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Liberal Civic Education, Religious Commitment, and the Spillover Thesis: What Psychology Can Teach Us

  • John L. Phillips (a1) and Laura McMillian (a2)


This article addresses an idea central to liberal debates on civic education: the spillover thesis. Both egalitarian liberals and their religious opponents in these debates claim that liberal civic education creates spillover effects into the way individuals assess the meaning of their own lives. Some religious citizens fear that their politically reasonable conceptions of the good life are being undermined by education that emphasizes the practice of autonomous reasoning. Egalitarian liberals usually acknowledge this risk or cost, but deny that religious citizens should be given special dispensation from the burdens of autonomous reasoning. Some may even hope that conservative religious beliefs will be eroded by the practice of liberal civic education. This article disputes the spillover thesis. Given the best evidence available from the field of cognitive psychology, we challenge the notion that critical personal reflection about public matters is bound to spillover into critical reflection about private moral matters. On the contrary, the evidence suggests that human beings are usually well equipped to compartmentalize and are capable of reasoning in different ways depending on the context. Thus, reasonable citizens of faith are not necessarily unduly burdened by programs of civic education; nor are liberal programs of civic education necessarily going to lead us to a more secular society of autonomous thinkers. The article also speaks to a broader civic humanist tradition in political philosophy that includes Plato, Tocqueville, Rousseau, and Marcus Aurelius. For these authors, the success of a political enterprise is seen to crucially depend on the inculcation of a robust and comprehensive system of private virtue. For without private virtue, there is no public virtue. If we are correctly interpreting the available psychological research, private virtue need not be as crucially relevant for the success of common political enterprises. The inculcation of private moral virtue does not so clearly translate into making good leaders, voters, and public servants.


Corresponding author

Address correspondence and reprint requests to: John L. Phillips, University of North Carolina, Caldwell Hall, CB #3125, 230 East Cameron Avenue, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3125. E-mail:; or Laura McMillian, Pepperdine University. E-mail:


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Liberal Civic Education, Religious Commitment, and the Spillover Thesis: What Psychology Can Teach Us

  • John L. Phillips (a1) and Laura McMillian (a2)


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