The Honor System

The honor system is something many of us have heard about all our lives. It’s a system by which we survive by following unspoken but well-known rules, like not cheating on tests, not pilfering from the cash drawer at work, not stepping out on our significant other while we are on business trips. These are things that we’ve heard about, but that, at a certain point in our lives, no one should have to tell us directly. They are – at least in certain societies – rules that we’ve grown up with and grown into and pretty much abide by automatically.

There are other rules that we learn along the way, mostly because some of them are age appropriate rules. For example, we don’t teach infants about not pilfering petty cash because they are too young to understand the language and at that age, will probably not encounter a situation in which that would occur. Some driving rules and laws are learned by everyone who’s ever been in a motor vehicle, but the enforceable regulations are taught at the time one becomes old enough to operate a motor vehicle legally, and those rules and laws are taught both in written form and by actual driving lessons and practice. So, for example, by the time you get your first license, you know that you stay on your own side of the double yellow line, and if you don’t there is a possibility that you will be summonsed or that you will be in a really serious head-on collision, from which you may not survive long enough to have learned that lesson. But most of us internalize the lessons we have learned, either through observing social norms or being told outright.

Believe it or not, the same concept applies to politics and religion. In the world in which I grew up, it was pretty much understood that religion was something you learned about in your church, mosque, synagogue, temple, gurudwara – and at home – and politics was something you learned about in school:  in Civics and Social Studies classes, history classes, and modeled in the schools themselves by having student government. If you were interested in learning more about religion, you could attend a seminary of some sort after high school or college graduation, and if you were interested in learning more about politics, you could attend college and major in political science, attend law school, work for a local political group. These, themselves, were unspoken rules, and believe it or not, in the United States of America, they were established by the First Amendment to the Constitution, which clearly states that government – OUR government – “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…,” which had pretty much been interpreted by our founding fathers and later political figures as meaning a “separation of church and state.” In other words, there are lots of religions out there, but each should be taught in its own house of worship, and schools would teach the “three rs.”

It should go without saying that this has been the norm in the US. I remember when I was in school that there were days that the Catholic kids had catechism after school, so instead of going directly home, they were ferried by carpool to their nearest church, and the same happened with the Jewish students who attended Hebrew School after school several days per week. No one thought anything of it, except when trying to schedule after school activities, but we were all fine with it. They got the same secular education as the rest of us, and some religious education tacked on that was for them, but not for other kids whose parents had other beliefs. The interesting thing is that this was part of the honor system of the US Constitution. The Constitution had been read, interpreted and honored by legal scholars, and it was determined that this is the way things would work. The other interesting thing is that despite the disparate belief systems of the kids who attended their Friday, Saturday, Sunday and after school religious activities, we ALL attended secular school together, all learned to read, write, do math, read weather maps, know where on the globe various countries were located, know the differences between reptiles and amphibians, and how to play Dodge Ball. No problems, no conflicts, no questions. And we all got along. Whatever your religion, you were just another kid in the public school system. And, by the way, the parents of the kids who had extra curricular religious instruction paid for it out of pocket, just as my parents paid for my cello lessons out of pocket.

It is only within the last, say, three decades, that people seem to have forgotten our Constitutional honor system, and especially since the Dump* “administration” that people have started clamoring about us having taken God out of the schools. Again, if you’ve read the Constitution, you will understand that God was never IN the schools, except insofar as that an omniscient, omnipotent, all-seeing power is everywhere at once, and therefore as much in the schools as in the produce department of every supermarket everywhere. But the TEACHING of religion – except for world religion studies – was specifically kept OUT of the schools by the Constitution. And it was done so for a reason. The pilgrims who came here on the Mayflower did so because they had religious beliefs and practices that differed from those of the King of England, and wanted to practice their religion their way, and even though the Constitution was written nearly 150 years after the Mayflower docked at Plymouth Rock, the writers of the Constitution were determined that that could happen in this new country without the interference of government dictates and mandates. They specifically declined to teach religion in public schools (which are also federally mandated) so that there would not be any persecution in the schools, or the teaching of any one government-sponsored religion to people who might not be of that faith. It is also understood that some religions proselytize, and that was thought not to be appropriate for public schools. So religion is still expected to be taught only in various houses of worship, but NOT in public schools.

What seems to be happening now, however, is that people have not read the Constitution – I now carry a pocket Constitution with me EVERYWHERE – nor have they read their bibles. I guess all those years that we depended upon the recommendations of our legal scholars and abided by the honor system meant that we got lazy and failed to teach every single high school graduating class about the Constitution and its importance in our government. And religious institutions have been equally remiss in failing to teach their graduating classes both about their respective holy scriptures and the Constitution. Not, of course, that religious school students ought to be taught political science or government studies classes, but they do need to know about how the Constitution pertains to their religion so they understand why there is this separation of “church and state.”

Let us be clear:  the separation of church and state applies to institutions – to religious institutions and government institutions – but not always to certain religious practices. For example, if I decide to eat kosher food, as long as I am not interfering with anyone else in their religious practice or every day life, or doing something harmful to another person, that is my own business. I can go to a supermarket and buy what is appropriate for me and my household, and no one else suffers. If someone asks me about why I eat kosher food, I am more than willing to explain, but neither am I obliged to force that person also to eat kosher food. Education is education; forced religion is not.

But now we are seeing the unfortunate rise of certain religious factions that are not satisfied with keeping their religion confined to their own houses of worship, but which feel that their religion is the only correct one and that we should all be practitioners of their faith. This is precisely what the founding fathers were trying to avoid when they crafted the First Amendment prohibition against state-sponsored religion. Further, of course, is the issue of the religious beliefs and practices of these specific faiths, which deviate from the accepted norm so far as almost to be bastardizations of the basic tenets of the faith. If there are so many visions and versions of one faith, who says which one is right, which one is wrong, and which should be thrust upon disinterested nonbelievers? And thus, the founding fathers are again being proven correct in their assessment, and the teaching of religion should be prohibited in public schools. The proof of this can also be found in Afghanistan and Iran, where religious leaders run a strict theocracy and where nonbelievers or disbelievers or believers of a kinder, more gentle form of Islam can be maimed or killed for believing anything other than the state-sponsored version. I don’t care to see this happen in the US, but religious leaders who are too sure of themselves and too convinced that their version of their religion is the only correct one and that everyone else should be forced to conform are as likely as not to become the “American Taliban.”

It is therefore incumbent upon us to educate our children about the Constitution, as well as their own religion, and to put them on the honor system track of separation of church and state. We need people to understand why the extreme religious groups are so dangerous, and why another Dump “administration” would be equally as dangerous for bowing down to them. Of course the fact that some of these extreme religious groups purportedly read a bible that talks about the “prince of peace,” yet advocate for the murder of their enemies is not an easy dichotomy to explain, but nevertheless, they need to be confined to their own houses of worship, and never be permitted to violate the law of the land by being present in the public schools or in government itself. And it is the Constitution they claim to prize that says so. And it is the honor system that says so; yet it is failing us.

An honor system is only as good as the precepts that form it and the people who practice it. In my bible, at least, I see some laws, both positive and negative, that seem to have been based on people’s inability to follow the honor system and be kind and gracious to their neighbors. I hate to say it, but it is reactive rather than proactive, and this is because once the innate character of human beings was recognized, rules needed to be put in place to prevent us from becoming monsters. The Constitution, in many ways, follows suit, and the prohibition against the mixing of church and state is plainly reactive. The excesses happened before, and if not outlawed, could happen again, but only if we familiarize ourselves with the Constitution and practice the honor system can we prevent disaster in this country.

* A serendipitous contraction of the first letter of his first name and the last three letters of his last name.

(c) 2024 MyPoliticalSelf / S.Schimek

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