In a 1925 essay on reforming government schools, J. Gresham Machen pointed out the immorality of rooting morality in patriotism. Whether based on nationalism or on broader human experience, however, a humanistic morality is “flimsy,” according to Machen. Machen was willing to accept “secularized public education” as “a necessary evil,” but wanted to reduce “the danger of that institution” by limiting its functions, by discouraging the “garbled” reading of the Bible in government schools, and providing for unhampered competition from private and explicitly religious schools.
At the root of the Christian attitude is a profound consciousness of the majesty of the moral law. But the majesty of the moral law is obscured in many ways at the present time, and most seriously of all in the sphere of education. Indeed, strangely enough, it is obscured in the sphere of education just by those who are becoming most keenly conscious of the moral bankruptcy of modern life. There is something radically wrong with our public education, it is said; an education that trains the mind without training the moral sense is a menace to civilization rather than a help; and something must quickly be done to check the impending moral collapse. To meet this need, various provisions are being made for moral training in our American public schools; various ethical codes are being formed for the instruction of children who are under the care of the State. But the sad thing is that these efforts are only making the situation tenfold worse; far from checking the ravages of immorality, they are for the most part themselves non-moral at the root. Sometimes they are also faulty in details, as when a recent moral code indulges in a veiled anti-Christian polemic by a reference to differences of “creed” that will no doubt be taken as belittling, and adopts the pagan notion of a human brotherhood already established, in distinction from the Christian notion of a brotherhood to be established by bringing men into common union with Christ. But the real objection to some, if not all, of these efforts does not depend upon details; it depends rather upon the fact that the basis of the effort is radically wrong. The radical error appears with particular clearness in a “Children’s Morality Code” recently proposed by “The Character Education Institution” in Washington. That code contains eleven divisions, the subheadings of which are as follows: I, “Good Americans Control Themselves”; II, “Good Americans Try to Gain and Keep Good Health”; III, “Good Americans are Kind”; IV, “Good Americans Play Fair”; V, “Good Americans are Self-Reliant”; VI, “Good Americans Do Their Duty”; VII, “Good Americans are Reliable”; VIII, “Good Americans are True”; IX, “Good Americans Try to do the Right Thing in the Right Way”; X, “Good Americans Work in Friendly Cooperation with Fellow-Workers”; XI, “Good Americans are Loyal.”
Here we have morality regarded as a consequence of patriotism; the experience of the nation is regarded as the norm by which a morality code is to be formulated. This (thoroughly non-moral) principle appears in particularly crass form in “Point Two” of the Institution’s Five-Point Plan for Character Education in Elementary School Classrooms: “The teacher,” says the pamphlet, “presents the Children’s Morality Code as a reliable statement of the conduct which is considered among boys and girls who are loyal to Uncle Sam, and which is justified by the experience of multitudes of worthy citizens who have been Uncle Sam’s boys and girls since the foundation of the nation. The teacher advises the children to study this Morality Code in order to find out what Uncle Sam thinks is right….”
But what of those not infrequent cases where what “Uncle Sam” thinks is right is what God thinks is wrong? To say to a child, “Do not tell a lie because you are an American,” is at bottom an immoral thing. The right thing to say is, “Do not tell a lie because it is wrong to tell a lie.” And I do not think that it is an unconstitutional intrusion of religion into the public schools for a teacher to say that.
In general, the holier-than-thou attitude toward other peoples, which seems to be implied in the program of the Character Education Institution almost from beginning to end, is surely, at the present crisis in the history of the world, nothing short of appalling. The child ought indeed to be taught to love America, and to feel that whether it is good or bad it is our country. But the love of country is a very tender thing, and the best way to kill it is to attempt to inculcate it by force. And to teach, in defiance of the facts, that honesty and kindness and purity are peculiarly American virtues–this is surely harmful in the extreme. We blamed Germany, rightly or wrongly, for this kind of thing; yet now in the name of patriotism we advocate as truculent an inculcation of the same spirit as Prussia could ever have been accused of at its worst. Surely the only truly patriotic thing to teach the child is that there is one majestic moral law to which our own country and all the countries of the world are subject.
But the most serious fault of this program for “character building” is that it makes morality a product of experience, that it finds the norm of right conduct in the determination of that “which is justified by the experience of multitudes of worthy citizens who have been Uncle Sam’s boys and girls since the foundation of the nation.” That is wrong, as we have already observed, because it bases morality upon the experience of the nation; but it would also be wrong if it based it upon the experience of the whole human race. A code which is the mere result of human experimentation is not morality at all (despite the lowly etymological origin of our English word), but it is the negation of morality. And certainly it will not work. Moral standards were powerful only when they were invested with an unearthly glory and were treated as quite different in kind from all rules of expediency. The truth is that decency cannot be produced without principle. It is useless to try to keep back the raging sea of passion with the flimsy mud-embankments of an appeal to experience. Instead, there will have to be recourse again, despite the props afforded by the materialistic paternalism of the modern State, to the stern, solid masonry of the law of God. An authority which is man-made can never secure the reverence of man; society can endure only if it is founded upon the rock of God’s commands.Machen, in Education, Christianity, and the State, ed. John W. Robbins, pp. 60–63.