Civil Catechesis and the Democratic Creed, Pt. 4…

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

When Your Children Shall Ask, “What Mean These Things?”

More than a quarter century ago, Gladys Wiggins observed that the mere existence of a public school in society indicates that some degree of enculturative responsibility has been usurped from the family and absorbed into existing governmental structures. In this way, “the modern state, unlike earlier kingdoms and feudal manors, is kept alive either by an actively participant people or by an acquiescent people.” Mass education, Wiggins suggests, “ushered in by Protestantism for religious reasons, is made imperative by nationalism because of a new kind of political—some would say religious—faith.” Education, both civil and political, is the most efficient impetus for societal cohesion. Perhaps no better explanation of the precise way that a public school system functions as the locus of civil catechesis and parallels the sectarian interests regarding indoctrination of the young has been offered than by Durkheim, who demonstrates persuasively that all societies, religious or otherwise, share a common need for regular assembly and creedal reaffirmation:

There can be no society which does not feel the need for upholding and reaffirming, at regular intervals, the collective sentiments and ideas which animate both its unity and individuality. Now this moral reconstruction cannot be achieved except by means of reunions, assemblies, and congregations, in which individuals, being brought together, reaffirm their common sentiments. From this source arise ceremonies which do not differ from properly religious ceremonies, either in their object, the results which they produce, or the processes employed to attain these results. What essential difference is there between an assembly of Christians celebrating the primary holidays associated with the life of Christ, or Jews remembering the Exodus from Egypt or the reception of the Decalogue, and a gathering of citizens commemorating the institution of a new moral or legal system or some other significant event in the nation’s history?

The public schoolhouse, it seems, is the place wherein the nation’s children assemble to learn about the rituals and rites associated with the founding and perpetuation of the American republic. Like true religion, the civil religion that receives pedagogical entitlement is accompanied by forms, festivals, rituals and offices, which, while meaningful in their own right, enjoy heightened curricular interest on account of their quasi-religious, and sometimes overtly religious, character. Like true religion, American civil religion has its creeds, hymns, saints, martyrs, temples, holy days and clergy; and while any one of them cannot justify the opprobrious epithet ‘religious,’ together they nonetheless create the environment whereby the public school comes to resemble a church and its teachers, catechists.

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