Civil Catechesis and the Democratic Creed, Pt. 3…

Part One

Part Two

These Things You Shall Teach Diligently Unto Your Children

If the lessons of history taught ancient Israel anything, it was that failure to impress profound appreciation for and obedience to the laws of God upon the minds of their children wrought disastrous consequences both in terms of cultic dissolution and national instability. In the same way, the enduring Puritan strain of American civil religion and its underlying thesis regarding the perceived inviolability of the United States as a covenanted, millennial and chosen nation has guided the development of a sophisticated system of catechesis for the nation’s young. By the same logic, failure to educate future generations of democratic citizens will result in disasters similarly suffered by previous ‘chosen’ nations. Even those who cannot embrace this Puritan strain readily emphasize that the future economic, political, and military stability of the United States depend upon the strength of American public schools.

Inherent in the democratic faith is an evangelistic and catechistic principle by which the nation simultaneously exports democracy abroad and expounds it at home. As Jacques Maritain has succinctly observed, “the body politic has the right and the duty to promote among its citizens, mainly through education, the human and temporal—and essentially practical—creed on which depend national communion and civil peace.” Moreover, “the educational system and the State have a duty to see to the teaching of that charter of common life, and thus to defend and promote the common good and the fundamental statute of the body politic even up to the common secular faith involved.” If it can be shown that an American civil religion parallels a true religion with respect to its accoutrements, structures, and offices, then it follows that the means by which that civil religion is transmitted might also parallel its symbiotic churchly forms.

The nation that seeks to inculcate its civic faith must establish for itself the instrumentality by which its catechistic purposes are achieved. For the nation that has anchored its soul firmly upon the vigilant refusal to allow the establishment of a national church, let alone the excessive entanglement or admixture of church and state, there arises no insignificant constitutional impediment from the very article it seeks to inculcate—in this case, the First Amendment. It cannot require that the nation’s free churches expound the democratic charter; neither can it establish for itself a true church wherein its own prophets reinforce the national creed. Even if the organized churches could be forced to teach the democratic charter, as Robert Michaelsen has noted, they would only garner limited returns, “not because the churches disagreed with the democratic proposition but because they disagreed among themselves.” What is required, therefore, and what some of the constitutional framers sought from the beginning, is “a system of public or common education, open to all, financed by taxation and under the direction of no particular sectarian group.”

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