Sunday School gap
Readers were treated this week when one of Paul Greenberg’s Pulitzer-Prize winning editorials was republished in the paper. Written 53 years ago next week, the entire editorial is a gem, but one paragraph stood out for its superb, sensible truism.
“It is unfortunate that, after all these years, the principle of treating others as one would like to be treated has to be put forward as a recommendation by members of a mayor’s committee,” Greenberg wrote. “That’s the sort of simple principle you’d hope people had picked up in Sunday School.”
He was speaking of the Pine Bluff mayor’s biracial committee, on the general subject of race relations, a topic about which he was eloquently ahead of his time.
What’s interesting is his reference to the ubiquitousness of Sunday School and the shame-on-you sentiment that too many adults involved had either ignored or forgotten its fundamental lessons.
They were raised better, and knew better.
His valid assumptions were that most people had attended or did attend Sunday School, and one of the core principles taught there was the Golden Rule. In 1968, only 3 percent of Americans declined to identify with any religious group. Organized religion was the 97-percent-norm, and almost all children were in Sunday School at some point. Many went every week.
That’s why Greenberg’s quip resonated so resoundingly. It was a signature turn of phrase, complete with alliteration—one the Pulitzer panel evidently commended.
But cultural truths can and do change, for better and for worse.
Studies by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program, regarded as the most comprehensive source of information on college students, have asked incoming freshmen about church attendance for more than 50 years. In 1968, nine out of 10 said they had attended a church service in the past year. In the 2020 CIRP report, only 65 percent said they darkened a house of worship’s door in the past 12 months.
Today’s millennial generation is in its child-rearing prime, but Pew Research Center data indicate their kids aren’t often in Sunday School. Only one in five millennials (22 percent) say they attend church weekly. Two out of three either never go at all (40 percent of millennials answered “none” when asked about their religious preference) or only show up for an Easter, Thanksgiving or Christmas services.
The latest Gallup poll on the subject reflects the lowest overall church membership in eight decades of surveying, and the first time it’s ever dipped below 50 percent. Barely a third of millennials belong to a church today.
Circling back to Greenberg’s jab about a municipal committee having to preach basic “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” morality, what retort would he have written today?
“That’s the sort of simple principle you’d hope people had picked up …” Where? It’s a difficult blank to fill in.
If impressionable kids and their parents aren’t regularly in Sunday School anymore, what is the alternative ubiquitous source that society can rely on to instill such plain “do unto others” doctrine?
That gap where a good answer should be poses a serious problem for a republic whose dependence on self-governance is anchored by the “indispensable supports” of “religion and morality,” to quote one founder (Washington) and paraphrase all the rest.
The first president was also firm in warning against imagining the two could exist independent of each other. Whatever hope refined education might carry, he cautioned in his farewell address, “reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
Secular morality, in other words, has historically been a fine theory, but a flawed practicality.
During the first 20 years of this century, all trends involving religious principle in the U.S. are pointed and moving the wrong way at an accelerating pace. This undoing of what the founders considered to be an essential requirement for self-governing success is unlikely to be without consequence.
So many of our confounding social ills correspond with this decline; the number of them directly made worse by it is a matter of ongoing debate. But if the founders’ wisdom holds (and history is surely on their side), the more untethered we become from the civil religion that united and bound us as a free and enduring nation, the less capable we’ll be of preserving it.
Worries about failing to properly appreciate our uniquely effective form of civil religion (nonsectarian but heavily influenced by Judeo-Christian values) aren’t new. Renowned sociologist Robert Bellah marveled in 1967 that “the relation between religion and politics in America has been singularly smooth,” but also warned that the “achievement is by no means to be taken for granted.”
We all carry the Great Seal on dollar bills in our wallets or purses, which says in Latin above the Eye of Providence, “God favors our undertakings.”
That was the common unifying belief in the 1780s and onward, the sort of simple principle people picked up in Sunday School or McGuffey’s Readers or the American Citizens Handbook.
What happens if it’s replaced by disbelief, widespread and divisive, from the 2020s forward is anybody’s alarming guess.