Religious Lessons: Catholic Sisters and the Captured Schools Crisis in New Mexico

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9780199781737: Religious Lessons: Catholic Sisters and the Captured Schools Crisis in New Mexico

Religious Lessons tells the story of Zellers v. Huff, a court case that challenged the employment of nearly 150 Catholic sisters in public schools across New Mexico in 1948. Known nationally as the "Dixon case," after one of the towns involved, it was the most famous in a series of midcentury lawsuits, all targeting what opponents provocatively dubbed "captive schools." Spearheaded by Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the publicity campaign built around Zellers drew on centuries-old rhetoric of Catholic captivity to remind Americans about the threat of Catholic power in the post-War era, and the danger Catholic sisters dressed in full habits posed to American education.

Americans at midcentury were reckoning with the U.S. Supreme Court's new mandate for a "wall of separation" between church and state. At no time since the nation's founding was the Establishment Clause studied so carefully by the nation's judiciary and its people. While Zellers never reached the Supreme Court, its details were familiar to hundreds of thousands of citizens who read about them in magazines and heard them discussed in church on Sunday mornings. For many Americans, Catholic and not, the scenario of sisters in veils teaching children embodied the high stakes of the era's church-state conflicts, and became an occasion to assess the implications of separation in their lives.

Through close study of the Dixon case, Kathleen Holscher brings together the perspectives of legal advocacy groups, Catholic sisters, and citizens who cared about their schools. She argues that the captive school crusade was a transitional episode in the Protestant-Catholic conflicts that dominate American church-state history. Religious Lessons also goes beyond legal discourse to consider the interests of Americans--women religious included--who did not formally articulate convictions about the separation principle. The book emphasizes the everyday experiences, inside and outside classrooms, that defined the church-state relationship for these people, and that made these constitutional questions relevant to them.

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About the Author:


Kathleen Holscher is assistant professor of religious studies and American studies, and holds the endowed chair in Catholic studies, at the University of New Mexico. She completed her graduate work at Princeton University, and her undergraduate degree at Swarthmore College. She is originally from Northwest Indiana, and currently lives in Albuquerque with her husband Alonso and her dog Rafa.

Review:


"Kathleen Holscher...tackles one of the most controversial domestic policy disputes related to religion and the public sphere in the mid-twentieth-century United States in this well-informed and thought-provoking study. ... [An] eclectic mix of sources allows Holscher to give voice to the men, women, and even children whose stories fill the pages of this insightful book." --Journal of American History


"Holscher brings to life northern New Mexico, the classroom, and courtroom through detailed descriptions and diverse sources. She fills a gap on the study of American Catholic education and women religious in the pre-1950 era, when the restrictions of convent life contrasted with the flexibility of the classroom... Holscher's Religious Lessons would benefit library shelves and graduate courses on cross-cultural studies, legal history, U.S. education, American religion, and the history of women religious." --American Catholic Studies


"A lucid and engaging presentation of a complex event... Drawing on a plethora of Catholic and Protestant primary sources, conducting personal interviews, examining newspapers, and delving deeply into legal records, trial transcripts, and constitutional law, Holscher crafted an impressive analytical narrative... an outstanding book." --The Catholic Historical Review


"In this beautifully-written account of a game-changing lawsuit that began in a remote northern New Mexico community, Kathleen Holscher explores the many human dimensions of hard-fought issues of church and state after World War II. Holscher's capacity to bring a sympathetic yet analytically keen eye to her subjects makes Religious Lessons a great read as well as a rediscovery of key debates about religion in public education at mid-century."--Sarah Barringer Gordon, author of The Spirit of the Law: Religious Voices and the Constitution in Modern America


"In Religious Lessons Kathleen Holscher makes church-state jurisprudence a matter of rich cultural history. From the tangle of Catholic sisters teaching in New Mexico's public schools, Holscher discloses a national drama that galvanized proponents of Jefferson's wall of separation in the late 1940s and 1950s. That larger story is astutely told, even as the tangible habits-religious and educational-of rural village life are beautifully evoked."--Leigh E. Schmidt, Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, Washington University in St. Louis


"This wonderful book demonstrates just how important the 'Dixon' case in New Mexico, and the broader mid-twentieth-century controversy over 'captive schools,' were for the history of church-state relations in America. Even more, Holscher teaches us to see how a contested legal principle-the separation of church and state-was negotiated in the daily lives of her subjects. Blending innovative approaches from legal and religious history, Religious Lessons will change the way you think about the history it tells."--Tisa Wenger, author of We Have a Religion: The Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom


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