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Taking a Paige Out of Context

From the April 16, 2003 Dallas Morning News: Secretary of Education Rod Paige is in hot water over an inteview he gave to the Baptist Press. Is the turmoil justified?

7:00 AM, Apr 17, 2003 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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EDUCATION SECRETARY Rod Paige gave an interview to the Baptist Press early in the year. The publication, the news service of the Southern Baptist Convention, isn't widely read in the nation's capital. But the just-published story, featuring Paige's comments on Christian schools and Christian values, has drawn notice in Washington. And condemnation. Paige has clarified but declined to apologize for his remarks. And he has rejected demands that he resign. Did he cross a line, or not?

There has been some confusion over what exactly Paige, who is a Baptist, said to the Baptist Press. It quoted him as follows: "All things equal, I would prefer to have a child in a school that has a strong appreciation for the values of the Christian community, where a child is taught to have a strong faith." It would seem that Paige was discussing elementary and secondary education. And that is how his critics understand him.

But a transcript of the interview produced by the Education Department shows that Paige was asked a question about higher education. And Paige emphasized at a press conference that he had been asked about "my personal views" and thus had intended to convey merely that he would want to have a child in a college that emphasizes strong Christian values.

Todd Starnes of the Baptist Press agreed that the secretary was answering a question about higher education and said he should have made that clear in the story. Yet the issue here isn't whether Paige was addressing higher or lower education, but whether it is acceptable for an Education secretary to state a personal preference for nonpublic schooling.

That Paige stated a preference for Christian schools sharpens the question by introducing the vexed subject of church and state. In the interview, Paige said those schools have a "strong value system" that public schools may lack. At his press conference, he offered a clarification. "There are some great public schools [that] have strong value systems," he said. "There are some great private schools that have strong value systems, and the reverse is true. . . . I'd have to look at the specific school."

That hasn't mollified the secretary's critics, some of whom contend he really wants public school teachers to introduce Christianity to their classrooms in ways that cross constitutional lines. That claim is hard to accept. Nothing in Paige's tenure as Houston's school superintendent supports it. And earlier this year he issued his department's "guidance" on religion and public schools, a central point of which is that they may not endorse religion.

Yet Paige stands accused by Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, of having "denigrated" the many American families "whose faiths and educational choices" are different from his. He should recant or else resign, says Nadler. If that judgment is right, it is hard to see how Paige, or any Education secretary, ever could state a personal preference for a religious school. "Thou shalt not state such a preference," would seem to be the rule.

Is that a fair rule? Only if you think an Education secretary never is to offer in public a personal preference for an education in a religious context. But that takes a too narrow view of public service, and it suggests that we Americans are so dunderheaded we can't understand a personal view uttered by an officeholder for what it is.

Certainly it matters how an Education secretary--or anyone else in government--discusses matters related to faith. Yet Paige was more careful in the Baptist Press interview than the publication made him out to be in its story--indeed, conceding "factual and contextual errors," it now regrets "the misrepresentations."

Our Education secretary really isn't the threat his church-state critics think. Their response to his remarks is excessive, even hysterical in the case of Nadler, who has charged the secretary with "religious bigotry." Nadler is the one who needs to apologize.

Terry Eastland is publisher of The Weekly Standard.