Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.


Religion in the Classroom


Ruth Melkonian

02-26-2010


February 26, 2010

In a recent issue of Newsweek, religion editor Lisa Miller took Harvard University to task for failing to seriously educate its students in religion. This gap exists in part because of the pressure of some faculty who contend religion should not be prioritized in the core curriculum due to its perceived irrationality and incompatibility with modernization. Harvard neither requires a religion course, nor does it have a full-fledged department of religion.

Yet to truly understand individual behavior and the driving beliefs of most cultures and nations, students must understand religion. Religion is important in providing transcendent meaning and purpose for its adherents. It is not only a basis for conflict, but a means of reconciliation. And it often plays a fundamental role in holding governments accountable to the common good and serving as a voice for the voiceless. That is not to say that all major religions are the same and serve the same functions; they are, however, worthy of evaluation and understanding.

The public school system of the small city where I grew up (Modesto, CA) could teach Harvard a lesson. As Stephen Lazarus highlighted in this very space a few years back, Modesto has taken a forward-thinking and pluralistic approach to the incorporation of religion in the classroom. This has offered students the opportunity to learn about all major world religions, the history of American religious liberty, and the importance of religion in public life altogether. Indeed, Modesto’s is the only school district in the country to require a world religions course. After nearly ten years, scholars have found that, overall, students maintain their commitment to their own faiths, but also increase their commitment to the religious freedom of others, instilling respect versus suspicion.

By contrast, the public school system of Texas has lately been providing a model to avoid. A number of the members of the Texas State Board of Education are not simply interested in ensuring that students understand the import of religion in public life. Rather they are keen to ensure that students have grounding in a particular version of the role of Christianity in American history. To that end, some conservative Christian members of the school board have sought to revise state curriculum guidelines, and thus school textbooks.

As aptly described by Russell Shorto in a recent NYT Magazine account, there is reason for their frustration; many American textbooks have skimmed over the role of religion in the American founding. The remedy offered by David Barton and company, however, is hardly an antidote to the problem. Neither side seems interested in an account of American history true to the evidence, seeking rather to impose an interpretation favorable to their own agendas.

As has been famously said, “history is written by the victors,” and the battle for that privilege is being waged in Texas. Christian-nation advocates desire to focus curriculum on historic documents that emphasize the Christian advancement agenda of some founders, and to gloss over Enlightenment influences, the deism and/or freemasonry of a number of key American founders, low church membership rates at the time of the constitution’s writing, the lack of Christian symbols on our flag, and so forth. Meanwhile, secularists presume Jefferson’s reference to “a wall of separation between church and state” in a letter to the Danbury Baptists is to be read in one direction, to be applicable in all times and places, and to justify a inviolable privileging of secularism in the public square and in the classroom.

Those at Harvard who are hostile to religion, and those in Texas who seek to put a Christian nationalist spin on American history, could both learn from the example of Modesto. The education students need today to be effective national and global citizens will neither ignore nor establish religion.

— Ruth Melkonian-Hoover, Assistant Professor of
     Political Studies, Gordon College
 



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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”