Confronting the Religious Right

Humanistic Judaism, Vol 23, No 3-4 Summer_Autumn 1995

Confronting the Religious Right 

Because of the Religious Right, political decisions in America have become ethical issues. Preserving the separation of religion and government is a moral challenge of supreme importance. 

The power of the Religious Right rests on a variety of developments. Charismatic leaders, money, media exposure, the exploitation of available church audiences, the vulnerability of the Republican Party — all these factors are important to the rise of the political fundamentalists. But the most important foundation is the growing concern of millions of Americans with the moral decline of America. Selfishness, rudeness, “flakiness,” disrespect for all authority, and the incessant demand for instant gratification are more visible than ever before. The Religious Right claims that a return to religion, especially in our public schools, will cure this “disease.” 

Even though the cure is an illusion, the “disease” is real. There is a values crisis in America. Something has to be done to deal with it. And the great danger is that we will turn the problem over to “quack doctors” who will do more harm than good. 

Opposing prayer in the public schools, fighting government vouchers for parochial schools, removing Bible readings from state-run classrooms — all of these efforts will fail if we do not address the values issue. 

A negative strategy, a strategy that simply says no, will not work. Only a positive strategy, a proposal that seeks to confront values anxiety with values education, has any real chance for success. It is not enough to romanticize the historic importance of the separation of church and state. We must also have some alternative answer to the need to teach values to our children. 

“Politically correct” liberals often claim that values are too subjective and too controversial to be taught in the public schools. Only the home and the church can appropriately handle them. But what if the home and the church are not able to do what the community expects from them? What if millions of children have no exposure to a decent home or to an effective church? Are there no shared values that a public school can transmit? Is morality only a matter of sex education, feminism, and abortion? 

The historic public school in America taught values. It was called “good citizenship.” Many of us grew up with a report card that evaluated our self-control, reliability, and cooperation. Our teachers saw themselves not only as information dispensers, but also as moral disciplinarians. While their techniques would now be regarded as too harsh and too authoritarian, their message was appropriate. Education is not only about personal development and personal rights; it is also about living in a community. 

Many public school teachers are still trying to teach citizenship values, either through personal example or by direct instruction. But they are often afraid, in the present environment of the fundamentalist right and the multicultural left, to say so. They are intimidated into claiming that they are teaching no values at all.  

Such a strategy feeds into the political agenda of the Religious Right. This reticence enables them to condemn “valueless” education and to push for prayer in the public schools. Only the refusal to be reticent, only the willingness to resist the pressures from the right and the left, only the courage to advocate values education in the state schools, will provide a workable counterforce to fundamentalist pressure. 

The premises of such a values education have been with us for a long time. Here they are: 

  1. The Founding Fathers of this nation, together with thousands of other historic figures — male and female, black and white — are appropriate ethical role models for our children. 
  1. There are certain moral values that are shared by almost all Americans, whether they are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu, religious or nonreligious. Values like fairness, responsibility, reliability, compassion, cooperation, and the postponement of gratification are universal. They are important and noncontroversial. 
  1. Ethical values can be taught in both a religious and a nonreligious way. One way is to attach the value to the command of God. The other way is to connect the value to the consequences of behavior. Keeping promises can be important because God wants us to keep promises. It also can be important because society will fall apart if nobody can trust or believe anybody else. Teaching values in a secular way does not negate the possibility of teaching values in a religious way. But it is possible to present them in a nonreligious way, which does not violate the religious beliefs of the students. 
  1. Citizenship values do not have to be taught in a separate class. They need to be integrated into the discussion of every subject and into every classroom situation. An effective teacher, regardless of academic discipline, knows how to teach values. 

These four premises are the foundation of a positive strategy for confronting the Religious Right. Perhaps what we need in the public schools is not to begin the day with prayer, but to hear and see ethical quotations from great Americans. With a quotation, at least you can have a discussion.