Sacred Schooling? Religion and Education in America

“… and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible…”

Choirs of young voices have recited this pledge in public elementary schools all over the United States for many years. The school day begins with an invocation of that capital g word which seems so frequently to divide the “indivisible” Republic.

In the past decade, court cases have called for the removal of this pledge from public schools (CNN Library 2016). The Pledge of Allegiance prompts the question: is there room for God in the classroom, or should He stay in the church?

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This sign from a Lutheran school would seem drastically out of place in a public school, but is there any room for religion in the typical American classroom? (Beckler 2009)

This current debate is rooted in the founding of public education in America. American. The founders of public schools believed that education was a means to teach morality at a time when there was no conception of morality distinct from religion. The earliest public schools taught Biblical readings, but let the text speak for itself in attempt to ease the tension between different Christian beliefs (Feldman 2005, 64).

Whereas the historical problem facing public education was the conflict between various Christian denominations, the modern school system faces a more complicated puzzle. America today is a nation of diverse believers. The majority of Americans (70%) are Christian, but other world religions and secular groups have growing presences in this country (Pew Research Center 2017). The issue of religion and education has become a debate between freedom of religion and freedom from religion. Many people believe that allowing religion to have any space in public education imposes religious beliefs onto their children. On a national scale, the response has been to build up the wall between church and state, in an effort to be truly pluralistic. For example, the Supreme Court declared school prayer and Bible readings unconstitutional in the 1962 case Engel v. Vitale (United States Courts). It is this philosophy that allowed me, a 20-year-old student with no religious affiliation, to enter a Sociology of Religion course at an elite college with very little understanding of the beliefs and practices of the major world religions.

Recent educational laws and policies seem to support the secularization theory of sociologist Peter Berger, which predicted the increasing removal of certain institutional sectors such as education from the domination of religion (Berger 1967). Nonetheless, people in the United States and all over the world still claim to be very religious. Our public schools educate young people with the idea that religion is a taboo topic and then send them out into a world in which religion cannot be ignored.

Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, people have become more afraid of and angry at people whose religious backgrounds they do not understand (Peek). For example, the percentage of Americans who feel that Muslims do not share their vision of American society at all increased from 26.3% in 2003 to 45.5% in 2014 (Edgell et al. 2016, 13). In recent years, several public schools have explored the discipline of religious studies as a potential solution, with the idea that knowledge can lead to understanding and ultimately decrease fear and discrimination. Johansen High School in Modesto, California has implemented a mandatory world religions course for ninth grade students. The program increased students’ knowledge about other religions by about 30% as well as their respect for religious liberty (Lester and Roberts 2006, 7). Additionally, students reported that they had maintained whatever specific religious beliefs that they had held before taking the course, effectively alleviating the fears that religious studies would lead to conversion.

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(PragerU 2015)

Requiring students to say “under God” and Bible readings in the classroom reminiscent of early 19th century public schooling does not seem to fit in today’s world where American schools are filled with students from a wide variety of religious backgrounds. But the importance of religion in general must not be lost in our attempts at pluralism. Perhaps comparative religious education is the tool that we must use to combat religious intolerance in a world in which religion really does matter, but is becoming increasingly complex.

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8 thoughts on “Sacred Schooling? Religion and Education in America

  1. The idea of public schools integrating religious studies into the curriculum is really interesting! In a time of such poor communication and judgement between groups of differing beliefs, education could definitely act as a solution to help America’s future political participants to understand and appreciate those with other beliefs. The current attitudes in education concerning the hyper-importance of standardized testing and the relative vulnerability of subjects like art and music may stand as an obstacle to implementing any religious studies courses, but education on religion seems more necessary now than ever.

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  2. I found this post on the pledge of allegiance very interesting and relevant. As you said, following the 9/11 attacks, we are in a time period where religion is very stigmatized. We have discussed in class that we, Hamilton students, very rarely discuss religion inside or outside the classroom. It would be interesting to see if we could implement a world religions course similar to the one at Johansen High School at Hamilton to effectively educate students on the diverse religions in the Untied States.

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  3. This debate is very interesting. The theoretical lens of freedom-from vs freedom-of religion is definitely an important point. I worry that these debates are taking place in higher education and in legal spheres but not in public schools, where we hope to change things. These public school students are going to be part of a world where religion is incredibly central to many people. Therefore, I think it would be helpful to introduce a space within public schools where religion can be discussed as a concept and as a social movement. The debate focuses on religious references and doctrine, but these students are individuals who are taught to think critically about science, math, philosophy, history, and writing.. maybe its time we allow them a space to engage with all religious references and doctrine the way those in legal and higher academic spaces are… instead of trying to protect them from the influences that an unquestioned reference to religion will have, lets give them the tools to question these things for themselves.

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  4. Nora – I really enjoyed your informative post on the role of religion in public education. I think you looked at the issue from a well-informed, objective lens, which is not always easy to do when discussing something as personal as religion. Going to a private school for K-12, there was absolutely no mention of religion in the classroom. I think this definitely hindered my ability to understand religion generally, in both the local and global contexts. I appreciate and agree with your suggestion that comparative religion be taught in schools. The Lester & Roberts (2006) article is particularly interesting to me. This seems like great evidence for other schools to consider, showing that teaching religious studies increases knowledge, and not the likelihood that students will convert. Reading this, I wonder what the students think on the matter. Popular media typically highlights what policymakers, teachers, and parents believe should be taught in classrooms, but not the students. I would think that students would want to learn about a variety of religions, and that should be taken into consideration during curriculum development.

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  5. In our current society, religion can be a, as you said, “taboo” topic and unfortunately this has resulted in many people being uninformed about religion. I’m really glad that you brought up the example and idea of introducing religion classes into schools in order to teach and inform children about the diversely religious world they live in. Our class was the first time I had ever discussed my own religious and spiritual beliefs in an academic setting and I learned a lot about myself and the viewpoints of people who are more religious than me; a semester ago I never thought I’d say this, but I wish that I had talked about religion in grade school. Now, there is a very big difference between enforcing a specific religion on students and informing them about religious communities and beliefs, but your post indicates that it could be very helpful to introduce religious classes focused on informing students. It would allow children to learn more about religious backgrounds different then their own. We need more open conversation about uncomfortable topics and discussions like this post that force us to think more deeply about how religion is implemented and a part of our daily lives.

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  6. This topic is very interesting especially in the current political atmosphere with the Trump administration breaking down some of the walls that have stood between Church and State. I think, as you mentioned that the current treatment of religion as almost taboo in public schools is certainly having negative effects. There should certainly be more discussion and involvement with religion through out children’s schooling. However, addressing religion in a way that can create a class of students that leave their public education with a greater understanding and acceptance of other religions could prove to be difficult.

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  7. This post reminded me of how in my middle and high school, the Pledge of Allegiance was recited each day over the announcements and students were encouraged, but not required, to participate in the recitation. In general, it seemed many students stayed seated while a few would stand up and recite. It was an uncomfortable situation, because remaining seated felt like a strangely rebellious act, when really I simply wanted to support the separation of church and state and acknowledge the diversity of religious backgrounds present in my school (as well as in the U.S) by refusing to support the entirely Christian undertones of the pledge. In high school, I was lucky enough to have units on the major world religions taught in my history classes, and it was incredibly relevant and informative. I agree that it would have been even better to have had a religious studies course offered. Public education should not be supporting or condemning specific religions, but educating students on the history and ideologies of major world religions is important.

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  8. The idea of incorporating religious education into the secondary, or even primary, education curriculum may be the solution we need to promote religious tolerance. However, I am wary of the backlash that may occur when if our government ever tried to do this. While it is true that other religions and secular groups do have a growing presence, this country is still predominantly Christian; and as we saw from the last election, rather tolerant to xenophobia and bigotry. The incorporation of religious studies into the public schooling system may be interpreted as the government “tainting” young minds by some highly conservative political pundits. Additionally, it may be difficult to universalize the way in which a religious course. There may be situations in which hatred, rather than tolerance, is promoted when a religious course is taught with a negative bias.

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