Religion, Politics and Character

By Tabscott, Robert | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), September 28, 1995 | Go to article overview
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Religion, Politics and Character

Tabscott, Robert, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

For months, I have been besieged with inquiries and accusations about my opinions and my role in the public discourse on character education. "Are we raising ethically illiterate children?" "Where do we derive our values, morals and ethics?" "What is the role of education in developing character?" "It was the civil rights movement with its emphasis on individual rights instead of responsibility and the growing specter of multi-culturalism that has led to secularization in our schools." "When God was banished from our classrooms, we sealed our fate."

There is no short way to address all of those convoluted concerns. Suffice it to say that thoughtful dissent on any issue in this society is absolutely essential if we are to survive our prejudices and our convictions. As a society, we need all the help we can get from every quarter. But in so doing, we must realize that "truth" is one of the most dangerous words in the English language - in any language for that matter.

In the relatively short American experience, three mythic institutions have given shape and meaning to our collective lives: the family, the temple and the schoolhouse. All three are under siege as we seek to redefine the role of each in the matrix of this democratic experiment.

I cannot say definitively whether it was my family, the temple or the school that shaped my character - I do know it was from the schoolhouse that I acquired three indelible aptitudes that have served me well across the years.

First is irreverence (I do not mean sacrilegiousness). I was imbued with a strong conviction that nothing, not even God, is beyond investigation and challenge.

But I quickly learned that, if one chooses irreverence, critical mindedness is an absolute necessity. Footnotes, bibliographies, quantum testing of one's own predilections is fundamental.

And, finally, passion. My best teachers and colleagues were passionate, even when they had considered all the facts. I believe these three protocols are essential if one is to teach or lead others in this societal work of character development.

But whose morals and what kind of character do we aspire to in such a diverse culture as ours? Therein lies the rub.

We are in the midst of a constitutional crisis, wherein two elemental institutions in our society - religion and politics - are colliding. The framers of the great document that has carried us across 200 years understood the agony and the ecstasy between the two and sought to separate the sphere of their conduct and design. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison clearly understood the dualism of good and evil inherent in the church and the state. They drew a line between the two while realizing it was impossible to actually keep them totally separate.

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