“… 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?
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.
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.