Creeds, Rules, and Promises

December 3, 2018 Updated: December 3, 2018

Every time there is a news story about a young person who did something that revealed a lack of moral grounding, the argument is made that prayer or the Bible needs to be brought back into the classroom. The premise of the argument is that children learn their values in school and that religion is a necessary component of that education. That may be an appealing response to a difficult question, but it is not the right answer.

I am a religious person and am very involved in the Catholic Church. I encourage others to join me, or to join another house of worship. My motivation is not solely an effort to bring others to eternal salvation; I think this world would be a better place if everyone regularly prayed and attended services.

Granted, non-religious people are fully capable of being kind, caring, and good citizens. The overwhelming majority of them are.

Regardless of religious background, most people develop their values at home, not in church or at school. It seems, however, that everyone benefits from regular reminders and outward expressions of their shared values. That is why churches and schools can play an important role—they reinforce lessons from home.

Once upon a time, public schools in the United States offered Protestant-based religious instruction. Teachers led prayers, and they sometimes taught classes from the Bible. That is the era many people think of when they urge returning prayer to the schools.

Protestant-based instruction obviously created a problem for Jewish parents, but it also was a dilemma for Catholics. After all, Catholics and Protestants disagreed about which books were included in the Old Testament, the numbering of the Ten Commandments, the text of “The Lord’s Prayer,” and other important issues. The differences were serious enough that Catholics built their own grade schools and high schools across the nation where they would be free to teach their children the Catholic faith. The rise of Islam in the United States, of course, further complicates any attempt to return religion to public schools.

In 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court held that even nonsectarian and non-proselytizing prayer at a public school graduation violates the first amendment to the Constitution. So, for practical and legal reasons, bringing the Bible back into public school classrooms is not a viable option. That does not, however, make it impossible for schools to teach values and morality.

Communities decide what they want to have taught in their schools: math, science, English, history, etc. Each of these subjects has a universal core truth. The same can be said of morality. Other than at the margins where there can be differences, most people agree on substantive moral values.

The thing that has been lacking since the Supreme Court removed religion from the classroom is an authoritative text defining those values. It used to be the Bible, the Ten Commandments, and related Christian doctrine. Since those things do not seem likely to return to school, something needs to replace them. Fortunately, that is not as difficult as it might seem.

Clubs and organizations routinely express their values. Churches have doctrines and disciplines; Boy Scouts have the Scout Oath and the Scout Law; and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has its rules about amateurism and competitive balance. Even “Fight Club” has the “first rule of fight club” (“You do not talk about Fight Club”).

More and more, schools are turning to creeds, rules, and promises to fill the void left when organized religion was removed from the classroom. I have two daughters who teach third grade in public schools. Each year, they go over agreed-upon rules with their classes, and the students promise to conform their behavior to them.

The University of Mississippi, where I teach, has adopted a creed that says the university “is a community of learning dedicated to nurturing excellence in intellectual inquiry and personal character in an open and diverse environment.” It includes a pledge that members of the university community will uphold the values of respect for the dignity of each person, fairness and civility, personal and professional integrity, academic honesty, academic freedom, and good stewardship of resources.

The creed came into play recently when, on the day the U.S. Senate voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, an assistant professor in the sociology department at the university wrote in a tweet: “Don’t just interrupt a Senator’s meal, y’all. Put your whole … fingers in their salads. Take their apps and distribute them to the other diners. Bring boxes and take their food home with you on the way out. They don’t deserve your civility.”

Americans have the right to free speech, and professors have academic freedom that prevents them from being punished for expressing unpopular ideas, but this seemed to have gone too far. How, however, does a university respond if there is no authoritative text defining the institution’s values?

Because of the creed, and perhaps only because of it, University of Mississippi Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter was able to publicly respond that the post “did not reflect the values articulated by the university, such as respect for the dignity of each individual and civility and fairness.” He urged “all members of the Ole Miss community to demonstrate civility and respect for others and to honor the ideal of diversity of thought that is a foundational element of the academy.”

Some people wanted a stronger response, while others felt the chancellor should not have said anything. What this episode really showed, however, was that a creed, code, or oath that articulates institutional values is important not only for teaching younger students. It can play an important role in articulating standards against which actions can be measured, behaviors can be assessed, and actors can be held to accountability.

Ronald J. Rychlak is the Jamie L. Whitten chair in law and government at The University of Mississippi. He is the author of several books, including “Hitler, the War, and the Pope,” “Disinformation” (co-authored with Ion Mihai Pacepa), and “The Persecution and Genocide of Christians in the Middle East” (co-edited with Jane Adolphe).