Public education in modern America serves as the primary venue for overtly democratic catechesis. When assessing the way that civil religion has taken shape within our contemporary political milieu, the work of sociologist Adam Gamoran of the University of Wisconsin is helpful. Public schools, Gamoran argues, play a key role in producing and transmitting American civil religion and in teaching appreciation for the symbols and practices that accompany a robust nationalistic faith.
Among Gamoran’s more useful studies is one conducted over a calendar year in a public school located in a Chicago working-class neighborhood. Supplementing his research about the recitation of the pledge, the singing of national hymns, and the instruction regarding national holidays and heroes, Gamoran provides both his own memories from a public elementary and secondary education as well as the insights from profiles and reflections written by his students in an undergraduate sociology course taught at the University of Wisconsin. Overwhelming evidence demonstrates that there exists a distinctly religious tone to the structure of public education, and Gamoran provides a critical analysis of that evidence.
It has been nearly sixty years since a case of any magnitude involving the pledge of allegiance was granted certiorari by America’s high court, but cases are forever under appeal challenging the words ‘under God’ in the national creed. And while it is improbable that the Supreme Court will remove the “offending” prepositional phrase, the legal precedence regarding the pledge should serve as a sobering reminder of how quickly the gears of American jurisprudence can be reversed.
During the earliest days of the Second World War, two Pennsylvania children were expelled from the Minersville Elementary School on account of their refusal, as Jehovah’s Witnesses, to recite the pledge of allegiance to the United States flag. School attendance was compulsory for the Gobitis children under Pennsylvania law, though a lower court gave relief to the children and they were allowed to return to school. On appeal before the Supreme Court, the school district successfully persuaded the Court’s majority to reverse the lower court decision and uphold the prerogative of a local school board to determine those ceremonies that were consistent with civic education and responsibility. In what would become a legendary example of poor judicial rationale, Justice Frankfurter argued that “the mere possession of religious convictions which contradict the relevant concerns of a political society does not relieve the citizen from the discharge of political responsibilities” and “that, though the ceremony may be required, [to grant] exceptional immunity must be given to dissidents…would weaken the effect of the exercise.” Within three years, however, the court overturned the Gobitis decision in the landmark case West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, and Justice Robert Jackson reelevated the priority of religious liberty to its former place of preeminence over the incidental prerogatives of the state. Jackson argued that:
Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard . . . . If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act of faith therein.
The arguments of the Barnette case go to the heart of the purpose of public schools and the place of a national creed. Three aspects of the pledge, in particular, make it a clear instance of civil religion in the national catechism. First, the words ‘under God’ reveal the willingness of everyone who recites the pledge to affirm a divine authority over the governments of men. Second, the posture of the pledge is itself highly ritualized—hand over the heart, standing at attention and facing the flag. Third, the recitation of the pledge is a collective ritual by which every catechumen is bound together as a part of the national community of ‘believers.’
Barnette may have solved the problem of compulsory recitation of the pledge, but it has not done away with the practical reality that such a pledge fosters individual identification with the national creed. If, as has been suggested, public schools are the place wherein a national uniformity is created and sustained, and if the creation of that uniformity involves, at times, the abrogation of an individual citizen’s inalienable rights, then no limit exists beyond which government may not step to achieve that conformity. Yet if the pledge means nothing but an opportunity for the voluntary reaffirmation of those who choose to ‘believe’ the nations legitimating myth, then it is possible that the pledge would lose its religious significance altogether—a pledge to a Labor Union banner or a Republican bumper sticker or a McDonald’s sign could accomplish the same thing.
It is therefore possible to discern the degree to which the voluntary, if not compulsory, recitation of the pledge in the public school asserts a creedal influence upon the minds of those students who receive instruction in the national faith, or civil religion. And not only are those students in American public schools who choose to recite the pledge joining the cultus of the national faith, but even the conscientious objector has received instruction regarding the national creed. The latter may refuse to join his classmates in the creedal affirmation of allegiance to the State and its flag, but his refusal is itself evidence that he has been taught the national creed—one cannot object to that which one has not been taught. So while the Supreme Court has affirmed the ultimate freedom of any citizen of any age to excuse himself from the pledge on account of conscious, the fact that their basis of refusal is grounded in true religious convictions further buttresses the argument that the pledge is itself a religious affirmation, albeit civil in character
7 thoughts on “Civil Catechesis and the Democratic Creed, Pt. 5…”
Undeniable truth. Breath of fresh air. The mask of nationalistic idolatry is glued to us, but please keep pulling, Ben. Use a crowbar, if necessary. Apocalypse, now…please, Lord.
By the way, here’s a rhetorical question, “Which of the following was more patriotic/married to the civil religion of his day: Jesus or Judas?”
If Judas had not done things so quickly, and had taken long enough to use the silver to capitalize a American corporation, it would have been named “Holyburton.”
Ben, I think you missed a period at the end of the last sentence.
Great series, by the way.
I have always felt that people with a faith in Christ (or the other faiths, for that matter) could see the difference between the “civil religion” and a real one. For those confused about the issue, one good chance to wait in line to pay one’s property taxes generally served to bring reality back into focus – or a day on jury duty.
The meaasge that I always got from the Pledge ceremony is that not only are we loyal to our country, but involved in its progress and invested in our part of its leadership. Even though we enjoy complaining about it, local, state, and federal government is still “us” and not completely a “them.”
Haliburton? Oh, yeah, that outfit that was so hugely involved in President Clinton’s administration. There were so many things for which they were the only company large enough to accomplish back in the 90’s. Whatever happened to those guys, anyway?
She’s a great ole flag. Long may she wave. I will stand at attention. I will salute. I will cross my heart. I will die or kill to see her continue to wave.
I do not worship the flag. I do not worship this country. I do worship the God that gave me the privilege to salute the flag and live in this country.
And long live capitalism, especially the American kind which has financed more Christian missions than any other economic concept since Jesus walked on this earth. Long live Halliburton. Long live the American sniper in Iraq and any other place where terrorist crawl. Long live “One shot, One Kill”, All Time Every Time. Long live “IN God We Trust” and the American dollar. May every American learn to understand what the phrase “God, Guts, and Guns” really means to freedom and the cost to keep it.
Interesting and thought provoking postings. I’m patriotic, but not overwhelmingly so. People who know me may not even say I’m patriotic at all. I fly a flag out side our house on the major holidays and am grateful to live in this country. I’ve traveled to many and seen fewer choices, fewer availabilities for those citizens. I’ve not said the pledge of allegiance to the flag in probably 15 years (I’m only 34). I don’t object, but do feel a little strange reciting it. Am I pledging blind allegiance to a flag which can take no action or to a government that I’ll support, but not blindly? Am I wrong? Missing something?
“Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard . . . . If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act of faith therein.”
I had been trying to understand your point in these posts, and found it in the words above.
Whether a creed is religious or civil, we need the freedom to change it or dissent from it. We do this in the secular world though the means of a free press. Baptist life has reached the point where a free press is essential to its health.
Amen to the free press being essential to the health of Baptist life today. It has been in the past but apparently even more so today. I know the Baptist Standard is an independant state paper in Texas and there are a few other state religious papers that remain outside the control of the state convention. The Baptist Standard’s closest competition in Texas is “The Texan” that the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention produces as a PR piece, but many don’t know that. To my knowledge, Tennessee and Virginia both have independent state Baptist papers.