Teaching religion in America’s schools

[Washington Window] Should religion be taught in schools?

In his posthumously published book, Does God Make A Difference? Taking Religion Seriously In Our Schools and Universities, Warren A. Nord – a former professor of the philosophy of religion and the philosophy of education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – argues that it should be.

Further, he asserts, proceeding on the assumption that “God is either dead or irrelevant” has made America’s public schools “superficial, illiberal and unconstitutional.”

“Nord’s book is an educational, moral, civic and constitutional argument for providing students the information they need to be citizens,” said Charles C. Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, kicking off an April 26 panel discussion co-sponsored by Wesley Theological Seminary.

Nord’s conviction that an educational system that ignores the great existential questions is not worthy of respect came under scrutiny from Haynes and panelists Shaun Casey, professor of Christian ethics at Wesley, Emile Lester, assistant professor of political science at Mary Washington University, Melissa Rogers, director of the Center for Religion and Public Affairs at Wake Forest University and Michael Waggoner – who served as moderator – professor of higher education at the University of Northern Iowa and editor of Religion & Education.

The 1963 Supreme Court decision that disallowed Bible reading and prayer recitation in schools but allowed for the neutral teaching of religion has been widely misunderstood, Waggoner said, explaining that “neutrality deals with a school’s posture toward religion.” Schools cannot promote or denigrate religion, or promote one faith over another. “They must teach about religion in an academic sense rather than a devotional sense.”

“That message didn’t come through as clearly as it might have done” in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s ruling, he said. “God was not ‘kicked out of school.’ Schools can indeed teach about religion. Schools aren’t ‘religion-free zones.’ They aren’t required to be, they shouldn’t be – they can’t be in order to present a liberal education.”

As to whether teaching religion is “a legal requirement,” Rogers said the Supreme Court has been reluctant to become a “curriculum cop.” Lester agreed that pursuing the legal avenue would be a thorny approach to the issue.

“I do think it’s educationally required for schools to teach about religion,” Rogers said. But she stressed – as does Nord – that teachers must be properly trained in order to do this effectively.

Casey suggested several practical approaches, building on the existing educational framework.

“In the Fairfax County school system, if you want to start a trend, offer an AP course in it,” he said, noting that if a world religion course is offered, teacher training will follow.

“There are universities that do a very good job of teaching religion and equipping teachers,” he said, singling out the University of Virginia. Waggoner added the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and California State University, Chico to that list.

Haynes and Rogers commended the Face to Faith global curriculum produced by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.

Lester, author of Teaching About Religions: A Democratic Approach for Public Schools, described his research in Modesto, Calif. – the only school district which requires high school students to take a course in world religion. Students emerge from the eight-week class – which has been offered for 10 years with no controversy – “more knowledgeable, more tolerant and respectful.”

Waggoner spoke of the need to sensitize educators to the fact that silence on religion also speaks: “I do think it sends a troubling message that religion plays no role and can be ignored.”

Students should be able to express their values and moral views within the curriculum, he said – on poverty, economics, public issues – and schools should “allow students to express their faith and wipe away this misconception that we can’t speak about religion on public property.”

While the religious right has been vocal on the issue of religion in schools, the mainline Protestant denominations (among them the Episcopal Church) have been “conspicuous by their absence,” Waggoner said.

“Protestant denominations have sort of endorsed the not-teaching of religion through fear,” Casey said, though the prevailing view, that it’s “better not to teach it than to trample minority religions,” is slowly beginning to change. “The First Amendment doesn’t require equal time, but it does require rationalization of what you’re teaching.”

“Religious illiteracy in this country does not serve anybody well,” he added, noting that in the post-9/11 world, schools are beginning to understand this better.

“Hate, and in my view, intolerance, is rooted in this silence and this ignorance about one another,” Haynes said, adding that according to Nord, “neutrality requires fairness,” which cannot happen when schools are mute on the subject of religion.

“The lived situation is that more and more children are encountering pluralism,” Casey said. “But the system has not caught up with it. There are compelling and more deeply textured world views out there than there used to be.”

First appeared in Washington Window, Vol. 80, No. 3, May/June 2011 as

Teaching religion in America’s schools

Newseum panel asks, Does God make a difference?