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Blaine, Blaine, short-sighted briber from the state of Maine

State constitutional roadblocks to school choice grew out of anti-Catholic hostility and the myth of educational neutrality

An 1888 cartoon of Blaine depicting his attachment to special interests Getty Images

Blaine, Blaine, short-sighted briber from the state of Maine
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Whoever digs a pit will fall into it, and a stone will come back on him who starts it rolling.”

The current drive for school choice illustrates well the slapstick humor of Proverbs 26:27. The U.S. Supreme Court on June 28 agreed to hear a case challenging bans on the use of taxpayer funds to pay for, indirectly, tuition at evangelical and other religious schools. Ironically, the ancestors of many of today’s evangelicals erected those stop signs 105-145 years ago.

The bans are called Blaine Amendments: 37 of the 50 states have them. Delaware’s is typical: No state money “shall be appropriated to, or used by, or in aid of any sectarian, church, or denominational school.” Given the way government funds now often have anti-religious strings attached, we might see such prohibitions as helpful—but they came into existence in a different era for a very different reason.

Most WORLD features have what journalists call a “face,” a person who can add human interest to what otherwise might be a dry story. This story is unusual in that the “face” is a man who died in 1893, Maine Republican James G. Blaine, the son of a loosely Presbyterian father and a Catholic mother.

Evangelicals should not want government choosing which religious schools receive funding.

Blaine became speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1869. He lost that position when the 1874 elections produced a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives for the first time since the Civil War. One reason: Wartime tensions had diminished, while concern about GOP connections to big business scandals had increased.

Blaine wanted to run for president in 1876, but some Protestant voters were nervous about his semi-Catholic ancestry and the charges of corruption that dogged him. Blaine issued a statement emphasizing six generations of Protestant ancestors on his father’s side, and noting that he attended church regularly.

Blaine and other Republicans, such as Sen. John Sherman of Ohio, looked for ways to drive a wedge into the Democrats and excite Republicans. Then, as now, most parents were deeply concerned about the education of their children. Education in America had traditionally been in the hands of private, often church-led schools paid for by parents, with scholarships provided to needy students.

Since the 1840s, though, tax-supported government schools had spread throughout the Northern states. The intellectual leader of the movement was Horace Mann, a Unitarian. He had overcome opposition from Protestants by assuring them that the new, secularized public schools could still include daily reading from the King James Bible, along with generic moral instruction.

That would not have been enough to clinch Mann’s victory but for concern among many Protestants about the growing number of Catholic immigrants, largely from Ireland. Opposition to such immigration, and concern that children going to Catholic schools would grow up to oppose American liberty, led to riots in the 1840s and 1850s, including one in Philadelphia in 1844 that resulted in 13 deaths and the burning down of a Catholic church.

James G. Blaine in 1884

James G. Blaine in 1884 Library of Congress

Some writers wanted to stop all immigration, but others looked to public schools to save America. An article in The Massachusetts Teacher in 1851 stated that children of immigrants “must be taught as our own children are taught. … In many cases this can only be accomplished by coercion. … The children must be gathered up and forced into [public] school, and those who resist or impede this plan, whether parents or priests, must be held accountable and punished.”

The Civil War brought out in the North an emphasis on sacrificing individual rights to preserve the Union. That carried over into the educational debate. Andrew Coulson’s Market Education quotes a statement from California’s education superintendent that children should be taught to consider teachers as “superior to the parent in point of authority.”

Many teachers supported such thinking. The Wisconsin Teachers’ Association declared in 1865, “Children are the property of the state.” In 1866, the National Teachers’ Association (precursor to the National Education Association) published claims that “the duties which a citizen owes to the government are prior to any personal or individual claims.”

Some Biblical Protestants in the North still put theological duties first and emphasized parental responsibility for educating children, but they were outnumbered. Blaine represented well a generation that embraced a myth of educational neutrality, the idea that school subjects could be taught without any reference to God, as long as the students had a daily Bible reading.

Some theologians opposed that notion. R.L. Dabney, in an 1876 press debate with Virginia’s superintendent of schools, said, “If secular education is to be made consistently and honestly non-Christian, then all its more important branches must be omitted, or they must submit to a mutilation and falsification, far worse than absolute omission.” Leaving God out of teaching, he added, was like “the play of Hamlet, with the part of Hamlet omitted.”

Blaine and other Northern Republican leaders were not listening or did not care. They perceived an opportunity to batter both Catholics and Southern whites, two groups largely lost to the GOP anyway, and to win crucial support among Northern advocates of a bland Protestantism. He gained the support of President Ulysses S. Grant, who had only a superficial knowledge of Scripture but hated Catholicism, which Grant called a center of “superstition, ambition and ignorance.”

Grant in 1875 proposed a constitutional amendment that would require states to establish government-funded schools, forbid those schools to teach any religious tenets, and prohibit any government funds from going to religious schools. Blaine introduced such an amendment the following week. Congressional debate was full of anti-Catholic sentiment. Vermont Sen. Justin Morrill sneered, “The Catholics will rave.” Ohio Sen. Sherman said “Priests from the Pope” were fools.

What became known as the Blaine Amendment easily passed the House of Representatives in 1876, but many senators thought the amendment gave the federal government too much power over the states. The Nation, then a new political magazine, favored Blaine’s measure but said it would fail and Blaine did not care: His goal “is not to pass it but to use it in the campaign to catch anti-Catholic votes.”

That prediction was correct: Senators such as William Wallace Eaton of Connecticut showed little desire to further an “election dodge. … This whole business originated with the Hon. James G. Blaine. … It was one of his dodges to get a nomination.” Predictions that Blaine would be nominated despite bribery accusations, though, were wrong. “Blaine, Blaine, continental liar from the state of Maine” has gone down in political history as one of the most effective negative campaign chants ever.

The GOP convention made “clean” Rutherford Hayes its presidential nominee by a slight majority. The Senate then turned down the Blaine Amendment by four votes. That did not end the matter, though. Blaine remained a prominent GOP leader for the next 16 years and served twice as secretary of state. He became his party’s presidential nominee in 1884.

Blaine failed nationally. His involvement in bribery cases sickened many Republicans: They refused to support him and became known as Mugwumps, stuck on the political fence with their “mugs” on one side and their rumps on the other, as the joke went. Blaine lost narrowly to Democrat Grover Cleveland and what Republicans called the party of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.”

Blaine supporters kept alive his bigotry and political strategy by placing “Blaine Amendments” in state constitutions. For example, Missouri’s says no state government body can “pay from any public fund whatever, anything [that would] sustain any private or public school, academy, seminary, college, university, or other institution of learning controlled by any religious creed, church or sectarian denomination whatever.”

Three dozen other states passed similar decrees. They clearly forbid direct appropriations from state government to religious schools. But what about tax credits that put decision-making in the hands of parents rather than government officials? What about tax credits for scholarships that can be used at either secular or religious schools?

Also, does legislative intent make a difference? Blaine Amendments passed not because legislators were against religious teaching but because many incorrectly assumed the public schools would emphasize Protestant teaching. Many displayed a clear anti-Catholicism and hoped Catholic schools would fail for financial reasons.

An 1872 cartoon shows Blaine kneeling as he confesses to a long list of scandals.

An 1872 cartoon shows Blaine kneeling as he confesses to a long list of scandals. Joseph Keppler/Library of Congress

THE BECKET FUND FOR RELIGIOUS LIBERTY has detailed the history of many Blaine Amendments and recent judicial interpretations of them. For example, Arizona’s Supreme Court in 1999 examined that state’s educational tax-credit law in light of Article II, Section 12 of the Arizona Constitution: “No public money or property shall be appropriated for or applied to any religious worship, exercise, or instruction, or to the support of any religious establishment.”

The court in Kotterman v. Killian upheld the tax credit, noting that no money “ever enters the state’s control as a result of this tax credit. … Thus, under any common understanding of the words, we are not here dealing with ‘public money.’” The Arizona court also noted that Blaine Amendments were a “clear manifestation of religious bigotry … we would be hard pressed to divorce the amendment’s language from the insidious discriminatory intent that prompted it.”

Similarly, the Ohio Constitution now states that “no religious or other sect, or sects, shall ever have any exclusive right to, or control of, any part of the school funds of this state.” But the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that a Cleveland voucher plan was legitimate because school funds would reach “sects” only through the “independent decisions of parents and students.” That’s crucial: Evangelicals should not want government choosing which religious schools receive funding, but empowering parents aids the Biblical injunction to teach children as “you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”

The specific funding mechanism is important. Christian schools that directly receive government grants might be forced to choose between forsaking funds or forsaking Christian worldview teaching. Danger resides in any plan using taxpayer funds, because politicians or bureaucrats can exclude Christian schools. Still, the danger is much less in a tax credit plan, because government never gets its hands on the money. Private scholarship plans supplemented by taxpayer funds are also much safer than direct grants.

The U.S. Supreme Court has hinted that it may bury Blaine. In Trinity Lutheran v. Comer (2017), the Supremes allowed government funds to go to a Lutheran school—but the 7-2 decision was on narrow grounds. The vehicle for pounding a stake through the heart of the Blaine Amendments may be Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue.

Here are the facts: Kendra Espinoza and two other Montana moms transferred their kids to a nondenominational Christian private school. They hoped to receive Big Sky Scholarships funded by private donors who would receive a modest state tax credit. But the Montana Department of Revenue, citing a Blaine Amendment, created an administrative rule barring scholarship recipients from using their grants at religious schools.

Espinoza’s legal team claims that regulation runs counter to the Montana Legislature’s desire to make scholarship funds usable at all private schools in the state. They say Montana’s Blaine clause should apply “only to public funds, and not private donations incentivized by tax credits.” They argue that laws requiring religious schools to be excluded from the scholarship program violate the religion and equal protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution.

An 1875 cartoon shows crocodiles with Catholic symbolism advancing on school children.

An 1875 cartoon shows crocodiles with Catholic symbolism advancing on school children. Thomas Nast/Library of Congress

WHEN BLAINE DIED in 1893, The Washington Evening News stated, “He has carved his name on the rock of enduring fame, where it will remain when the waves of countless years have rolled against it and receded from it.” But 40 years later Blaine biographer Charles Russell gave an accurate summation: “No man in our annals has filled so large a space and left it so empty.”

And yet, as long as Blaine Amendments remain, their originator is only mostly dead. We’ll know Blaine’s space is empty if Justice Clarence Thomas writes the majority decision in Espinoza, for he has forcefully noted that “nothing in the Establishment Clause requires the exclusion of pervasively sectarian schools from otherwise permissible aid programs.” In Mitchell v. Helms (2000), Thomas referred to the Blaine Amendments by noting, “Hostility to aid to pervasively sectarian schools has a shameful pedigree that we do not hesitate to disavow.” He emphasized that “this doctrine, born of bigotry, should be buried now.” If Blaine is buried, states now have the opportunity to fund approaches that favor neither any particular religion nor atheism. They can return authority to parents and give all the opportunity to skip poisoned apples and the poisoning of minds.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.



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Janet B

Great article. It is always good to review the history of things so that the reasons, good or bad, for laws are remembered.  And Christians today, who are feeling a full anti-Christian bias in regard to education should remember: There is nothing new under the sun.  Or is it: What goes around, comes around?