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.

This thesis is further evidenced by the lengths to which the National Department of Education and the Department of Defense have gone in years past to ground in the public schools every means of developing national pride and civic piety. For instance, during the Second World War, twenty six pamphlets aimed at the promotion of democratic pride among school children were produced by the Federal government and overseen by John W. Studebaker, the U.S Commissioner of Education. In his forward, which was published at the front of each pamphlet, Studebaker said:

America must be strong—strong to meet any threats against her way of life from armed aggressors; strong to solve her domestic problems by peaceful democratic means. To the building of a stronger America the schools of the Nation are dedicated. By the patient processes of instruction and training they seek to develop in the youth of the land those essential knowledges and skills and that devotion to our democratic way of life which make for national strength and unity.

The special contribution which the schools can make to national preparedness at the present time is a matter of serious thought for teachers, principals, superintendents, and others concerned with the operation of the Nation’s greatest educational enterprise . . . .

The U.S. Office of Education seeks to make helpful suggestions for action in the emergency through a special series of pamphlets entitled “Education and National Defense.” . . .It is hoped that [these] pamphlets will . . . stimulate a growing appreciation of a government which is ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people’; and arouse a new determination that such government ‘shall not perish from the earth.’

These pamphlets constitute a comprehensive, if not frightening, approach to the democratic indoctrination of America’s youth, including everything from “Democracy in Summer Camps,” to the outright “assertion of a positive creed of democracy,” to an extended discussion of tolerance, to physical fitness and preparedness for military service, and even to the cultivation of hostility for un-democratic political systems. Without a doubt, the government of a previous generation saw as its primary responsibility the indoctrination of the nation’s young with democratic principles at every stage of physical, psychological and intellectual development.

To be continued…

6 thoughts on “Civil Catechesis and the Democratic Creed, Pt. 4…

  1. I never heard of these summer camps, but the fostering of a democratic mindset in youth doesn’t scare me in the least. It beats the “salute whatever flag they show you” attitude of our youth-oriented, media-dominated culture of the past 50 years. Anything can be done wrong, and the U.S. government’s history of interfering in non-federal issues like education has been a wasteful, even damaging enterprise in general, but the pamphlets and the attitude they illustrate make perfect sense during a war which easily could have been lost.

    Imagine if we had lost that war: wouldn’t you prefer that millions living under Nazi or militarist Japanese domination had a strong idea of what it was like to live in a representational democracy?

  2. Our govenment doesn’t need school to propogate the ‘democratic’ and ‘American’ way, they have Baptist churches! We at our church this week had a special music…Lee Greenwood’s famous…and it wasn’t even the 4th!

  3. If it’s true that the philosophy of one generation is the government of the next, then our children need to understand the value of our democratic system along with promotion of military service as an honorable pursuit. Our current culture obviously doesn’t hold these values and many of our current problems are evidence of that. May we never be a people who abandon our national pride and patriotic fervor. To see that simply look at europe, where systems of government can change with any election, because people are too eager to “throw the baby out with the bath water.”

  4. You might do well to actually read Jefferson’s views on public education and why we need it — in Notes on the State of Virginia (the query on laws, as I recall — Query XIV, I think).

    I’m trying hard to look at your post as a discussion, but what I keep seeing is a deep distrust of democracy and a call for theocracy. Democracies need information, and freedom to gather information. The First Amendment covers an entire range of consciousness, not just speech and religion — freedom of conscience and consciousness being necessary to keeping a democratic government free and good, in Madison’s words.

    Beyond that, however, we have many other, completely practical (or for you, “secular”) needs for education. Religion is a tiny part of a balanced program as described repeatedly by Jefferson and others. More critical are history, geography, general civics, literature, arithmetic and now mathematics; reading is essential to all of them, and also essential to religious study and religious freedom. Studying OF religious belief should be a part of history, civics and geography. Religious inculcation should be left out. Remember, when we had religious inculcation as part of our laws (well prior to 1776), Baptists were hanged. Be careful what you wish for.

  5. You have not received many responses to this series. I suspect the reason is that, on one hand, it show a high level of sophistication that some have difficulty understanding; and on the other, it it is not a “hand granade lobbed” at the SBC power structure which instantly garners attention, especially from you. Nonetheless, it is significant, and IMO, quite accurate. It is also the sort of material that traditional Baptists do not like, because we became part of power structure–informally, but in some very real ways. As Dr. Frank Page said, “we have never had more power or less influence” (something like that, I think). We have forgotten the persecution we suffered at the hands of “civil religion” in the 1700s prior to the Revolutionary War. I have been accused of being a “revisionist” because I have said similar things in blogs, when in reality, it is the traditionalists who revised history (or accepted a revised history) long ago. Civil religion is however, a very real issue, and as our culture changes, the church will become more and more identified with the past rather than something relevant to life today.

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