Exploring the relationship between citizenship education and religious education
Although citizenship education has been simmering in educational circles for about 20 years, it has recently
come very much to the fore of government policy. From 2002 it is supposed to be taught through all the other
subjects on the curriculum, including religious education.
However an examination of the documents published by QCA show that they contain many hidden or
unacknowledged assumptions. This is particularly disturbing as citizenship is an essentially contested concept
(Gallie, 1956) and there is concern about the possibility of political indoctrination. In this paper I want to
uncover some of these assumptions and explore their implications for religious education. I also want to outline
a critique of citizenship education from the perspective of RE.
The first question we should ask is, ‘what is citizenship?’ Derek Heater, the doyen of citizenship studies for the
past 20 years recommends the following definition from the Encyclopedia Americana: which he believes
everyone can accept:
Citizenship is a relationship between an individual and a state involving the individual’s full political
membership in the state and his permanent allegiance to it. . . The status of citizen is official
recognition of the individual’s integration into the political system. (Heater, 1992)
This of course raises the question of what is ‘a state’ or ‘the state’? Part of the problem is that the bivocal use
of the word ‘state’ is deeply embedded in the English language. In the former use, ‘a state’, it is synonymous
with the word country, a sovereign self-governing territory. In the latter, ‘the state’, it refers to the public
institutions and infrastructure or state apparatus. This is why the literature, in English at any rate, is very
confused when discussions of a/the state are involved.
This whole discussion is avoided in the documents published by QCA. As we shall see this is not really
The two issues that I particularly wish to focus on are identity and authority as religion, and hence RE, also
have much to say about them. But first of all it is necessary to unpack some of the ideas that are inextricably
linked to citizenship. This can only be done by a genealogical examination of their historical and philosophical
The classical roots of citizenship
The idea of citizenship developed in the Greek city-states, and is part of what Wilfred Cantwell Smith says,
deserves to be ranked as one of the world’s great religions.
“It is legitimate and helpful to consider . . . the Greek tradition in Western civilization,
rationalist-idealist-humanist, within the generic context of various [other] religious traditions
of mankind. It is neither absurd, nor trite, to reinterpret it as one of our planet’s major
religious traditions: different, of course, from each of the others yet comparable, and
understood most truly when so contrasted and compared.” (Smith, 1992)
This is of immense significance. If the whole idea of citizenship is inextricably bound up with a religious
world-view, citizenship education is unavoidably the initiation of people into a religion, be it a secular one,
with its own conceptions of identity and authority.
Traditionally though, Greek philosophy was treated as the handmaiden of theology with Judaism, Christianity
and Islam all borrowing from the Greek conceptual vocabulary in order to be able to give an intellectual
expression to their own religious insights. And at times, very rich syntheses of religious insight and Greek
philosophy were achieved by figures such as Maimonedes, Aquinas and Avicena. However, Greek philosophy
as a religion also had its own myths of human existence, origin and identity, its own language and terminology,
its own vision of human nature and community, its own theories of right and wrong, and its own view of the
good life and the ideal society.
It is to this original non theistic Greek philosophy and its later revival in Enlightenment thought, and not to
Aquinas, that recent writers on citizenship education have turned. So it is necessary to examine these concepts
and see how they contrast with traditional religious views.
Although he believed in God, Aristotle regarded human beings as essentially ‘political animals’ that could only
live a perfect and self-sufficient life if they became active citizens, knowing how to rule and be ruled, and thus
participating fully in the life of the state. Although Aristotle knew that such self-governing communities had to
be small, (a Greek city-state was probably the same size as a modern village), western intellectuals have been
captivated by the romantic ideal of participatory democracy ever since!
The state for Aristotle, and Plato before him, was the highest form of human organization, the source of a
person’s identity, and the highest authority. Plato even proposed the abolition of the family as it was an
alternative focus of loyalty that distracted people from their duty to lead a public life. But, even during this
period there was tension between Greek religion and the state as some cults, such as the Orphics, refused to
take part in the ritual sacrifices to the gods that were an integral part of civic life.
With the Romans, the state took on a theocratic dimension and is often written ‘State’. As well as being the
highest form of human community, it was the source of law and identity. A Roman citizen’s highest duty, or
purpose in life, was to serve the State. Roman religion too was primarily a cult of primarily political and state
significance. It did not have a developed system of beliefs or morals, but was merely a detailed ritual of
sacrifices and prayers to propitiate the gods, so that they would protect the State and brings its armies glory.
“[The State] is invested with an unlimited authority over the individual and the power to
exact from him the sacrifice of his personal interests, and even of his life. . . . This absolute
authority of the State is as noticeable in the late Empire as under the kings. It is this alone
which can saddle a man for life with the duties of a curialis even against his own wishes, and
makes possible the kind of state socialism which we meet with after Diocletian.” (Meynial,
As long as Roman citizens were willing to acknowledge the absolute authority of the state through fulfilling
the rather perfunctory rituals, they were allowed to follow whatever personal religion they pleased. It was their
identity as Roman citizens that united people of different religions at a higher level thus maintaining social
The Romans granted the Jews an exception, as they knew that they would never recognize the divinity of the
emperor or authority of the state. Hanukkah was a constant reminder of an earlier Jewish response to enforced
Hellenism. Christians later also came into conflict with this vision of the State and citizenship. As Alexander
Schmemann (1972) explains:
“Christianity never denied the benefits of the state or the possibility that it could be
enlightened by the Light of Christ. Yet the meaning of the Church's appearance in the world
as a community and a visible organism was that it revealed the limitations of the state,
destroying its claim to absolutism forever, however ‘sacral’ its nature might be; and it was
just this sacral quality that had been the essence of the ancient pagan state. The Church
revealed to the world that there are only two absolute, eternal, and sacred values: God and
man, and that everything else, including the state, is limited by its very nature—by belonging
wholly only to this world; and secondly, is a blessing only to the extent that it serves God's
plan for man. Therefore the ‘enlightenment’ of the state means primarily its recognition of its
own limitations, its refusal to regard itself as an absolute value. It was for this enlightenment
that Christians had suffered and died in the era of persecutions, when they rejected the right
of the state to subject the whole of man to itself.”
Even after the Empire became Christian, which it did for political reasons, the State never lost its theocratic
nature. Indeed under Justinian it became to all intents and purposes an example of Christian totalitarianism:
“As God's earthly deputy, the Emperor had both the prerogatives and the responsibilities to
put the Divine Will into action through his capacities as a lawgiver. His subjects must be
disciplined, guided, protected, and nurtured by his application of Christian principles to the
regulation of their lives and action.” (Barker, 1966)
The memory of the glories of Roman civilization has continued to haunt European history inspiring the
repeated attempts to reunite Europe from Charlemagne to Napoleon, and from Hitler to the European Union.
The modern roots of citizenship
After the collapse of the Empire in the West, the Church was the only enduring and civilizing institution that
remained. It tried to foster the formation of a Christian society, and for a time the Roman Church claimed the
power to make and unmake kings, because they were members of Christ’s Church and subject to its discipline.
Things started to change with what is traditionally referred to as the Renaissance which followed the recovery
of classical literature, culture and ideals. The reforming and modernizing spirit of this movement affected
everything: science, art, government, law and finally in northern Europe, the Church.
One of the most significant events was the discovery of the Emperor Justinian’s Law Code. Up until then kings
did not have the authority to make law as in the popular mind, and culture, this was something only God could
do. The kings, to their irritation, were bound by the law as their whole raison d’être was to uphold the law and
dispense justice. R.S. Peters has explained how things were very succinctly.
“In the medieval world the primary concept was not the state but the law. This law was not
made by politicians but was a part of the eternal order to be discovered by the study of
custom and precedent. It was made by God and applied to King and peasant alike.” (Benn,
As governments throughout continental Europe sought to modernize themselves, a ready-made corpus of
rational law that enhanced the power, authority and prestige of the State was much welcomed. Along with it
was inherited the authority that Justinian had abrogated to himself, “what the Emperor has determined has the
force of law.”
“Without the revolutionary idea that valid law might be created by an act of will, and not
simply discovered by an act of understanding, the modern theory of the state could scarcely
“The law-making state became the source of legitimacy for all other forms of social
organization; as the locus of sovereignty it was unique.” (Benn, 1958)
It was from this law making power that other functions of the state were derived and other concepts related to
citizenship flow. Let us look for example at the modern but popular concept of ‘rights’. As Peters explains,
“rules prescribe conduct and to that extent impose duties or obligations. If a duty is owed to a
particular person, there is nothing peculiar in saying that he possesses rights under the rule.”
Now in the past these rules were rooted in custom and tradition, the way of life of the people. No matter how
limited the resulting liberties were, they were a person’s birthright and could not be given or taken away by
anyone. When the state took upon itself the authority to make the rules and pass legislation, it was then the
state which bestowed rights upon its citizens. And of course, what the state bestows, it has the authority to take
away or suspend.
Thus the State, Hobbes’ Leviathan, gradually came to take the place of God, making law and being the sole
source of legitimate authority and identity. Anything outside the control of the State was by definition
unofficial and thus if not illegitimate, at least suspect.
There was only one institution that challenged the growing authority of the State and that was the Church. But
the corruption within the Church itself was its undoing. For example, before he was martyred, Thomas à
Becket had few supporters when he tried to defend the tradition that priests, even if they had committed
murder, could not to be tried and punished for their crimes in the King’s court.
The Reformation sparked off by Martin Luther, though, led to the break-up of medieval Christendom. No
longer did all Christians living in Europe, share the same Catholic faith, and acknowledge the authority of the
Pope. But the desire to belong to a community with a shared identity remained strong and this led the rise of
nationalism. People started to identify themselves as members of a particular nation first, and as Christians
second. The medieval synthesis of Aquinas was also shattered, as Protestants claimed that the sole source of
authority in the Christian faith was the Bible, interpreted by reason and guided by the Holy Spirit.
It was not long before people such as the English Deists, who were trying to make sense of the Bible, came to
the conclusion that it was illogical. There appeared to be many contradictions and many things, such as the
miracles, appeared to be fantastic. Although the Deists were intellectually trounced in England, when their
ideas crossed the Channel they were swallowed uncritically by the French intelligentsia.
Moving on from Descartes, the philosophes of the French Enlightenment rejected revelation and tradition as
sources of knowledge or morality. Instead they extolled reason as the only sure path to knowledge and as the
basis for society. Applying abstract rational criteria, the philosophes, who were nearly all atheists, became
highly critically of the Church and Christian morality. Instead of the traditional Christian virtues and values
they proclaimed new secular abstract ones, liberté, égalité, fraternité.
Rousseau and his contemporaries rejected monarchy and claimed that democracy was the only legitimate form
of government. It was only through participating in and submitting oneself to the will of the people could one
find true freedom. So when the revolution came the ancient order was swept away. But if one is going to
destroy the old order one soon needs to replace it with a new one and with new sources of identity and
authority. Feudal ties were replaced by loyalty to the State, and along with an attempt to abolish Christianity,
the Cult of Reason was introduced.
“In its Jacobin phase, the revolution is best understood as an effort to establish citizenship as
the dominant identity of every Frenchman-against the alternative identities of religion, estate,
family and region. Citizenship was to replace religious faith and familial loyalty as the
central motive of virtuous conduct. Indeed, citizenship, virtue, and public spirit were closely
connected ideas, suggesting a rigorous commitment to political activity on behalf of the
community-patria, not yet nation. In Jacobin ideology, citizenship was a universal office;
everyone was to serve the community”. (Walzer, 1989)
So citizenship became the source of identity for all Frenchmen. It was the State that demanded their loyalty and
thus on the statute book ‘crimes against the State’ (an unknown category in English law) are among the most
serious. It was the State that gave people rights and bestowed legitimacy on their activities. This is why today
any association from a Church to a chess club has to be registered with the State if it is to have any legitimacy.
And since man was no longer created by God, it was concluded that,
“. . . ultimately man was nothing but the product of the laws of the State, and that there was
nothing that a government was incapable of doing in the art of forming man”. (Barker, 1966)
And so the State then became responsible for shaping and creating its citizens in its own image and likeness.
“It is the task of the Legislator to bring about social harmony . . . to discover means of
placing men under the necessity of being virtuous . . . of forcing him to be just to others.
Since good laws alone make men virtuous, vice in society is the fault of the Legislator”.
The French Revolution is generally regarded as the birth of the modern era. Its influence was carried by the
French revolutionary armies throughout Europe and as far as Moscow leaving an indelible imprint on
European culture (Napoleon forced travellers in all the countries he conquered to use the right side of the road).
In Germany Hegel greeted the French Revolution with enthusiasm, although he was repulsed by the Terror that
followed. He developed the philosophy of the State to a new level. Although he was a liberal, many of the
passages of his books could be understood, and indeed were understood, as idolizing the state.
“The march of God in the world, that is what the state is.”
“As high as mind stands above nature, so high does the state stand above physical life. Man
must therefore venerate the state as a secular deity, and observe that if it is difficult to
comprehend nature, it is infinitely harder to understand the state.” (Hegel, 1942)
The path from Hegel to fascism and communism has been traced often enough. So too has the ‘religious’
nature of both of them by philosophers from Berdyaev, who called socialism a Christian heresy (Berdyaev,
1942) to Ninian Smart (Smart, 1992). This is not surprising because, as Cantwell Smith pointed out, the
philosophical tradition is really religious. And it is from this same philosophical stable that the European Union
and European Citizenship have come.
English philosophers who have theorized about the state have not deviated much from the Hegelian position.
For example Bosanquet, despite trying to give the central role to the idea of the individual, still ended up with
an unmistakably continental definition of the state.
“The term ‘State’ includes the entire hierarchy of institutions by which life is determined
from the family to the trade, and from the trade to the Church and University. It includes all
of them, not as the mere collection of the growths of the country but as the structure which
gives life and meaning to the political whole while receiving from it mutual adjustment, and
therefore expanse and a more liberal air. The State, it might be said, is thus conceived as the
operative criticism of all institutions—the modification and adjustment by which they are
capable of playing a rational part in the object of human will. It follows that the State, is in
this sense, above all things, not a number of persons, but a working conception of life. The
force of the State proceeds essentially from its character of being our own mind extended, so
to speak, beyond our immediate consciousness. The State is the fly wheel of our life.”
Identity and authority in England
Although there were philosophers like Bosanquet who wrote about the State, and TH Marshall who wrote
about citizenship, they were generally not taken seriously as such ideas were seen to be ‘foreign’. (Carr, 1996)
In fact it is often noted that British, and especially English history and culture has been quite different to that of
the continent. It is not possible, or hopefully necessary, to go into this in too much detail here. But one of the
profoundest differences was that in the modern period England was a Christian country through and through.
By this I mean that even the humanist tradition in England was Christian. Thus whereas on the continent
socialism was, and still is, inseparable from atheism, in England socialists were usually Christians, and the
founders of the Labour Party and Trade Union Movement were almost all Christians.
So there was never the need as existed on the continent, to find an alternative to God and the Christian faith as
a source of legitimate authority, law and identity. There was no need for British people to think of themselves
as citizens of a state. Those that cared to think in national terms, and many didn’t feel the need to, thought of
themselves as loyal subjects of the King or Queen.
‘In 1608 the last great common lawyer, Sir Edward Coke, defined allegiance to and
membership of the community in terms of a natural, perpetual and personal relationship with
the king.’ (Heater, 1990)
But even then, English people have always had the freedom to question the ‘system’ and kings who weren’t
doing there job properly were criticised and sometimes replaced.
Professor D’Entreves, a professor of politics in Milan University, commented that:
“A foreign observer is apt to be struck even today by the extraordinary circumlocution
resorted to in English to indicate what in his own language would be called ‘the State’
without any doubt or equivocation. There may be deep-rooted traditions for this, as well as
an inclination to use plain and simple speech whenever possible. In common speech both
Americans and Englishmen, unlike the Latin races, hardly ever mention the State: they prefer
to talk about the government, or the people, or the nation, or the country.” (D’Entreves,
Part of this linguistic awkwardness derives from the desire to keep the two different meanings of the word state
distinct. Thus the word state usually refers to the apparatus of government such as officials and bureaucrats,
but not the government itself. So becoming a loyal citizen of the state is psychologically impossible when one
associates the word state with road building, the DHSS and officious bureaucrats.
One of the major reasons for the lack of authority and respect for the state lies in the crucial difference of law.
Whereas on the continent the state adopted Roman Law, which is now called civil law, England didn't need to
as it already had a well-developed legal system based on common law. This is why in some respects England is
still a pre-modern society.
“In contrast to the formality of Roman law, Germanic law was said to belong to ‘the people’,
the corporate inheritance of ‘the folk’ and a summary of their common customs. It was from
these that the English later framed the origin of their ‘parliaments’ and the English system of
common law.” (Hall, 1984)
The state then had a very small role in the national consciousness because it played almost no part in the
ordinary life of the overwhelming majority of people. When English people traditionally think of the state they
see it as one of several institutions in civil society, not as civil society itself.
“Until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly
notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman. He could live
where he liked and as he liked. He had no official number or identity card. He could travel
abroad or leave his country forever without a passport or any sort of official permission. He
could exchange his money for any other currency without restriction or limit. He could buy
goods from any country in the world on the same terms as he bought goods at home. For that
matter a foreigner could spend his whole life in this country without permit and without
informing the police...” (Taylor, 1965)
It was this ordered liberty which was a birthright, and not the gift of the state, that English people treasured
above all else.
One of the defining characteristics of English civil society has always been voluntarism. First of all the state
did not see its role in interventionist terms. And secondly there has generally been a suspicion of state action
and a prejudice against receiving help from the state because of the loss of dignity and liberty it entailed.
Instead people have preferred to do things themselves and for others. Thus the origins of the educational
system are to be found in the Church schools and public schools, independent foundations established by
wealthy Christians. Hospitals too were founded by wealthy Christians, usually in the poorest neighbourhoods.
And welfare also had a voluntarist origin in the friendly societies, which were a training ground for adulthood.
(Green, 1993) It was not until the end of the nineteenth century that this strong moral hostility to government
involvement declined, and within a generation much of the voluntary sector was nationalized or undermined,
and replaced by state schools and the welfare state. (Whelan, 1996)
With the loss of the voluntary sector has come the loss of freedom and opportunities for people to become
empowered and develop a sense of responsibility. So naturally enough, human nature being what it is, people
have tended to become less responsible and less able to deal with the challenge of freedom. And hence the
apparent need for citizenship education.
Unlike other countries, Britain has never had citizenship education on the curriculum. The main reason derives
from the nature of English culture and history. The state has never featured very prominently in the
consciousness of English people until I suppose the creation of the welfare state. And without an idealised
‘state’ there is nothing for a citizen to feel that he is a member of or that he owes absolute obedience to.
‘No State, no citizen? The history of citizenship would suggest that the concept and status
have real meaning and vigour only when the impersonal notion of the state is a paramount
political ideal.’ (Heater, 1990)
Since this is the case it is no wonder that the government documents on citizenship education are full of
prevarication and woolly thinking. Indeed the whole idea of citizenship education would until very recently
have been rejected outright as the sort of indoctrination that occurs in foreign countries like France,
“French school have the duty and fundamental task of producing citizens who understand
and respect the constitution and the basic republican values of freedom, equality and
solidarity (liberté, égalité, fraternité).” (Starkey, 1992)
This is nothing less than indoctrination into the values of the secular Enlightenment, which are ‘religious’.
Andy Green, in his rather stilted Marxist analysis, recognized that unlike other countries, in England
government involvement in education per se was quite minimal, and in any case was not connected to
ideologically forming or strengthening the state. (Green, 1997) Green cannot really explain why as he doesn’t
take into consideration the peculiarities of English culture and attitudes which are not the product of economic
Education for citizenship and the teaching of democracy in schools was produced by the Citizenship Advisory
Group under the chairmanship of Professor Bernard Crick (QCA, 1998). It is very much a product of the
secular enlightenment ‘religion’ that I have outlined above. It comes as a response to a perceived crisis:
“Low voter turnouts, an increasing source of concern in those countries with voluntary
voting, threaten the legitimacy of the state as the embodiment and guarantee of citizenship,
and reduce the role of the electoral system as a form of citizen participation and action.”
To counter this ‘worrying’ tendency many people from across the political spectrum, but mainly socialists and
other statists, have argued that citizenship education should be introduced as a compulsory part of the school
curriculum. It also appears to fit in quite nicely with the government’s re-branding of Britain exercise. Thus the
“We aim at no less than a change in the political culture of this country both nationally and
locally: for people to think of themselves as active citizens”. (QCA, 1998)
This is a curious statement in several ways. First of all it says it’s aim is to get British people to think of
themselves as ‘citizens’. This sounds like the task the Jacobins set out to achieve in France, although here it is
being done bloodlessly and through the backdoor. It means using the educational system to change the way
that people form their identity. Now this was traditionally a natural goal of schools with a religious foundation.
But when a government tries to do this it is normally called indoctrination.
Secondly, citizens are citizens of a, or, the state. And as we have seen there is a huge amount of ideological
baggage that goes along with this idea. Cantwell Smith regarded the western philosophical tradition as a
religion, and so citizenship education is in many ways a dressed up state ideology. As Heater pointed out, for
citizenship to have any meaning the state has to be thought of as the ‘paramount political ideal’. If even
religious schools hardly dare to teach religion confessionally, it hardly becomes the state to impose its own
political correctness on school pupils. But in the age of Newspeak, when words are continually being redefined
and political correctness reigns supreme, with a bit of spin the re-branding and modernization of Britain can
brush aside such technicalities.
Thirdly, many writers recognize that the word citizenship is an essentially contested concept the definition of
which is inevitably is partisan. (Porter, 1993) (Rayner, 1997) The document also recognizes ‘the possibility of
bias and indoctrination,’ but slides round the issue by agreeing that while teaching about citizenship involves
discussing controversial issues, so too do history and other subjects. But this is not the point. To say that
British people should conceptualize themselves as citizens of the State, which everyone agrees they historically
do not, is in itself indoctrination no matter what definition of citizenship one settles upon. It is using the
educational system to socialize people into an alien identity which is the product of a secular European
modernistic liberal intellectual elite. Citizenship education takes for granted what ought to be proved namely
that people shouldn’t form their own identity and shouldn’t see themselves as loyal subjects of the Queen or as
slaves of Christ or whatever.
Fourthly, normally when a government wants to promote good citizenship or patriotism through the school
system, it tries to encourage pupils to understand and respect the institutions of the country. This document
does not. For example it says that,
“The purpose of citizenship education in schools and colleges is to make secure and to
increase the knowledge, skills and values relevant to the nature and practices of
participatory democracy.” [emphasis in original]
As we noted earlier, participatory democracy was the form of government of the Greek city-states and the ideal
of many political reformers. But Britain is not a participatory democracy. It is a representative democracy.
Britons elect people to represent them in parliament. So what is the point of increasing, “knowledge, skills
and values relevant to the nature and practices of participatory democracy,” unless it is to change the
political system. In promoting participatory democracy as the ideal, citizenship education paradoxically
undermines the legitimacy of the existing political culture and system which is a mixed constitution with
elements of a monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. In that sense citizenship education is a sort of revolution
through the back door.
There are almost no references to the monarchy or to the fact that the Prime Minister is the Queen’s first
minister. He is not elected in the way that a President is elected by popular mandate. He is merely the MP for a
particular constituency and the leader of the group of MPs that have formed a party within Parliament because
they share values and policies. Nor is there any recognition that the Queen herself is crowned by the
Archbishop of Canterbury and that the Church is older than the State. In fact the legitimacy of the state
depends on it upholding God’s law. Now this may all seem rather archaic at the beginning of the new
millennium, but one has a choice. Either the existing arrangements need to be renewed and filled with fresh
spirit, or, there needs to be a new constitutional settlement, openly discussed and arrived at by a consensus of
the overwhelming majority of the population if it is to have as much legitimacy as the present arrangements. It
is not appropriate to undermine the present system through the educational system and subtly impose a new
One important component of this ideology is the concept of ‘rights’. This is itself a deeply contestable concept.
Who is to decide who has what rights? What about the right to life versus the right to abortion? The right of an
unmarried person to have a child versus the right of a child to have a married father and mother? The right to
own a Rolls Royce versus the right not to have my self-esteem damaged by being exposed to something I
The English sociologist, T.H. Marshall, whose writings on citizenship are quoted approvingly in all the recent
literature on citizenship education, “conceptualized citizenship as a particular kind of legal status of ‘official
identity’ attached to ‘full membership’ of a sovereign self-governing community. As a legal status, citizenship
confers a right to have rights.” His very Platonic suggestion that, “societies in which citizenship is a developing
institution create an image of an ideal citizenship against which achievement can be measured and towards
which aspiration can be directed” (Marshall, 1950) obviously informs the citizenship document in which the
qualities of a good citizen are delineated.
This whole rationalistic approach is very reminiscent of what Oakeshott called the ‘morality of ideals’.
“The predicament of Western morals, as I read it, is first that our moral life has come to be
dominated by the pursuit of ideals, a dominance ruinous to a settled habit of behaviour; and,
secondly, that we have come to think of this dominance as a benefit for which we should be
grateful or an achievement of which we should be proud.” (Oakeshott, 1962)
When one looks at the history of England one can see that the present relatively democratic arrangements are
the product of a long evolution and that it is possible they may not last if they do not work. A good political
education would encourage pupils to explore the strengths and weaknesses of democracy, examine how other
political systems work, and not put democracy on a pedestal as if it were the ideal form of government. It is too
often forgotten that Hitler was democratically elected and democracy in Northern Ireland didn’t bring justice or
The QCA document is also remarkable for what it leaves out. Traditionally one of the highest duties of a
citizen or patriot is to defend, if necessary even at the cost of one’s life, one’s country. It is odd that no one
from the armed forces was invited to be on the advisory group. One can only guess that the loyalty of the
armed forces is to the Queen is regarded as anachronistic. Instead the main emphasis of citizenship is on
voluntary and community service as the sort of things that characterize good citizens.
“Citizenship education as generally conceived in England does include voluntary and
community service”. (Fogelman, 1997)
But if one was to ask a person why they are doing voluntary work or community service, they would be
unlikely express it in terms of their duty as a citizen. More likely than not it will be connected to their faith.
Authority and identity in religion
I have followed Cantwell Smith and Ninian Smart in drawing attention to the essentially religious nature of the
Hellenistic philosophy and enlightenment thought that citizenship education is derived from. Now I want to
briefly outline some of the ways that some other religions see things.
First of all, in terms of identity, theistic religions assert that the deepest source of human identity in a person’s
relationship to the divine.
“The central object of religious life is the apprehension and experience of divinity, perception
of and submission to the will of the deity or to the ultimate laws which govern human
existence.” (Shills, 1981)
For Jews, Christians and Moslems the definitive passage of scripture is “God created them in his image and
likeness.” If God exists and He created the universe then it follows that there is a purpose to human existence
beyond that which one might give one’s own life. As St. Augustine put it, ‘Thou hast created us for Thyself,
and our heart is not quiet until it finds rest in Thee.’ It is not possible then to follow Sartre and claim all
lifestyles and ways of living are morally equivalent. On the contrary, religions see themselves as following a
way of life that was revealed by God.
As an important part of their religious identity, Jews and Muslims boys are circumcised. From the perspective
of the enlightenment this could be seen as, and often has been seen as, a barbaric act, a violation of a persons
physical body, a violation of human rights or in the modern vocabulary, children’s rights. There are people
who think the state should prevent its citizens from being mutilated in this way.
Jews and Muslims also have strict food laws and insist that animals be slaughtered in a particular way. This
way is objectionable to people who argue for animal rights. At what point will the state decide that it has the
authority and the duty to intervene?
When a religious person does something ‘good’ he or she probably doesn’t see themselves as doing it because
it is their duty as a good citizen. He or she is generally motivated in quite a different way. It may be out of fear
of damnation, it may be out of compassion, it may be ought of a conscious desire to imitate Christ for example,
it may be because it is a commandment, or it may be ought of a desire to advance God’s kingdom. They would
be unlikely to express it in terms of their duty as a citizens. It may be the way a Kantian would think, but it is
not the spontaneous motivation of a religious person.
A citizen’s highest duty is usually thought of in military terms. Defending the state or, in obedience to the
sovereign, maybe attacking another. A religious person, for example a Jehovah’s Witness or a Quaker, when
confronted with such an obligation would probably refuse claiming to be a conscientious objector. The former
because they do not recognize the authority of the State, the latter because of a commitment to non-violence.
There is thus at the deepest level an incommensurability between forming one’s identity as a religious person
or as a citizen. This is because of the question of ultimate authority. One can see this in Northern Ireland where
there are clashes of identity that are both religious and political , and unresolvable as long as people take their
Traditionally government was seen as necessary to uphold and enforce the law of the land. This law was
grounded in the religiously influenced traditions and customs of the country. Recently though the government
has seen itself as the arbiter of morality and has passed laws which fly in the face of religious morality and also
the moral opinions of the vast majority of its citizens. It has done this because it has adopted a rationalistic
system of values in which all lifestyles are regarded as morally equal. Up until now it hasn’t given equal rights
to paedophiles, but within its own enlightenment framework there is no reason why it should not in the future.
This rationalistic approach is also embedded in the convention on human rights. Religious institutions in
Britain asked to be excluded from its requirements because it would have imposed on them alien concepts and
forced them to restructure their communities according to alien values. For example, in the Catholic Church
only men may become priests. Now whatever one thinks of this from the point of view of justice, equal
opportunities, or sexual discrimination, a religious community has the right to arrange its institutions according
to its own laws. And this right does not come from the state.
Furthermore, religious communities are rarely organized democratically. They are often hierarchical and
regard obedience to authority as an important virtue. Religious laws such as the Sharia are revealed and not the
product of a democratically elected legislature. The Dalai Lama was picked as a very young boy. The Hassidic
Rebbe inherits the role from his father. The political ideal of religions is also often not a democratic one. It
maybe a kingdom, it maybe a theocracy, rule by religious leaders. So the suggestion that participatory
democracy is the only form of legitimate authority can be quite corrosive of other forms of authority which are
not democratic but still legitimate within their own terms.
Religious communities have their own traditions, which are a reflection of their theological self-understanding.
Jews for example believe they were chosen by God to be a holy nation and that the laws, which they follow,
were given to them by God.
For Christians, the highest form of human community is the Church, which they understand as being the body
of Christ, the family of God. God is seen as the father of all humanity, and thus all people are ultimately
brothers and sisters transcending nationality, race and other ‘human’ categories. In the past they thought the
state should be subservient to the church.
In the moral realm, all religions offer very clear and detailed guidance abut what is moral and what is immoral
particularly in the realm of sexuality. All regard marriage as normal and God-given and regard sexual relations
before and outside marriage as a grave sin. They also traditionally condemn homosexuality as immoral and
unnatural. This is why the various faith communities in Britain have challenged the government’s attempt to
abolish section 28. They would argue that the state has no business defining what is moral and what is not
moral. This is the historical job of religion and the law should uphold traditional morality and not try to
Fundamentally it is a question of values, what is the legitimate authority for deciding what is moral and what is
immoral. I finish this section with a comment by R.M. Hartwell (Hartwell, 1975):
“’Up until our own times,’ Benda wrote, ‘men had only received two sorts of teaching in
what concerns the relations between politics and morality. One was Plato's, and it said:
“Morality decides politics”; the other was Machiavelli's, and it said: “Politics have nothing to
do with morality.” Today they receive a third. M. Maurras teaches: “Politics decide
In working, living and believing the state is now arbiter. It decides about the work place,
about the family, and about values. Since the market is no longer allowed to function freely,
the state must decide what to produce and how to distribute that production; since the family
as a social unit has declined because of the erosion of parental responsibilities largely as a
result of state action, the state must decide about education, health, behaviour, and all other
aspects of growing up and earning a living; and, finally, since the state decides what values
should prevail in society, and ensures that such values are embodied in legislation and
enforced by bureaucracies, the state has increasingly replaced the church in determining how
we should behave. Politics is now religion.”
RE as a critique of citizenship education
What then is the relationship between religious education and citizenship education?
According to the QCA document,
“RE provides opportunities to explore moral and social concerns”
This is a very tame place for RE which is not surprising when one consider the place of religion in the
“A main aim for the whole community should be to find or restore a sense of common
citizenship, including a national identity that is secure enough to find a place for the plurality
of nations, cultures, ethnic identities and religions long found in the United Kingdom.
Citizenship education creates a common ground between different ethnic and religious
identities.” (QCA, 1998)
This reminds one of the way that citizenship functioned in the Roman Empire. It was seen as a ‘higher’ identity
than that of the religious identity. Religion was functionally useful because at its civic best it created people
who were model citizens.
Apart from that, the philosophical culture from which citizenship comes is not known for its friendliness to
traditional religion which it has regarded as a rival, and so how it will create a common ground remains to be
There have been countries where such a policy has been implemented: the attempt to manufacture a
Yugoslavian national identity; the attempt to persuade a huge part of the world that they were Soviet citizens.
However, when the surface was scratched, out popped the old national and religious identities often more
vicious than before because of their suppression.
So what can RE contribute to citizenship education?
First of all religious education can unmask the presuppositions and assumptions that lie behind concepts that
citizenship education promotes. RE can show that these concepts are not neutral, but are an integral part of an
ideology and grounded in a world-view which is historically and philosophically hostile to traditional religions.
RE can systematically compare the concepts involved in citizenship, such as authority, law and identity with
similar concepts from the world religions. In this way pupils can form a context by which these ideas can be
RE can examine the philosophies of the enlightenment that lie behind modernity and citizenship education. It
can examine the enlightenment view of human nature, epistemology, ethics, and ontology and by comparing
them with the teachings of the world’s religion offer a critique.
RE can also look at the frequent occasions in history when the state sought to impose its ideology on people,
and persecuted religious people because they would not allow bow to the state, and refused to accept the state
as having the authority to determine what people believed. How have religious people responded when the
laws of the state contradict what they believe is God’s law?
On a more positive note RE can reveal the many different ways in which people have sought and found their
identity in relationship to a transcendent reality. It can show how people conceptualize their identity and
relationships to others without using the language of rights.
RE can let pupils be aware of the different teachings that religions have which explain the origin of the world,
humanity, the origin of evil and the providence of salvation. It can show the way in which religious people
view the world, view suffering, the environment, material prosperity etc.
RE can also explore the implications of the moral teachings of the world religions on matters such as sexuality,
abortion, war, justice, homosexuality etc. and compare them with the values that the state promotes. Should the
government through legislation uphold the traditional moral teaching and customs of the religious communities
that live in the country or should it try to reform them according to radical abstract enlightenment values?
RE can explore the role religion has played in the history of England from Pelagius to the reconciliation
between Saxons and Danes wrought by Alfred the Great (not part of the history National? Curriculum of
course); from the role played by the Archbishop of Canterbury in drawing up the Magna Carta, to the
flowering of spiritual groups during the Commonwealth; from the evangelical revival, to the formation of
voluntary societies, schools, Trade Unions and the Labour Party; from the abolition of slavery and child labour
to present-day religious freedom. From this pupils will be able to recognize the part religion, as opposed to
citizenship, played in the motivation of outstanding people.
In teaching pupils about religion and giving them the opportunity to learn from religion, RE can reveal to them
that there is what Evylen Underhill called ‘another world to live in’. Huston Smith who is probably the
foremost teacher of world religions has described what he wants his students to notice.
“The Lord appearing high and lifted up to Isaiah; the heavens opening to Christ at his
baptism; the universe turning into a bouquet of flowers for Buddha beneath the Bo tree. John
reporting, “I was on an island called Patmos, and I was in a trance.” Saul struck blind on the
Damascus road. For Augustine it was the voice of a child saying, “Take, read”; for Saint
Francis a voice which seemed to come from the crucifix. It was while Saint Ignatius sat by a
stream and watched the running water, and that curious old cobbler Jacob Boehme was
looking at a pewter dish that there came news of another world which it is always religion’s
business to convey.” (Smith, 1989)
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