Associate Professor and Chair of Religious Studies Richard Salter ’86, P’15 recently gave a lecture titled, “The Promises and Pitfalls of Moral Formation in American Civil Religion,” at Silliman University in the Philippines. The lecture took place on Jan. 12, and was the start of the university’s General Education Integrative Learning Lecture series for the spring semester.
The lecture covered American Civil Religion, and what Salter believes are some of the “good things and bad things about the way it tries to make people into good citizens.” He focused specifically on service, service learning, and volunteerism, and the potential risk of creating cynicism when volunteerism is forced.
“When service is required, a dimension of coercion is introduced which may undermine its goals,” Salter said. This “perversion” of service, he explained, is what confronts students in the United States, especially with the integration of service-learning in school curricula.
He walked his audience through four significant periods in American history, all of which reveal the development of what he called “a trend” of service in religion. He cited the American expansion and imperialism; the age of the Thomasite mission; the founding of the U.S. Peace Corps and the many service and voluntary organizations that followed it; and the rise of voluntary service through community engagement and service-learning programs. Three of these four periods in U.S. history, interestingly, involve the Philippines.
Of particular interest to Salter is the Thomasite mission. The Thomasites were a group of 500 teachers sent from the U.S. to a university in the Philippines in 1901. Salter calls them the “forerunners” of the Peace Corps and other volunteer organizations like AmeriCorps and JobCorps. Through his studies on the Thomasite mission, Salter has discovered that two of the teachers were graduates from the Hobart class of 1901: H. L. King ’01, of Geneva, N.Y. received his B.L. and D. M. Kirby ’01, of Potsdam, N.Y. received his B.A.
HWS also has other connections with the foundation of education in the Philippines in the early 1900s.
Bishop of Western New York Charles Henry Brent, who served as chancellor of Hobart and on the Board of Trustees, was the first Episcopal Bishop of the Philippines in 1901 before coming Hobart. Reverend Murray Bartlett L.H.D.’37, who served as president of Hobart and William Smith from 1919-1936, also served with Brent in the Philippines. He was the first president of the University of the Philippines in Manila before returning becoming president of Hobart College.
Throughout the lecture, Salter also tackled the ways in which the risks of service learning and forced volunteerism can be avoided. Although Salter says he did not have any real answers to the problem, he instead focused more on “exploring the topic,” something which he has been interested in since he served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the West Indies from 1986 to 1988.
“I certainly do not want to say that service or service-learning is universally a bad thing,” said Salter. “It clearly helps many people, and it can be a transformative experience. But looking at service theologically, I am aware that it can be perverted or twisted from its original ends.”