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.”

Among the founding noteworthies who foresaw the necessity for such a system of public education were Benjamin Rush, Thomas Jefferson, and Noah Webster; and the curricular requirements they separately proposed included, with varying priorities, the study of history, the art of war, practical legislation, the English language and the Christian religion. Thomas Jefferson excepted, several of the founders believed that not religion in general but the Christian religion in particular should occupy the cherished time allotment for religious training in the public curriculum. Even so, Jefferson was among the first proponents of common schools, though his ideas found negligible support among the Virginian aristocracy who were hesitant to see their political hegemony meet the equilibrium of an increasingly educated citizenry. When it came to religious instruction, Benjamin Rush, however, was convinced that “children would run into religious principles in an unorganized way throughout childhood, and that instruction in religion would not only prepare them for free inquiry into the religion of their choice, but would be conducive to the creation of republican values in citizens.” A Christian, Rush would argue, “cannot fail of being a republican for every precept of the gospel inculcates those degrees of humility, self-denial, and brotherly kindness which are directly opposed to the pride of monarchy and the pageantry of a court.” The ends to which public education would strive went beyond creating an atmosphere in which civil and religious liberties could be formed and appreciated—in fact, a more political agenda was at work to cultivate supreme allegiance to the nation, its leaders, and civic institutions. Elsewhere, Rush would state:

Let our pupil be taught that he does not belong to himself, but that he is public property. Let him be taught to love his family, but let him be taught at the same time that he must forsake and even forget them when the welfare of his country requires it . . . [Public schools] are the means to convert men into republican machines, [and] this must be done if we expect them to perform their parts properly in the great machine of the government of state.

Perhaps more glaringly catechistic were the proposals of Noah Webster, whose New England Primer provided a “Federal Catechism” containing “a series of questions about political principles that children were expected to memorize in order to learn the values of citizenship and devotion to country.” For Webster, “good republicans [were] formed by a singular machinery in the body politic, which takes the child as soon as he can speak, checks his natural independence and passions, makes him subordinate to superior age, to the laws of the state, to town and parochial institutions.” Undoubtedly these men took their cues from the deeply religious and overwhelmingly Protestant context of the American founding era. Religious catechesis was of absolute necessity for the survival and purity of the faith; it only made sense to facilitate the democratic catechism by means of a similar pedagogy.

While it stretches the faculties of logic and reason to suggest that the Christian religion ought to provide the confessional framework essential to the viability of the democratic charter, it is important to note the way that religion in general has shaped how American’s think about civics education. Battistoni notes:

These thinkers’ notion of a proper civics curriculum are not . . . a blueprint for secondary schools today. The [founders] were writing in different times and places, and were responding to somewhat different circumstances. Nonetheless, their ideas about the curriculum appropriate to citizenship education should be considered seriously, since they illustrate the importance of having a more integrative civics program incorporating more than the traditional social studies fare typical of most contemporary schools.

The abandonment of explicit religious instruction in the public schools has met resistance along the way but shows no sign of reversal; any viable notion that the civil catechesis provided to American children should include sectarian dogma has all but evaporated from the public consciousness even while secular political indoctrination has achieved new vistas of societal import. The metamorphosis of American education from universal parochial and sectarian responsibility to the establishment of the government school and compulsory education was slow, but inevitable. And while the motivating factors behind the development of a national public system of education were not always noble, the outcome has been embraced by the overwhelming majority of the American electorate. Thus has the agenda for civil catechesis been grounded in a two-fold priority: the socialization and Americanization of the nation’s children, and the process by which doctrinal uniformity becomes possible under the democratic charter.

The remainder of the present study will examine the ways that a public catechesis in America’s civil religion parallels that of true religion, as well as the means by which the content of civil catechesis is arbitrated and violations are adjudicated.

2 thoughts on “Civil Catechesis and the Democratic Creed, Pt. 3…

  1. The process you describe highlights the importance of religious education in the home by parents. The last fifty years’ experience are showing us how the democratic process is damaged along with our national psyche when parents do not instill Christian values in youth.

  2. I’m troubled that you choose children imprisoned as your photo. Generally, I think you miss the point of religious freedom, and I think you misread early U.S. citizens in their extolling virtues of religion as a subject for schools — but the photo really sets off alarms. Who do you plan to put behind barbed wire, and why?

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