Freedom of conscience: a missing element in the education debate

In his Age of Reason pamphlet (1807), Thomas Paine declared that “Persecution is not an original feature in any religion; but it is always the strongly marked feature of all religions established by law.“ Thomas Jefferson’s famed letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut mentions how the First Amendment effectively establishes a “wall of separation between church and state.” These men, plus the many others that influenced or participated in the founding of the United States, were very familiar with the dangers of state religions and wished to prevent establishing such a religion in America.

Underlying the First Amendment is the concept of freedom of conscience. It can be defined as: ”The right to follow one’s own beliefs in matters of religion and morality.“ Freedom of conscience is normally considered a human right, which is “any basic right or freedom to which all human beings are entitled and in whose exercise a government may not interfere (including rights to life and liberty as well as freedom of thought and expression and equality before the law).”

Unfortunately, most of the debates in the public square tend to focus on a narrow definition of religion when discussing the influences of “religion” on government policy. If we consider “religion and morality,” we will find that they are essentially elements of a worldview. A worldview can be defined as “a comprehensive conception or image of the universe and of humanity’s relation to it.”

When worldviews attempt to explain the “big questions of life” they are essentially indistinguishable from religious thought. For example both worldviews and religions attempt to deal with these four issues: 1.) origin of man and the universe, 2.) the meaning of life, 3.) morals, and 4.) a person’s destiny.

What does all this have to do with public schools and the state’s ultimate control over the education of our children?

First, there is a widely held belief that public schools are “secular.” In a narrow definition they are “ secular” (i.e. without an affiliation with any specific religion) but a more fundamental (and honest) definition shows that they are no more free from “religion” than the local Roman Catholic private school down the road. How the state attempts to answer the four issues above may not be based on any particular religion but the answers they provide are informed by various worldviews that are popular today among the people that establish curricula and approve the textbooks. Since these people have a very significant influence in the development of children’s worldviews, one could argue that we have a state religious system and the thousands of public school buildings are the temples of that religion. In some ways, the situation is reminiscent of the Imperial Cult of ancient Rome where that set of beliefs was seen as a politically useful and necessary unifying force of the empire.

Second, I know of no way of providing an education without some sort of coherent system of thought that is directly founded upon a worldview. This raises several important questions. Given the above, should the government (or if you prefer, “society”) impose a worldview on its youngest citizens? Should every parent, under the force of law (i.e. the threat of violence), be required to ensure that his or her child is “educated” in the government-approved way? Should taxpayers be forced to pay for so-called secular schools that in the course of their instruction, either directly or indirectly, year after year, send messages to their captive audiences about origins, meaning, morality and destiny that are essentially private matters (and beyond the realm of science as classically defined)?

Thomas Jefferson clearly favored promoting education. He said that regarding the “diffusion of knowledge” that “…no other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom, and happiness.” He is often quoted by the education establishment when defending the government education monopoly. However, being sensitive to freedom of conscience issues, he also said this: “It is better to tolerate the rare instance of a parent refusing to let his child be educated, than to shock the common feelings and ideas by the forcible asportation [removal] and education of the infant against the will of the father” (Note to Elementary School Act, 1817).

As with other “religions established by law,” our state-controlled schooling system is no stranger to persecution. Anyone who follows homeschooling news will find plenty of accounts of government agents ensuring that temple attendance is enforced or at least the state liturgy is practiced in the form and place acceptable to the government. Disobedience is costly.

Although some of the priests and acolytes of our state religion may wish it to be so, the state has not yet taken complete control of the feeding, clothing and housing of the majority of our children. However, it has taken possession of their bodies for much of their waking hours while attempting to control their thoughts. It is difficult to think of a more egregious violation of our founding principles. Yet it continues. Perhaps Justice Louis Brandeis’ observation provides some insight into to why that is so:

Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the Government’s purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.

Written by Don McFadden for Forced Government Schooling

~ The Author ~
Don McFadden’s goal is to help bring about an end to the government’s coercive power over us through compulsory schooling. If we don’t take back that delegated power, then government will inevitably grow larger as the system teaches us to look to government for solutions to more of life’s problems. As a result, our freedoms will diminish. Ultimately, it is a human rights issue. McFadden is correct in his statement that, Forced Government Schooling is, ‘A system designed to create “a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”

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