Minutes of Monthly Meeting
January 14, 1996
Location: Alumni Hall, University of Dayton
Meeting Topic: Prayer in the Public Schools
Speaker: Prof. Gerald Kerns, Dept. of Political Science, University of Dayton
Hosts: Bill and Mary Ellen Rain
PRESENT: Connie Breen and Lou Ryterband, Cochairs; Bert Buby, Corrine Coleman, Steve Coleman, Phyllis Duckwall, Paul Flacks, Shirley Flacks, Jack Hickey, Jack Kelley, John Magee, Arch McMillan, Eileen Moorman, Bill Rain, Mary Ellen Rain, Ken Rosenzweig, Robin Smith, Lou Vera.
Connie called the meeting to order at about 8:00 PM. Bill Rain delivered a prayer for peace which included the Christian hymn, "Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me." Phyllis delivered a financial report; the balance in our checking account is approximately $280. Connie announced that Paul and Shirley Flack's granddaughter earned a perfect score of 1600 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) for college admission. Father Jack announced the play to be performed at the University of Dayton about Edith Stein (a convert from Judaism to Catholicism who was killed by the Nazis because they considered her to be Jewish). Edith Stein is being considered for elevation to sainthood by the Catholic Church.
Connie then presented a small paper on Nostra Aetate, one of the documents written by the Second Vatican Council. Nostra Aetate condemns the concept of collective guilt and the historical blame placed on Jews for the death of Jesus. To prepare her paper, Connie read an article from a Jewish newspaper about Nostra Aetate. She then investigated these ideas further by talking to people here in Dayton. These included Father James Manning of Kettering's St. Albert the Great Catholic Church and Stan Troha, Head of Religious Studies, at Alter High School. Stan told her that students at Alter have a detailed education about Jewish life and the Holocaust. Students are required to read several books about the Holocaust, including Night by Elie Wiesel. Also one destination of a class trip is the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. Rabbis and Jewish scholars are invited to the high school to discuss Jewish life. However, apart from these visits, many of the students have not even met a Jew. Connie noted that, before Nostra Aetate, Catholics used to say a prayer for the "perfidious" Jew. Fortunately, this prayer has now been edited out of Catholic liturgy. Connie stressed the importance of dialogue for reducing the misunderstandings between peoples. Paul then commended Connie for bringing such useful information to the Dialogue members. Jack pointed out that Shoah is a more appropriate word than Holocaust.
Ken introduced Prof. Gerald Kerns. Prof. Kerns is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Dayton (UD). He was Chairman of the Department of Political Science for 12 years. He has a Ph.D. from Indiana University and is a native of Wichita, Kansas. Prior to coming to UD, he taught at Wayne State University in Detroit. Prof. Kerns initiated UD's Prelaw Committee and served as its chair for 18 years.
Prof. Kerns observed that Christian Jewish Dialogue should be an example for all Americans. If there is to be peace among people of different groups, it must begin with Dialogue. Prof. Kerns noted that we Americans are approaching the end of the century, and we have much to be thankful for. We are alive and free. No longer is a nuclear cloud hanging over us. Democratic institutions are more prevalent around the world than ever before. Attendance at religious institutions in the United States is at an all time high. There have been many technological advances. Americans pay less taxes than people in virtually every other country in the industrialized world. And yet, in spite of all this, Americans are more uneasy than ever before. For one thing, job security seems to be a thing of the past. For a distinct minority of wealthy people, times are very good. But, for people in the lowest social strata, this is a period of stagnation. There is much hate crime and street crime. In Washington, new divisive tactics such as shutting down of the government are employed. Attempts to demonize certain political leaders is common. In America, we are mired in an identity crisis and are searching for ourselves.
What does it mean to be an American? We are engaged in a debate over the role of government in our lives. The starting point for this debate is the words of Jefferson from the Constitution, "we hold these truths to be self evident . . ." This was a revolutionary role for government-the preservation of liberties. One of the most critical liberties is the right to choose and practice religion. Unfortunately, early colonists who fled Europe for religious liberty often turned around and denied religious liberty to people of other religious persuasions. Many colonies had established religions. Jefferson pushed through the Virginia legislature a statute that protected religious freedom in Virginia. Thirteen years later, words were included in the Constitution which prohibited any religious test for public office. Later, the first amendment to the Constitution prohibited the establishment of a national religion. All states then rescinded the religious provisions from their constitutions. This did not end religious discrimination in the US. Even in 1960, there was doubt whether a Catholic could be elected president. However, Kennedy was elected president and this barrier was surmounted. America was a different country in 1960. The experience of World War II had made America different. In waging war against the Nazis, we fought against the notion that some races and religious groups are different and better than others. We said no to intolerance and persecution of minorities. At the Nuremberg Trials, a statement was made: "This is what we stand for: justice and the value of an individual human being." World War II led to the decline of the barriers later. The history of Nazi genocide had a tremendous effect on the thinking of the US courts. This new thinking was incorporated in such important decisions as The Flag Salute Case in which children in public schools were released from being compelled to salute the flag.
There developed in judicial opinions two schools of thought with respect to the relation between religion and government. The accommodation school, led by such judges as Supreme Court Justice Rehnquist held that religious activities could be allowed in public schools. The strict separationist school, led by Supreme Court Justices Stephens and Souter, held that the establishment clause rules out religious prayer in public schools and that the government should remain neutral in religious matters. There is also a middle of the road approach. Some have advocated a Lemma test for whether activities are acceptable in public schools; this test has three criteria: is there a secular purpose, does the activity advance or restrict a particular religion, and does the activity enmesh the government in religious affairs. Justices in recent years have moved away from the Lemma test. At the moment, by a count of 6 to 3 on the Supreme Court, mandated prayer is unconstitutional. This will continue unless a Republican president is elected who appoints to the Supreme Court adherents to the accommodation school.
Prof. Kerns stated that we Americans need to recall our own history and ask ourselves are we really one nation indivisible and do we want to be? Can we be a community if we do not remain tolerant of the differences between people. One of the most important ways we are different is through our religious beliefs. We are fortunate in this country that our churches are free to operate as they wish and that they are filled. Government is not involved. Alexis De Touqueville, a French writer who visited the United States in the 19th Century, made many penetrating observations of the behavior of Americans. One of the most important was that America is the only country in the world where freedom and religion can walk hand in hand. Prof. Kerns finished his formal talk at about 8:45 PM.
Paul asked where Prof. Kerns has made this presentation previously. Prof. Kerns replied that this was the first time this talk has been presented. Paul commended Prof. Kerns for a wonderful presentation. Bill asked about the "One Nation Under God" phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance. Prof. Kerns admitted that this phrase could be questioned as a violation of the separation of church and state. Lou Vera said she really enjoyed the talk. She noted that many other countries, including those in Europe, provide aid to religious schools. Prof. Kerns noted that things are changing in European countries. In any case, there is a different background in this country. One of the reasons we Americans can live in harmony is that we keep religion out of government. This is especially necessary because of the heterogeneous nature of our population. One person noted that this was Martin Luther King weekend. He asked Professor Kerns to comment on the differences between the views of Martin Luther King and those of Louis Farakan. Prof. Kerns commented that Martin Luther King was assassinated just as the civil rights movement entered a new era of concern with the social issues of discrimination. Jack Kelley noted that Martin Luther King had spoken in the Fieldhouse at the University of Dayton. One questioner asked whether the nation was moving farther away from the concepts of founding fathers, including such issues as concern for the poor. Prof. Kerns noted that many of the framers of the Constitution felt the government should play an active role. This included Alexander Hamilton. Prof. Kerns observed a trend in the country among some groups away from the concept of community. He noted that the founding fathers looked at things a lot differently than we do. At that time, the United States was an agrarian nation--it was precapitalist. The founders predicated government on the assumption that people are creatures of self interest. Their hope was that people would be compelled to compromise and be tolerant of one another. Prof. Kerns observed that politics is getting mean in this country.
Ken raised the issue of abortion as an another issue that entangles religion and government. Prof. Kerns stated that personally he opposes abortion. However, he feels that this question should be a personal one and should not enter the political process. Eileen raised the question of school vouchers which would allow parents to send their children to private religious (or nonreligious) schools with government money. Prof. Kerns stated that he is hesitant to support school vouchers. He feels they would destroy the public schools and may result in the Balkanization of people. Government should stay out of the very sensitive area of religion. Prof. Kerns observed that, when he grew up in Kansas, it was "open season" on Catholics and Jews. Now that Catholics have overcome many of their obstacles in this country, it would be deplorable if they turned around and tried to impose their views on others. Bert commented about one of Prof. Kerns' philosophical ideas, the need for American self identity. He mentioned groups which oppose dialogue, noting that the lack of dialogue would destroy our ability to establish an American self identity across religions. Prof. Kerns noted that the America he grew up with was much more united perhaps because of the common experience of living through the Depression and World War II. Bill replied that the access to instant communication is a new factor we have to deal with. Everything is open and this may breed divisiveness. The access to so many different communication channels makes establishing a common community much more difficult. Whoever is the President will have many problems drawing Americans together.
Paul asked what the position of the Catholic Church is on the question of prayer in the public school. The consensus of those in attendance was that the Catholic Church has no position on this question. Eileen commented that the lack of an external threat necessitates that we Americans develop a new way of defining what it means to be an American. Prof. Kerns replied that there is a certain set of ideas that bring us together as a nation. Jack Kelley expressed great appreciation for Prof. Kerns' presentation. He raised the question of McVey's motivation to bomb the Federal Building in Oklahoma City as reported in the recently published Turner diaries written by Pierce. Prof. Kerns replied that this was a classic example of hate literature. He found it bothersome that some Americans could buy into this racism and confronted the group with the question, "Where have we failed?" Bill replied that we have to speak up against those espousing hatred. One person expressed the view that we need to be fearful of these groups. Ken asked about surveys showing anti-Semitism has declined. Prof. Kerns replied that there has been a resurgence of hate groups. Also the rhetoric on talk radio stimulates these racist feelings. John feels that the divergence of income in our population feeds this feeling of contempt. Also, he noted that the problem needs to be dealt with on an international basis due to the international nature of our economic system. Prof. Kerns agreed. Lou Vera feels that extremism arises from redundant (laid off) workers. Also the ratio of representatives to the represented in this country has gone from one to 40,000 to one to 600,000 or so. An article she read advocated restructuring the government representative process so that each legislative representative represents fewer constituents. Prof. Kerns pointed out that the discussion on the role of government that we are engaged in is similar to those of the 1920's. Paul made the observation that this community (Dayton) is typical of many in that we are not aware of what is going on in the larger society. For example, there has been a significant uproar in New York because of an incident in the Bronx. Noone in Dayton seems to be aware of it. We are living with a false sense of security. We need to break out of this false sense of security. Father Cy commented upon the difficulty of establishing a sense of community. Certain groups are so strong in their own sense of identity that they refuse to be integrated into the larger society. Prof. Kerns noted that he is not very sympathetic to the notion of multiculturalism. Arthur Slesinger wrote a book along this line, The Disestablishment of America. Steve Coleman noted that Americans feel out of control. For example, the tobacco lobby is so strong in this country that the ordinary person cannot significantly affect public policy on this issue. He also noted that Steve Forbes has so much money that he is now second in the race for the Republican nomination for president, even though he has no political experience. Eileen disagreed with Steve's analysis. People have to buy the candidate's philosophy.
The meeting adjourned at about 9:30 PM.