Morality Without Theology: How to Teach Values in Public Schools


September 1, 1990

“Can we be good without God?” was the provocative headline on the cover of a recent issue of The Atlantic. The author, Glenn Tinder, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, spent thousands of words leading up to his conclusion, which merely restated the cover’s question. Tinder’s implied answer was ultimately “no,” and it’s the wrong one. Of course we can be good without God—and we’d better start getting to it. We’ve been distracted from the task for far too long by fundamentalists of both Left and Right who seem to agree on nothing other than the faulty premise that it’s impossible to have morality without religious belief.

To the fundamentalist Right, morality means “my religion.” The Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons openly equate morality and their particular brand of Christianity. If you don’t share their faith, you’re an atheist at best, Satanic at worst. Some neoconservatives are little better, using intellectual trappings to claim that without religion, usually Christianity, society is doomed.

To the fundamentalist Left, morality means “your religion.” Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State see sectarianism lurking behind every reference to “morality” or “values.” For example, those on the fundamentalist Left recently opposed churches’ participation in a federal program providing education and social services designed to prevent teenage pregnancy; they charged that the program enforced sectarian religious beliefs—as though being pregnant isn’t a problem for an atheist teenager, too.

The fundamentalist Right claims to find its morality in either the Bible or the voice of the Holy Spirit. The fundamentalist left believes that morality is a personal matter that should be kept in the private domain or else it risks “imposing” itself on others through coercion and inquisition.

But, the fundamentalists of Left and Right to the contrary, there are both intellectual and practical reasons for believing that morality is possible without God. On a practical level, everyone knows at least one non-religious person who leads a moral life and at least one religious hypocrite; they’re both stock figures in American culture. At the same time, we live in the most religiously pluralistic nation in the world, with a tradition of rejecting government establishment of religion. Under these circumstances, it would be impossible to establish a universal religious basis for morality, yet it is possible and essential to establish a secular basis for morality.

On the intellectual level, it is simply historically inaccurate to say that America was based entirely on either Biblical precepts or the theories of the Enlightenment. Both were a factor, as was the political heritage of Greece and Rome. Our nation’s founders crafted a nation that was secular in the sense that it was not sectarian. But they understood the importance of religion to most of the colonists. The founders created a secular nation for a religious people.

“Secular” is not a dirty word. The secular world is a political realm where believers and non-believers alike can function in a pluralistic society. Both religious values and civic values are legitimate. But while society can recognize that its members possess religious values, it can only survive by instilling civic ones. Civic values don’t claim they’ll get you into heaven; they just claim they’ll keep you out of jail, and maybe even make a good citizen of you.

In fact, the argument that civic morality threatens true religion is a straw man. Where is the turning away from religion that so many pundits of the world worry so much about? Ninety-six percent of the American people believe in God; 90 percent express a religious affiliation. There are a handful of Americans who may be characterized as non-religious because religion plays no significant role in their lives, but they are not necessarily anti-religious.

The fact is, most people don’t make a connection between their private faith and the way they live their lives. The statistics suggest that the average crack dealer believes in God; the problem is that he doesn’t believe in civilization. From the point of view of civil society, it isn’t necessary to get the junk dealers and junk bond dealers to believe in God; it’s just necessary to get them to acknowledge that everyone else has rights in the society in which we live.

Neither the fundamentalist Right nor the fundamentalist Left has done much to help do this. The fundamentalist Left, by refusing to talk about values and focusing exclusively on individual rights, has helped foster the impression that values are either unimportant or nonexistent. It is true that the Reagan era fostered greed and selfishness which eroded a sense of community, but so did the more liberal “Me decade” which preceded it.

For its part, the fundamentalist Right has fostered tribalism, which is no improvement on radical individualism. Those who are quick to point to the founders’ support for the rights of religion forget about the other part of the package. The founders saw religion as a force supporting the common good; they were less concerned with theology than with public morality.

For example, Henry Steele Commager notes that “a common religion did flourish among Protestants, Catholic, Jews, and Deists. We have come to call that a civil religion.” He says that civil religion “relied on reason as well as faith, embraced mankind, rather than the individual, and was ever conscious of the claims of posterity…. It did not reject Jesus or the Gospels, but took from them what was universally valid. Its testaments, moral, philosophical, or political, celebrated virtue, happiness, equality in the sight of God and the law, and life here rather than hereafter.”

In Habits of the Heart, sociologist Robert Bellah, who coined the term “American civil religion,” says that for America’s founders, the political function of religion “was not direct intervention, but support of the mores that make democracy possible. In particular, it had the role of placing limits on utilitarian individualism, hedging in self-interest with a proper concern for others.”

We don’t see that kind of concern from the new tribalists. For example, Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind, noted with nostalgia in a discussion of the old hatreds between Catholics and Protestants that at least they were “taking their beliefs seriously.” Writing about Bloom in Harper’s, political scientist Benjamin Barber asked, “Is the average American to be faulted for preferring the frivolous shallows of religious tolerance to the seriousness of the Salem witchhunts?”

Other offenders include Richard John Neuhaus and Paul Vitz, who argue that the only way to teach values is to withdraw from the public schools and create new systems of parochial schools where each religion will teach its own faith. They fail to explain how shared social values will somehow emerge from the existence of isolated school systems. That’s because they won’t; a parochial school can teach shared values, but it must do so explicitly.

Ironically, while Bloom, Neuhaus, and Vitz were preaching the virtues of tribalism, support for teaching shared values has come from two disparate quarters. The U.S. Catholic Conference Education Committee has issued a statement, “Values and Virtue: Moral Education in the Public Schools,” which deserves wide reading. The bishops argue that public schools should teach values. They write, “We do not wish to impose a religious viewpoint on our fellow citizens, but we do wish to provide our reasoned reflection on what we perceive to be a national concern…. We support efforts to find proper means of teaching moral values and truth in the public schools, and we do this as expressions both of our concern for the children and young people served by the public schools and for the future of our country.

“We maintain,” say the bishops, “that a renewed shared moral vision within the public schools is possible. It must be grounded in the common bond of humanity that links people of every race, creed, and color. This country was established out of the respect and desire for human dignity. It remains for us today to spell out anew the ingredients of that shared humanity for our children and young people.”

The statement reflects the Catholic belief in a natural law which makes agreement on civic morality possible. It offers much of the same thinking as a recent speech by television producer Norman Lear, founder of People for the American Way. Lear endorsed the teaching of shared values in the nation’s public schools. The responses were typical. The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights treated the speech as evidence of a conversion, while lamenting that Lear had not gone so far as to endorse school prayer. Meanwhile, Charles Haynes, a consultant to Americans United, said it was more important to teach about religious differences than shared values.

Although I can’t claim total objectivity—I worked for People for the American Way for several years—it seems clear that Lear is right and that the Catholic League and Haynes are wrong. There is no contradiction between opposing school prayer and supporting the teaching of shared civic values. Organized, state-sponsored, vocal prayer in schools would pose a threat to the religious freedom of students while doing nothing to build up shared values. Teaching about the values in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence would help build a sense of community without threatening religious freedom. And while we do need to teach that religious differences exist, teaching that they should be tolerated is precisely the kind of shared values that a civil society can and must teach.

Emlynn Griffith, a regent of the State University of New York, offered a good example of the distinction between religious and civic values. “Basic values,” Griffith said, “include honesty, truthfulness, responsibility, loyalty, self-respect, respect for others, equality, justice, rule of law, and dignity of work. They are the fundamental concepts of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed 150 years ago, they are the shared values which “hold together” a very diverse nation.

“These civic values,” Griffith concluded, “can be distinguished from religious values, which usually concentrate on the supernatural or mystical (and should not be taught in schools for First Amendment reasons). Basic values and theological values are different; learning the former does not mean automatic acceptance of the latter. But the fact that many civic values have roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition or in other world religions does not diminish their usefulness as legitimate standards of social conduct; and teaching them does not conflict with the First Amendment to our Constitution.”


  • Jim Castelli

    Jim Castelli is the author of A Plea for Common Sense: Resolving the Clash Between Religion and Politics, and co-author with George Gallup, Jr., of The American Catholic People.

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