Milwaukee Common Council President Willie Hines (left) has written a nice piece on values education in the Journal-Sentinel. I know that President Hines and I disagree on many things, but he is someone whose leadership I greatly respect.
In response to the Hines piece, Patrick McIlheran points out an obvious problem. Under current law, it is unclear that schools could effectively incorporate religious perspectives on morality into values education. (There is some room for schools to teach “about” religion, but, in the type of normative education that President Hines is calling for, that distinction — and the lack of clarity about just where it ought to be drawn — would probably preclude any deep inclusion of religious perspectives.)
Marquette alum Tom Foley (the blogger known as “Illusory Tenant”) can’t wait to dismiss Patrick as a “tin pot philosopher,” but he is wrong to do so for at least two reasons.
First, our current notions of disestablishment require neutrality between religion and irreligion and, in the two most frequent doctrinal formulations, forbid the state from advancing or endorsing either. Teaching values and morality while excluding the religious perspectives that believers contend are indispensable to those concepts will almost certainly be perceived by believers as inhibiting religion and advancing or endorsing irreligion. While scholars and courts have, from time to time, suggested that they “should not” have that perception, that suggestion is, in itself, rooted in a particular view of the role of religion in community life.
For that reason, I have argued that neutrality ought not be the sine qua non of disestablishment and, in a forthcoming paper, suggest that there ought to be greater room for religious perspectives in government speech.
Second, while one can discuss values and morality from a secular perspective, it is unclear that the resulting conversation will adequately reflect and develop the values that most of us hold that, whether we believe or not, are rooted (for us in the U.S.) in the Judeo-Christian tradition. One can, I suppose, offer Rawlsian and other secular justifications for values such as equality or personal autonomy, but that is not really how we came to honor them and may not be sufficient to sustain them. While it is too much to say (as some want to do) that an abandonment of religious perspectives will inevitable lead to the secular totalitarianisms that marred the twentieth century, a discussion of values without reference to the grounds in which they are historically rooted would be quite thin and can’t help but alter the way in which we see those values.
There is, even under existing law, some room for values education in public schools and in the delivery of social services. My own sense, however, is that it is inevitable that schools and other governmental bodies will want to move beyond that into areas that are religiously sensitive. Because I believe that it is improbable, in the twenty-first century, that government will refrain (or can be restrained) from intruding on those areas of life with which religion is concerned, there needs to be more room to incorporate religious perspectives.
Cross posted at the Shark and Shepherd.