Yes: Religion too important to ignore
It’s easy to understand why discussions of religion, no matter where they take place, make some people uncomfortable. But that’s no reason to ban the topic from American classrooms.
Many of the people who first came to America were seeking a place to freely practice their faith. The majority of our colonies, at one time, had official churches.
Over time, the idea of religious toleration developed, in which colonies with established religions would tolerate the practice of other faiths. By the time of America’s founding, we had moved beyond religious toleration to an American understanding of religious liberty, which is enshrined in our founding documents.
But in protecting “the free exercise of religion,” as the Bill of Rights puts it, we have sometimes gone too far. The separation of church and state does not require that the government shun religion, only that government not compel worship or favor a particular religion.
The American social studies classroom is the ideal place to talk about the role religion and faith have played in American history. As the National Council for the Social Studies writes, “Knowledge about religions is not only a characteristic of an educated person but is necessary for effective and engaged citizenship in a diverse nation and world.”
Even the American Civil Liberties Union agrees with this. “It would be difficult to teach art, music, literature and most social studies without considering religious influences,” notes a statement on religion in public schools jointly signed by the ACLU and numerous other organizations spanning the ideological, political and religious spectrum.
At the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University, academic programs are all based on the premise that the best way to learn about American history and government is to learn it from those who lived and shaped it.
To know what they thought, how they felt, and what motivated them personally and intellectually — in many cases their faith — our students read their letters, speeches, pamphlets and books.
The role of religion in American history and politics is part of this ongoing first-person story.
To understand the motivations and thinking of the early colonists, for example, we suggest that students read John Winthrop’s 1630 discourse, “A Model of Christian Charity,” which lays out a vision for building a godly commonwealth and urges Massachusetts Bay colonists to “be generous with their resources ... considering the good of their neighbor to be integral to their own good.” Good advice for today as well.
Our suggested reading list on religion in American and politics includes 25 core documents that helped shape our nation, such as:
▪ Cotton Mather’s 1718 essay on “the principles of reason.”
▪ George Washington’s 1790 letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport R.I.
▪ Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, delivered in 1865.
▪ Henry Ward Beecher’s “Moral Theory of Civil Liberty,” written in 1869.
More recent writings include Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1933 address to the National Conference of Catholic Charities, the Rev. Martin Luther King’s 1962 Ebenezer Baptist Church sermon, “Can a Christian Be a Communist,” Ronald Reagan’s remarks at the 1983 annual convention of the National Association of Evangelicals, and Barack Obama’s 2009 address at Cairo University.
As any honest historian will attest, there is no way to divorce American government and history from the religious beliefs of those who created our government and lived that history.
The National Council for the Social Studies puts it like this: “Only through learning about religions and beliefs will young people be adequately prepared for citizenship in a religiously diverse society and world.”
Schools shouldn't run from the topic; they should embrace it.
Roger L. Beckett is the executive director of the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University. Readers may write him at 401 College Ave., Ashland, OH, 44805.
No: Imperfect school system doesn’t need more distractions
Every morning in grade school, we said the Lord’s Prayer. I still remember the words.
That’s somewhat remarkable considering I never believed in a god back then and still don’t today.
That said, being required to pray did not cause any lasting damage to my psyche. But I’m still convinced there are dangers to mixing religious observance with public education.
The key question for those who want religion in schools is this: Can you handle the truth?
Because the truth is different people want their children to believe different things, and that’s everyone’s right.
Based on the way our educational institutions work and drawing on past experiences, it’s almost certain school-sponsored religious observances would be one-size-fits-all exercises going against the preferences of at least some, if not many.
Even the most basic type of prayer affronts those who don’t want to pray. And meanwhile, some common prayers might be rejected by devout Christians as weak tea.
The most important feature of America’s kindergarten-through-high-school public education system is that its governance is decentralized. And that same attribute would make allowing religious instruction particularly troublesome.
Because birds of a feather flock together and the members of many communities worship in the same way, there are minorities everywhere who would risk being big-footed by majorities who would want their local schools to reflect their religious preferences. Consequently, introducing any particular worship — or discussing even the history of religion in local schools — is a formula for discord, which public schools need like a new rat population.
Rather than debate about religion, we should focus on teaching students practical skills. In our increasingly integrated world, technology has brought diverse groups closer together, requiring individuals to go outside their bubbles and understand broader society.
And even if greater discussion of religion were permitted, would local school boards allow teachers to talk about religious groups outside the mainstream? And what about Islam?
No shortage of libelous, ignorant rubbish is circulated about that religion and its adherents in the U.S. by groups including well-known entertainers, politicians and religious leaders. What would schools have to say about that?
But it’s not just Muslims who face discrimination.
My daughter recently gave me a study Bible as a gift. It includes a page that soberly explains why Mormonism is not a legitimate type of Christianity. And in addition to inter-Christian squabbling, there is anti-Semitism and assaults against Sikhs.
Us all getting along? The evidence is mixed.
The fact is, schools have their hands full with reading, writing and arithmetic.
For the foreseeable future, I think we’ll have to make peace with the fact that, as Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The most segregated hour of Christian America is 11 o’clock on Sunday morning.”
Max B. Sawicky is an economist specializing in public finance and privatization. Readers may write him at Center for Economic Policy Research, 1611 Connecticut Ave. NW, suite 400, Washington, D.C., 20009