capitol to support striking teachers. The event included general words of appreciation for the work of teachers, but also more pointed words of support for their strike. “You are on the side of justice and we’re behind you,” said Mitch Randall, former senior pastor of NorthHaven Church in Edmond.
Doug Serven, pastor of City Presbyterian Church in Oklahoma City, published a statement demanding tax increases in God’s name. “Yes, the Legislature passed some historic tax increases, but they are not enough,” he wrote. “We have to invest in our children. We’re simply not doing it.”
Clark Frailey, pastor of Coffee Creek Church in Edmond, published an op-ed in The Oklahoman hurling crude invective at supporters of school choice. “Our public schools deserve the choice not to be a battleground for politicians,” he fumed. “Oklahoma children in public schools deserve the choice not to be marketed and sold as investments in profiteering schemes.” Never mind that parent choice is the only realistic hope to keep politicians out of the classroom, or that the people who want to make an easy buck off education don’t open private schools, they run businesses that sell goods and services to the government school monopoly. In the course of his diatribe, Frailey checks off all the usual myths—such as the myth that choice hurts public schools, when in fact it improves their performance.
"Supporting a secular special interest’s demands and parroting its secular talking points doesn’t become a spiritual discipline because you do it with a clerical collar on."
I’d be the last person to deny that religious leaders should speak about public questions, including education policy. We need to make public policy based on moral commitments. Politics comes down to the question “how should we order our lives together?”—and that is a question with unavoidable moral implications.
It’s true that America’s great experiment in religious freedom implies our public policy can be based on shared moral commitments even if we disagree about the ultimate cosmic basis of those commitments. But as George Washington rightly pointed out in his farewell address, we can’t talk only about the morals of public policy and ignore the religious foundations of the morality upon which we draw. For if the foundations are neglected, the building collapses.
In fact, two years ago I published an article asking why we don’t see more religious leaders supporting school choice. Last year, I published an article opposing both those who say Christians must always send their kids to public schools and those who say Christians must always refuse to do so. I remain convinced that both good theology and the American experiment in religious freedom ought to lead religious leaders to support the principle of parent choice. So I’m not saying religious leaders can’t have opinions here.
The great danger, though, is when religious leaders are captured by partisan ideology and by alliances with special interest groups. If I thought supporting school choice would involve pastors in interest-group politics or ideological conformity, I would oppose it. I would only want them to embrace school choice out of genuine theological conviction and neighborly concern.
"In the short term, you can use religious authority to push people to vote a certain way. But in the long term, that debauches the currency of religious authority."
It’s true that in the short term, you can use religious authority to push people to vote a certain way. But in the long term, that debauches the currency of religious authority. People are not stupid. If you preach talk-show ideology and call it biblical theology, before long your congregants will know it, and they will stop listening—both to your ideology and to your theology. You will have sold your birthright for a bowl of bean soup.
As a matter of fact, I’ve spent almost 10 years speaking out against the ideological captivity of the religious right. I appreciate that the fight for the sanctity of human life and other issues has accomplished some good. But the larger effect of the religious right movement was to push churches to become voter registration offices of the Republican Party. As it became clear what was going on, this did incalculable damage to the religious credibility of the churches involved. We are still living in the disastrous aftermath, as huge portions of our culture have disconnected themselves from faith entirely.
So I’m only playing fair when I say that I see the same dangerous sellout in the efforts of Oklahoma’s religious left to baptize the blob. The pronouncements of Oklahoma’s religious left on education don’t bring any theological light to the public policy questions. They’re not saying anything the secular left isn’t saying. They’re just pasting Bible verses on self-interested interest group politics. Organizing events and statements to support a secular special interest’s demand for money, parroting its secular talking points, doesn’t become a spiritual discipline because you do it with a clerical collar on—quite the reverse.
If Oklahoma’s religious left wants to argue that the Bible specifically sets numeric parameters for the state budget, or demands government monopoly control of education, let them make a genuinely theological argument for it. Let’s hear which canonical texts specify the percentage of the budget that goes to education. Let’s hear what doctrinal principles forbid us from adopting even the most modest reforms aimed at ensuring that school funding actually improves education instead of ending up in special-interest pockets. Let’s hear what historical theological developments have produced the insight that anyone who questions Caesar’s uncontested control of education is an infidel. I’ve published my theological arguments for choice; let’s hear theirs against it.
If they don’t have a real theological argument, as appears to be the case, they should consider moderating their theological rhetoric.