June 14, 2004
Schools of Thought
James K.A. Smith
American law and politics remain governed by the antiquated notion of secularity. Consider the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Locke v. Davey, which ruled that the state of Washington's Promise Scholarship Program could legitimately exclude funding for those pursuing "a devotional theology degree." (A similar exclusion in Michigan is currently being challenged in federal court.) Though registered at an accredited college, Joshua Davey was denied the Promise Scholarship, which he earned on the basis of both merit and need, because he was training for the ministry. On the basis of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, the state argued that tax-based funding of training for religious vocation avoided the state's endorsement of religion without compromising the Free Exercise Clause.
Commentators, including Linda Greenhouse in the New York Times, have already suggested that this decision spells the end of all kinds of programs from kindergarten to college. But we should avoid the alarmist response already evidenced in Justice Scalia's dissenting opinion, which worried about slippery slopes. The decision in Locke v. Davey is quite narrow and focused. The court did not rule against state funds supporting students who pursue education at "pervasively religious institutions." Indeed, the college that Davey attended -- Northwest College in Kirkland, Washington -- is a denominational college of the Assemblies of God, where all students are required to take courses in Bible, "Spiritual Development," Evangelism, and "Christian Doctrine." But the state of Washington did not exclude participation in the Promise program for students at Northwest or other religious colleges so long as their course of study was aimed at a "secular" profession.
This question of profession and vocation is at the heart of the court's decision. In Justice Rehnquist's majority opinion, the issue is not religion per se, but more specifically "training for religious professions." In other words, Washington's state constitution does not unjustly exclude education and instruction in religious institutions, or even curricula and degrees which include required courses in "devotional theology;" rather, the state's elucidation of the Establishment Clause "has merely chosen not to fund a distinct category of instruction," namely, degrees intended for professional religious vocation. Rehnquist appeals to a long history of worries about tax dollars paying for pastors.
Here's where the court's decision gets interesting. The fundamental assumption informing the judgment is the claim that "training for religious professions and training for secular professions are not fungible." The majority opinion suggests that religion is so unique that "professional" religious vocations "find no counterpart with respect to other callings or professions."
While I accept the interests of the Establishment Clause, it seems to me that the court's decision is a bit naive about the distinction between sacred and secular, between "religious" and other vocations. The majority opinion marks out degrees in "devotional theology" because they are designed to induce a particular faith. But isn't there a sense in which a business degree is also intended to induce a particular faith (in the market)?
Isn't there something quite indoctrinating about many of the programs in business at state universities, which function as a kind of novitiate, orienting students to a set of doctrines and a new worldview? Indeed, one could suggest that much that goes under the banner of "secular" education is, in fact, a kind of religious formation where students are initiated into a particular worldview -- a set of commitments that govern how they see the world and act within it. As Thomas Kuhn put it, even in the objective world of the sciences, what counts as "normal science" is really a kind of orthodoxy.
What the court's decision fails to question is the very idea of the "secular." It assumes that the secular is neutral and non-religious, whereas in fact the secular commitments of the market and political liberalism constitute a different religion. As such, the very notion of the secular is a kind of modern hangover in our postmodern world. In postmodernity, there is no secular, because there is no neutrality. Every vocation is religious in a formal sense of being committed to a particular worldview. So the supposedly radical distinction between religious and other secular vocations breaks down when we reject the very notion of the secular.
And here's the irony: Joshua Davey was a double major in pastoral ministries and business management/administration. The state of Washington denied his Promise scholarship because his pastoral ministries degree was religious. But was his business management degree really much different?
If the state will not give tax dollars to M.Div. students, should it not also refuse to fund MBA degrees?
James K.A. Smith is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Seminars in Christian Scholarship at Calvin College. His next book, Introducing Radical Orthodoxy: Mapping a Post-Secular Theology (Baker Academic Press) will appear this fall.