Education, Religion, and Prayer

Reverend Eugene Rivers and writer Wendy Kaminer cross swords over the separation of church and state, the plight of public schools, and the power of prayer

There are many quiet, noncontroversial, apolitical members of the clergy in Massachusetts–but the Rev. Eugene Rivers is not one of them. As one of the founders of Boston’s Ten Point Coalition, Rivers has been on the forefront of the battle to stop gang violence and delinquency in the city, a cause that has won him national acclaim. On the local scene, Rivers seems to have almost as many detractors as admirers, due in part to his swashbuckling rhetorical style. He is brash and opinionated and can be equally dismissive of liberals and conservatives. Though he raised eyebrows two years ago by meeting with Ralph Reed, who was then at the helm of the Christian Coalition, to discuss possible contributions from conservative fundamentalists to inner-city black churches (the money didn’t come through), Rivers now says “the Religious Right has no interest in the poor.” Likewise, he told New Yorker writer Joe Klein, “Liberalism has had a devastating impact on the moral and spiritual life of black people.” After writing about Rivers and the role of churches in working with the poor, Klein predicted that church-state cooperation–and the conflicts it raises–would emerge as a major issue in American politics over the coming years.

Author Wendy Kaminer may have had a similar hunch. Late last year she finished a book about what she calls “the rise of irrationalism and the perils of piety” (to be published in September as Sleeping with Extraterrestrials). Kaminer, like Rivers, is known for her outspoken style–and her willingness to offend left and right. In fact, after she wrote I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional, a critique of the self-help and self-esteem movements, an editor from the National Review asked her to write for the eminent conservative magazine. She rejected the offer, insisting she was a card-carrying ACLU liberal.

So who better to offer contrasting perspectives on the sticky issues of religion and politics than the Rev. Eugene Rivers and Wendy Kaminer? “Sure, I know Wendy,” said Rev. Rivers when I asked him about Kaminer. “Smart woman. Bright woman. Wrong about everything.”

“I can handle Gene,” Kaminer said when I asked her about Rivers. She asserted that there is a certain bluster to his style, but said that she would be happy to join us for a discussion.

We met at the Radcliffe Public Policy Institute, where Kaminer holds a fellowship. The conversation lasted more than an hour and a half–we present only a selected portion of it here. As it turned out, Kaminer could not have been “wrong about everything,” for there were some issues on which she was in agreement with Rivers. They both agreed that some forms of church-state cooperation are acceptable–such as when government money is used to fund church-run social services that are open to all and free of proselytizing. They agreed that religion has different effects on different people–sometimes leading to charity, sometimes to intolerance. But when the discussion turned to taxpayer support for private and religious schooling and, later, to prayer in the schools, there was anything but a meeting of the minds. This is an edited transcript of their discussion of schooling and religion.

CommonWealth: I wanted to ask you straight out whether you think a voucher program in which public moneys are allowed to go to religious schools, parochial schools, private schools [is a good idea] . . . . Some people put that forward as a solution to our public education problem.

Rivers: There are two things on the voucher issue if we’re going to have a candid conversation. There is for some the constitutional issue. All right. At the end of the day, most of the people who live on the planet Earth want the best possible context which produces the quality education for their kid. Whether or not you take a moment of silence, say grace before your food, if it’s compulsory–if you look at any polling data on the population served–those are irrelevant issues. So, would I support vouchers? In cases where one could document evidence of the production of a higher quality of education for the child, so that we’re producing children that are literate? Yes. Now, the deeper issue, if this is to be a real conversation, revolves around the teachers’ unions. What this comes down to, at the substantive level, is a political question regarding teachers’ unions and the threat that they perceive with the vouchers. The rational voucher proposals say, “Give the money to the parents.” Don’t give it to the religious institutions. Give it to the parents so they can make their own judgment call. Now if they choose to send their kid, as is the case frequently in the inner cities, to the local Catholic school where they can get a better education than they can in the public school–and there’s no dispute about that in terms of the data on it–then fine.

CommonWealth: No constitutional problem with that at all?

Rivers: To give a parent the right to make sure their kid gets educated? I mean there might be a constitutional question at Harvard Square. You know, for a hard liberal, hard secular liberals. But there are only about 12 of those. So, I mean, outside of that, not a big issue.

CommonWealth: The immediate constitutional problem in Massachusetts is it’s specifically written into the state Constitution–that public money is not to go for parochial schools or religious purposes. But let’s not try to solve that today.

Kaminer: That’s a particular state constitutional issue and I think we’re talking here about the First Amendment questions and whether this represents a prohibited mingling of church and state as sponsorship of sectarian activity by the state. I think that it does, but I have to tell you that my primary objection to vouchers is not constitutional. It’s an educational policy argument. I think that in the long run this is not the way to help the majority of poor children who are not being well served by the educational system. We’re talking about relatively small amounts of money that for a really poor family is not necessarily going to enable them to send their child to the school they want to send the child to. We’re talking about a private school system that has the right to reject any troubled kid. Any kid that it wants to reject. We’re talking about selective schools. We’re talking about taking public money and diverting it to schools that are allowed to be quite selective. And we’re talking about, when we do this, about taking money away from the public schools. People say that this is going to improve the public schools because they’ll have much more incentive to compete. And that overlooks the fact that every time a student leaves the public school, the school loses money.

Rivers: But money’s not the issue, as we know from comparative data. The issue is not money. In fact, that’s the big ruse of the teachers’ union. All the comparative data that has been done on academic and educational performance, all the international studies . . . Americans spend more money. They produce an inferior product.

Kaminer: But when you’re talking about in a lot of places crumbling school buildings, when you go to New York and you see kids in the public schools who have chairs crowded into an old bathroom because there’s no classroom space for them, and you talk about utterly inadequate facilities, you are talking about some financial issues.

Rivers: Yes.

Kaminer: Taking money away from the public school system is hardly going to help enable the public school system to compete with private schools. I think that’s just a really stupid argument that diverting funds from public schools is going to make them more competitive. That’s a stupid argument. So my primary objection to vouchers is that I think that it’s going to help degrade the public school system because it is going to take money away from them. It’s going to leave the public schools to deal with the most troubled kids who the private schools don’t want to have to deal with, and at the end of the day the only way that we are going to give a decent education to the great majority of children is through a decent public school system.

Rivers: Wendy, make a logical argument for me. Wendy, help me.

Kaminer: So my primary objection to this is educational policy. But can I just make one more quick point?

Rivers: All right.

Kaminer: The other problem I see down the road, the religious problem I see down the road, is that I see the use of vouchers for religious schools arousing some really ugly sectarian rivalries. I think that a lot of–

Rivers: For example?

Kaminer: Right-wing Christians who support vouchers are not going to be so happy if they see voucher money going to support Moslem schools. And that’s a growing percentage of the religious population. I think they’re not going to like that, and one of the reasons that we try to keep church and state separate is that when you mingle them you awaken a lot of really ugly sectarian rivalries and a lot of religious bigotry, and I see that coming down the road too.

Rivers: Help me by making a more logical argument than the assertions you’ve made about what would fix the public schools. You haven’t done that.

Kaminer: I wasn’t purporting to explain what would fix the public schools. I was simply refuting the argument that taking money away from the public schools would somehow make them more competitive.

Rivers: Wendy, help me. I just wanted to make sure I understand this. You say, “I’m raising an educational policy issue with regard to vouchers. We shouldn’t take money away from public schools.” Now, why should we not take money from institutions that failed to educate? Help me understand that. You failed to produce an adequate product. Close your eyes, pick your major city: failing. We have evidence that indicates international comparative data, as well as national data, that the dollar amount is not the issue, because we have schools where they spend less money and produce a superior product and we have schools where they spend more money and produce an inferior product. Now Wendy, just ’cause I’m slow, please help me understand what your affirmative proposal is, since you bracketed your comments by talking about educational policy.

Kaminer: I think what I’m hearing you say is that we’re justified in abandoning the public schools because we don’t like the way they’ve been working.

Rivers: Oh no, no, no, no.

Kaminer: I think that’s what’s underlying your point.

Rivers: If my non-negotiable bottom line is we must produce a literate labor force–in this case, for the inner-city black community, because they’re not going to make it if they’re not literate–if in fact when I look at, as I have, the data on school performance, city by city, and the public schools are spending whatever the figure is and by the superintendent of schools’ own admission, we are failing to improve on our product, now, I can do one of two things. I can say, as a parent might, “Maybe it’s time to look at an alternative.” Not trash the public school system. But I’d like my kid to go to college. I’d like my child to have a future. Given the current context academically, it’s not working.

CommonWealth: But I can tell you one thing the public school system has done exceptionally well, and it’s an undercurrent here: It’s provided secular education. There are some who would argue that very secular-ness, because the schools aren’t generally riven with religious in-fighting and tensions, is valuable. A lot of people who want the voucher movement want to bring God into the training of youth.

Rivers: Let’s talk about that. Let me tell you, there’s one group of people who are nativistic, backwater, redneck-cracker religious nuts–a growing number.

Kaminer: With considerable political power.

Rivers: With considerable political power. They are Protestant. In fact, they’re some of the nuts that are trying to cannibalize the President in the name of Jesus, with this white warrior God they have. There are two things that are interesting about those folks. They produce an inferior product. Most of those kids who get that flat-Earth fundamentalist religion do not become more literate or better educated. And in fact that’s not what actually drives their motivation.

Kaminer: And vouchers are going to pay for their schools, too.

Rivers: Okay, well, that’s one of the downsides–that’s like democracy. One of the downsides of democracy is that ignorant people have a voice, right?

Kaminer: That’s a serious point though, because you talk about the failures of the public schools. There’s no reason to believe that you’re not going to see as many failures in private religious schools.

Rivers: Oh, I agree. The argument against parochial school education would be the sectarian, Protestant nuts who spin off these fringe . . . . I mean they’re anti-Jew, anti-black. Understood. But see, I would argue they’re a fringe element. With that said, if we look at polling data–I mean, Joe Sixpack who believes in God is not a big fan of the born-agains if you look at the polling data. One person put it well: The electorate are tolerant traditionalists. They are not avid, enthusiastic born-again types.

Kaminer: And how strong or how weak they are is not really the point. You may have your own political reasons for having some doubts about how vouchers are going to work out in the end if a lot of money starts going to these white Protestant schools that you don’t like. But that’s a very different argument than saying that there is something fundamentally wrong with having government money go to parochial schools. No, it’s important to say that for a long time we have given government scholarships to college students who are able to take the money and go where they want. And so, conceptually, it gets a little hard to distinguish between giving a government scholarship to an 18-year-old and saying, “You can take this to Notre Dame . . . ” And then saying but you can’t give a government scholarship to a 13-year-old and say, “Here, you can take this to the Catholic middle school down the street from you.” And that’s why I would say we have sort of gone down this road already. So it’s hard to make the constitutional argument. It becomes an argument of degree. I think the degree is important. I really do believe that the effect of vouchers is going to be to further cripple the public schools, in a way that’s going to be very bad for children in this country. I don’t believe that giving scholarships has that same effect at all. I think that part of the motivation of some people who are driving for vouchers is not really to improve education for poor children but I think it is an attack on the public schools. It is an attempt to divert government money to religious institutions.

Rivers: Wendy, let me ask a question. Two things: Number one, I am entirely sympathetic to the concern you express. I think it is a valid concern. My question would be, what would be the evidence of the damage done? And secondly, for me, the bottom line should be and the bottom line is, literacy. If the public schools do a better job, they should be supported. If they don’t do as good a job, then we should re-direct support. At the end of the day the bottom line will be and should be for all parties concerned: Do we produce a literate population of young people? If I can get scholarship money to go to Brandeis or Notre Dame, I should be able to get a scholarship to go to St. Bonaventure’s or Yeshiva Academy. I applaud Wendy for this. She says, “Look, we’ve already begun the slippery slope, with the universities.” Now, in the inner cities, which is a different planet, the modest preoccupation of any parent concerned about his or her child is literacy. So, the constitutional question should be engaged and studied by those who have the leisure and opportunity to engage in that. For those who are not as fortunate, who have to make ends meet, the bottom line will be literacy. If public schools produce a superior product and more money will assist in producing an even better product, they should be supported. If, however, they fail, as they have in too many cases for the poor, the poor should and must do what they will.

Kaminer: One of the arguments for vouchers is that this is going to enable poor people to get better educations for their children. That’s not true. Because we’re talking about small amounts of money. We’re talking about maybe $2,000 a year. If you’re a poor family, $2,000 a year may well not be enough for you to take your kid out of the public school and send him to the Catholic school around the corner. The Catholic schools and all the other parochial schools also don’t have enough room for all of these students.

Rivers: Which is a good argument for why they feel they need more federal dollars, so they could serve more kids.

Kaminer: But then what you’re going to get into is the federal government really sponsoring the building of sectarian institutions, which we don’t have when we give scholarships to university students. You know, we don’t have these students fleeing or wanting to flee public school systems. We don’t have a wholesale injection of government funds into higher education so that we can build new schools for Notre Dame or build new schools for Brandeis. Most of those schools, most of those religious colleges and universities, have their own endowment; they’re raising private money. They’re not building their libraries with government funds. What you’re suggesting or implying is, let’s put all this money into the Roman Catholic schools and Moslem schools and the yeshivas so that they can expand and make room for all these [students]. Even if we gave more than $2,000, even if we gave full tuition to the parents of these children, which we’re not going to do, there’s no way that the parochial schools in their neighborhood are going to absorb all these kids. If one of the reasons why parents want to get their kids out of the public schools and into private schools is because there are smaller classes, there’s more order, there’s more discipline in the private school, those smaller classes, that order, that discipline is going to disintegrate as soon as all the kids empty themselves out of the public schools and come into these parochial schools. So it’s a false promise.

Rivers: But see, your assertion of a false promise is based on a false premise. First of all, it’s a false premise to believe there’s going to be en masse migration from one educational context to another.

Kaminer: There’s not going to be.

Rivers: There’s not going to be.

Kaminer: There can’t be. And that’s also part of the lie of the voucher advocates.

Rivers: Wait a minute. Look. There’s a modest claim being made on the part of parents. I’m not making grand claims. The parent says, the $2,000, the $1,500, the $1,000–it’s being wasted. Grant me the freedom to make the choice with the resource. Now, will that answer all of the macro-structural questions? Of course not. But then again, that’s not my priority. I’m concerned about Junior and Peaches, and all I want to do is increase the likelihood that they’ll get a better education than they are currently getting in the current circumstances. A modest claim.

CommonWealth: A question of educational philosophy: Does religion help in that? Does religion help in educating the young? Can it be left out?

Rivers: I’ll tell you what’s interesting. There’s some new data. Excellent question. The National Bureau of Economic Research, here at Harvard under Martin Feldstein, authored a major study in 1984, ’85 on the role of religion in black male labor force participation. The findings indicate that you get a higher level of labor force participation where there are higher levels of religious participation–for a variety of reasons which are not necessarily religious. There has just been a reevaluation of the data and a review of all of the empirical literature on the question [by the Manhattan Institute in New York], and the finding has been that religion is the single most important independent variable in forming, either at the causal or correlation level, black male labor force participation. There are a series of econometric journals that will be publishing versions of this data which has just been reanalyzed. So for black males there is a fairly large body of empirical research which is conveniently ignored by most folk who’ve got a bias against religion.

Kaminer: I think it’s very, very difficult to generalize about the effect of religion on education. What are we talking about when we talk about religion? Which religion are we talking about? You know, religion is not exactly a monolithic phenomena. You’ll find great difference in quality in any number of parochial schools. You’ll find some parochial schools that are better than some public schools and some public schools that may be better than some parochial schools. You’ll find different things being taught. I think for a great many Americans their own notions of virtue and morality are very deeply tied up with their religious ideals. That doesn’t mean that religious schools do a better job of teaching people how to read and write, how to do mathematics. It doesn’t mean they do a better job of teaching them science. I mean, if we think about the way science would be taught, for example, in fundamentalist Christian schools, they wouldn’t be taught about evolution. They’d be taught something called “creation science.” There is a bias in this country that equates religion with virtue and that tends to think of religion as an unmitigated good. I think it’s impossible to quantify the effect of religion on human welfare, either today or historically. Let’s just take the obvious examples. If you look at the crusades. If you look at the Inquisitions. If you look at the Salem witch trials.

Rivers: Oh, now the clichés. Come on, Wendy. You can do better than that. Come on.

Kaminer: If you look at the bombing of Iraq that’s going on today. If you look at the impeachment trial that’s going on today. If you look at the bombing of the World Trade Center. If you look at the threats of terrorism that we face in the world today that come out of religious fundamentalism. If you look at all of these things, you would be hard pressed to say that religion is an unmitigated good.

Rivers: No one’s saying that.

Kaminer: I can come up with just as many examples about religious heroism and religious courage and about all the compassion and all the virtues that people do derive from religion and they would be just as true. And don’t say that no one’s saying that, because that’s what the predominant bias is. The predominant bias is that, as a headline in The Atlantic Monthly once said, “We can’t be good without God.”

Rivers: There are secular social scientists–because religion is now a growth industry–who are doing econometric models to evaluate what the causal and correlative factors are. And so you don’t have to listen to the anti-religion Kaminer or the pro-religion Rivers. Because they’re predictable. There’s a fairly impartial body of research now–the Feldstein studies and the reevaluations of it, which I commend to both of you to look at. . . .

Kaminer: When Gene was saying before that literacy is his bottom line in the public schools–I don’t exactly disagree with that. I want a lot more than literacy or numeracy from a public school education. You know, I do want some tolerance. I do want some non-sectarianism. I do want some openness to other people and other ways of doing things. Maybe I’m a sentimentalist. But I think that’s one thing you can get from public schools. And when I look back, at the history of social service work in this country, let’s say, the settlement houses were not affiliated with church organizations. A lot of the people who went into settlement work may have been motivated by their religious upbringing or their religious beliefs to work with immigrant populations, to try to work with poor people and make their lives better. But it was not, for the most part, an organized sectarian movement. So you can’t look at the history of this country and say that we need to have religious institutions actively and formally involved in education or in social services because that’s the way we’ve always done it and that’s the way it’s always worked. In fact, that’s not the way we’ve always done it and that’s not the way it’s always worked.

Rivers: I agree with your point. I don’t think it’s sentimental. In addition to literacy and numeracy, I’d like folk to be open, more tolerant, [etc.]. My argument [is that] in low-income urban neighborhoods, when children are more literate and numerate, they’re less violent, they’re more open, they’re less anti-social, they’re less intimidating. So, for me, the correlation between religion, literacy, and numeracy is extremely high, and indisputable. It’s like the joke, the social scientist says, “If you’re driving through inner-city North Philadelphia and your car breaks down, what would you prefer: to be in front of Jesse’s Peephole Bar, or a Mt. Zion Beulah-Baptist Church on a Friday night when there’s a bunch of folk in there? Now most folk who have any sense at all, that’s a no-brainer. Because nine times out of 10, the individuals who are the most stable, and the data on this is clear, the folk that are the most stable – highest levels of voter participation and civic activity – are your church-based folk in inner cities. That’s just indisputable. It’s a fairly modest point. See, religion as we both agree, affects people differently. I mean, it produces bigotry, hatred, holy wars, pogroms–a whole range of things. For different individuals in different historical contexts, it produces a different set of social phenomena.

CommonWealth: Well, I’ve heard you agree on that. It’s a solid point. Just as there is good piano music and bad piano music, there is good religious practice, fair and admirable religious practice, and lousy religious practice.

Kaminer: Mary McCarthy said that religion is good for good people. I always thought that summed it up perfectly. But can I say something? You like to put down any concern about church-state issues or constitutionalism as intellectual elitism.

Rivers: Not true. Au contraire. No, no. Not intellectual elitism.

Kaminer: No, Gene. Come on. You do that all the time. You like to make your little jokes about Harvard Square, and the intellectual elites, or the New York Review of Books . . .

Rivers: No, I say it’s irrelevant. See, elitism can be a positive thing. I say it’s worse than that. It’s irrelevant.

Kaminer: I don’t think it is irrelevant. I grew up in what I would call modest middle-class circumstances.

Rivers: Where?

Kaminer: On Long Island. Right outside of Queens. East Queens, people call it sometimes.

Rivers: Okay.

Kaminer: Elmont, Long Island. Home of the Belmont race track.

Rivers: Praise God.

Kaminer: Praise whomever.

Rivers: Praise God.

Kaminer: I lived in a very well-ordered, safe, modest little neighborhood with ticky-tacky houses. So, I’m not saying for a moment that I was ever deprived of anything that really mattered. My father worked 50 weeks a year, six days a week. I didn’t grow up wealthy.

Rivers: Good solid stock.

Kaminer: That’s right. And I was required to say a prayer every morning in my public school along with the Pledge of Allegiance. And it was the most non-sectarian prayer you can imagine. I can still remember it, because I had to say it.

Rivers: Let’s hear it.

Kaminer: “Almighty God we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee and beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our country. Amen.”

Rivers: Amen!

CommonWealth: Is that bad?

Rivers: Good prayer. Great prayer!

Kaminer: I know you’re going to scoff at me, but from the time I was six years old and I had to say this prayer I was so alienated by it. It may sound like a non-sectarian prayer now. But when I was a child, I didn’t think it was a non-sectarian prayer. I thought it was a Christian prayer. Because the prayers that people said in temple always mentioned Israel and they said something in Hebrew and they were very different kinds of prayers. And I didn’t know too much about the world. I knew there were Christians and Jews and that was about the extent of it. I didn’t even know that Catholics and Protestants got into fights with each other. I thought they were just all united in their hatred of the Jews. I’m 49 years old. This was not that long after the Holocaust and there was a lot of consciousness in Jewish communities; you know, we’re talking about within 10 years of the end of the war. There was a lot of consciousness in Jewish communities about anti-Semitism. It was shortly after the McCarthy years and the Rosenberg trials, and so I grew up with a strong awareness about anti-Semitism, even though I was living in a Jewish/Italian neighborhood in a town on Long Island. I’m not going to say I felt oppressed by this prayer. That would be a gross exaggeration. But I felt quite alienated by it.

Rivers: You know what? You’re a stronger individual as a result of it.

Kaminer: Actually, I’m a less religious individual because of it.

Rivers: But you’re a stronger individual.

Kaminer: I’m not saying I was weakened or traumatized by it or anything like that. I was given a very clear message that I believe to this day, which is that I’m a member of a small minority in this country, and I’m not entirely welcome. Now you can say that I was wrong to get that message when I was eight years old. But I’m just telling you what it felt like as a child to say this. Because I would also open all my school books and there would be little stories about families [in which] everybody went to church on Sunday. And I remember looking at this and thinking, why is everybody going to church on Sunday? And it made me feel sort of unwelcome in a way. Not that I ever felt actually threatened. Not that I ever suffered any actual discrimination. But there was always this sense. There was just this sense that being Jewish meant that you weren’t exactly welcome, that you had to be careful. That was just a part of your life–that you should always keep your passport and your jewelry close to each other and know where they were.

Rivers: Where were you going to go?

Kaminer: It was just a sense that the world was not necessarily a safe place if you were Jewish. And it may sound silly, but having to say that prayer helped breed that sense in me, which is a very big part of me. You can say it made me stronger, but I would say . . .

Rivers: You don’t think it did?

Kaminer: I would say it made me more weary and that it made me feel alienated from my own country in a way that I shouldn’t have had to have felt. And the fact that I had to say it right before or right after I said the Pledge of Allegiance also said something to me. I can remember very clearly when that prayer was invalidated. It was the New York State school prayer that was involved in the case that the Supreme Court heard. I remember feeling so liberated by not having to stand up and recite that stupid prayer every morning, because I also really hated compulsory recitation. That never made me feel particularly free, being forced to recite something.

Rivers: Anything?

Kaminer: Anything.

Rivers: Oh, so this ain’t got to do with prayer! Please. I was with you up until then. You done nullified your support!

Kaminer: Without exaggerating the effect of it, I just don’t want you to trivialize the effect of that on children.

Rivers: I’m not. But see, we live in a multi-variate world. For 90 percent of what you said, I said, “Okay, well, all right. I mean, I’m black. . . America . . . alienation . . . ”

Kaminer: It’s a part of life. That’s right.

Rivers: I mean, on the oppression barometer, in terms of levels of alienation–

Kaminer: Gene, this is not a competition.

Rivers: No, I understand that. I understand that. But all I’m saying is, this is a rational response to what you’ve just asserted regarding how alienated you felt as a result–

Kaminer: Remember, I was careful not to say oppressed.

Rivers: That’s true. Okay. See, for me, you know, a little alienation in life–well, life happens. That’s my view. I want to be a complete realist about this. If you felt wary about the country, this country, that’s a good thing. That’s a good thing. Frankly, as a Jew, in the United States, it is very good that you felt wary, because if you did not you would have gone to sleep. Big mistake in this country. So, if the prayer did nothing else but heighten your alienation and your vigilance against what you felt was intrusive and imposing, that’s a great thing. Because I operate from the premise that adversity in the hands of people with creativity and imagination is a good thing.

Kaminer: Well, Gene, if you’re suggesting that injecting religion into the schools is injecting a form of adversity into the schools maybe we can agree.

Rivers: You know what? At a deep level, I believe that. Yes. Absolutely.

Kaminer: But I don’t think that’s what most people mean when they talk about injecting more religion into the schools.

Rivers: And that’s okay. I relate to the story. I mean, the alienation that you felt. The wariness. Your disconnectedness to the country. That’s a good thing–at a deeper level–thinking about the American experience. It gave you a critical vantage point which has informed, at least from my encounters with you, your life in ways that made you a stronger, more perceptive, discerning individual.

CommonWealth: I would suggest that, as far as what that did to you, to go through that prayer, I would suggest it led you to the point you are now, where you are probably stricter about separating religion from politics than the average American, which isn’t a bad thing.

Kaminer: Not religion from politics. Religion from political institutions.

CommonWealth: Church from state, let’s say. And yet, you also know how America is politically–you know how that’s often seen by the majority. Mary Ann Glendon expressed it recently in a New York Times piece in which she sees that particular point of view as something that is tied up with American liberalism, and [she] tossed off the phrase that American liberals, in her view, have an “ill-disguised hostility to religion.”

Rivers: Oh, absolutely.

Kaminer: Did she name any liberals when she said that?

CommonWealth: Do you think that there’s an ill-disguised hostility to religion among liberals and progressives?

Rivers: Oh, come on. Of course there is, Wendy. It’s part of the electoral paralysis of liberalism and progressives–that for a complicated set of reasons, they are tone deaf on the religion question. And if we are going to be candid and honest across the board, if there are biases in the American hinterland against secularity, enlightened thought, progressivism, let’s be equally real. You, know, I went to Harvard . . . . There is an ideological bias.

Kaminer: I don’t think there is any more.

Rivers: It may be changing. But there had been traditionally. I understand the bias. But it’s a bias. It’s a presence.

CommonWealth: Why do you maintain it’s going away?

Kaminer: I think you’d have to go back to the 1920s to find a time when it was really fashionable for intellectuals to make fun of religion. You can read it in H.L. Mencken. You can read it in Mark Twain, if you want to go back a lot earlier. You can read Bertrand Russell–I mean, he’s not really making fun of it. But he certainly is–

Rivers: Disparaging.

Kaminer:–very forthright about his own atheism. You can read John Dewey, who writes as if religion was an anachronism. He writes so naively, as if people could just jettison their religious beliefs. I’m simply saying that I think that when people refer to this liberal, secular bias, I think it’s something of an exaggeration. And it’s always interesting to me, that when people make these charges, the liberals are usually unnamed.

Rivers: I’ll name them. Let’s talk about Radcliffe Institute for Public Policy. Have they published anything, any sustained study, given the growth in the religious phenomena, [on religion] as a public policy question?

Kaminer: I don’t know, but if they haven’t, I don’t know what that proves.

Rivers: I’ll tell you what it proves. That proves the point that in the public policy arena, it is only very recently that people are entertaining the possibility of the relevance of faith, because traditionally, in your social science journals–American Sociological Review, American Journal of Sociology, we can go through all the social science journals–there has been a bias. Christopher Winship, now the new chair of the Sociology Department at Harvard, says we are now turning a corner because, in the departments, at the Kennedy School, there had been this liberal methodological and ideological bias, which is indisputable.

Kaminer: Almost everyone I know believes in God, and that includes liberals and conservatives. I sense myself, in my own world of the liberal intelligentsia, to be in a pretty small minority with my own irreligiosity. And I don’t consider myself hostile to religion for a minute. I consider myself very respectful of other people’s religious belief. I don’t happen to have any myself.

Rivers: Yes, you do.

Kaminer: But that doesn’t make me anti-religious.

Rivers: You’re very religious.

Kaminer: I think that it is incredibly important that people have a right to practice whatever religion they want to practice, and I would fight very hard to defend that right. That’s one reason I’m so opposed to anything that looks like government establishment of religion, because I think it always infringes on individual rights, especially the rights of religious minorities. It probably is because I grew up in a religious minority that I’m particularly sensitive to that. But, I don’t think that it’s a bad thing.

Rivers: You’re my favorite official atheist.

Meet the Author

Dave Denison

Founding Editor, CommonWealth magazine
Kaminer: I don’t even consider myself an atheist. I just consider myself an agnostic.

Rivers: You’re my favorite agnostic.