It’s about time we put religion back in our schools.
Now, hold on…I’m not talking about what you think I’m talking about.
The separation of church and state is important. I truly believe that prayer, theology, and religious practices are not meant to permeate the boundaries of our secular institutions—school, the halls of government, etc.
But that doesn’t mean we should take religious education—teaching students the basics of other religions, and non-religions, in a rigorously academic manner—out of schools. In fact, we should consider doing just the opposite.
Here’s why: while the United States is one of the most religious countries in the developed world in terms of belief and practice, it is one of the least religiously literate. That means that while we have faith, we lack facts. When it comes to knowing about religion—our own or that of others—we come up short.
Linda Wertheimer grew up in rural Ohio. She and her siblings were the only Jews in school. They faced a ton of anti-Semitic rhetoric and ostracism. Later in life, she wondered if it would have made a difference if teachers had taught her fellow pupils about many religions instead of promoting only one (Christianity).
Inspired by this experience and knowing that some schools actively engage in religious education, Wertheimer wrote the 2016 book Faith Ed. Not only does her book provide an in-depth and thoughtful look at particular cases of controversy and success in religious studies education at primary and secondary levels across the U.S., but she rightly highlights a public education system wrestling with the practicalities of how to nurture a new generation of religiously literate U.S. citizens.
What she found is that teaching about religion in public schools is important, and not only can it make a difference for religious minorities, but it can also renew a dialogue between religious leaders of all types on how we might work together toward peace and justice in the public realm.
Wertheimer said, “It’s more vital now than ever to emphasize the importance of religious literacy, because education can reduce ignorance and the bigotry we’re hearing aimed at Muslims in particular these days.”
The basic idea of religious education in public schools should be this: to learn not only the information about other faiths, but learn to respect other faiths and faith-filled persons even if we do not agree with them. That’s a tough thing to do, but some people are leading the way.
For example, Wertheimer highlighted the Core Knowledge curriculum offered by The Core Knowledge Foundation, which starts students out at a young age with information about different religions in a neutral, balanced way. The curriculum is based on what students should learn as part of social studies and geography.
Furthermore, parents can take the step to educate themselves and learn along with their children. Not only would this promote better religious literacy in the home, but would allow for parents to give guidance along the way if they were concerned about the content of their child’s education in religion.
Whatever we do, we can’t do nothing. It is vitally important that in an environment of highly-charged conversations that often unintentionally play on stereotypes, or even meaningfully demean people of other religions, that we take steps to learn more about other religions.
While a lot of Americans think religion shouldn’t be in schools because it’s against the law, it was actually Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark who said in 1963 that, “It might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization.”
Amen Tom. Amen.
This post reflects the views of the author, and is intended to start a conversation. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!
Or, if you’d like to hear some overall thoughts on education from Christians at THRED, you can find those over here.