How to Teach Religion in Public Schools

Religion professor argues for teaching Bible, church history and world religions in public schools.

By Stephen H. Webb
Associate Professor of Religion
Wabash College

I have long thought that we do not know how to talk about religion in public because we never talk about it in the classroom. Education is not just about learning things. It is also about learning how to talk about those things that matter most to us.

Unfortunately, many teachers and school administrators are nervous about religion in the classroom. Schools can deal with virtually any topic these days, from race to sexual orientation, but somehow religion seems problematic. Religion is too passionate, too personal, and too controversial. Yet many of our students have their first contact with education in religious institutions, and religion serves as one of their primary motivations to learn in the first place. Does it make sense to ask them to leave religion at the door when they enter the world of secular education?

There is a growing consensus that religion needs to be returned to the schools, but there is much less agreement on how to accomplish this goal. There is much talk about character education, but is figuring out morality any easier than just studying religion more directly? And does it really do justice to religion to treat it as a supporting actor in a morality play? Why not just teach the Bible, church history, and world religions?

Well, why not? For starters, liberals and conservatives both have their suspicions about religion courses in high schools. Liberals fear any break down in the so-called wall of separation between church and state. Conservatives fear that religion courses will reinforce notions of cultural relativism that pervade much of the academic ethos.

Both groups are probably right to be skeptical about the ability of most teachers to handle the topic of religion. Teachers rarely have any training in teaching religion. Reform, then, must come from schools of education. Moreover, the media offers little help in providing models for public discussions of faith. Many teachers worry about how to deal with religious passion, and many educators have a hard time in keeping up with complex Supreme Court decisions about religion and education. It is almost as if educators think you need a therapist and a lawyer in every religious studies classroom.

Part of the problem, too, is that our students today are more evangelical and outspoken about religion than in the past. If the best (meaning, most critical and articulate) students in the past were the ones who had put religion aside and were open to everything while asking skeptical questions, the best students today are often vigorously and unapologetically religious. Evangelicalism has come of age. These students know how to argue, and they have important things to say about secular culture. How do you let them have their say?

The pedagogical problem lies in attending to both pluralism and passion in the public classroom. There have been several pamphlets and statements released recently by groups promoting the study of the Bible in public education, and this is a good trend. However, they often take the position that the Bible should be taught in value neutral ways, avoiding so-called confessional or theological topics. Thus, the Bible as Literature is a popular course for schools that want some, but not too much, religion in the curriculum.

Opponents of these courses worry that teaching the Bible in any classroom will inevitably raise religious issues that go beyond the study of literature. They are right. The Bible is important not just because it has influenced Western culture, but because it is a religious text. It is impossible to separate the historical from the theological. Even the most skeptical historians have opinions and assumptions about religion that influence their work. It can be useful to teach students that religion can be talked about in objective ways, but it would be foolish to ask students not to be too invested in this particular text. In no other classroom would a teacher try to minimize or diminish student excitement about the significance of the topic being discussed.

These problems are difficult, of course, but they are not unsolvable. In my book, Taking Religion to School, Christian Theology and Secular Education (Brazos Press, 2000), I lay out some principles for their resolution. Let me summarize that position in three basic points, which I hope, will initiate further discussions.

First, teaching and studying religion is a personal, as well as intellectual, enterprise. Teachers should encourage and honor their students' faith commitments. More than that, teachers need to be open with students about their own religious presuppositions. Students have a right to know what is shaping the teacher's discourse. And teachers have an obligation to model for students the public discussion of issues that have personal importance. Teachers can demonstrate for students how intellect and faith can work together to produce a public discussion of religion.

Second, religion classes should privilege Western religious history. The Bible is the fundamental document in Western history, and little of that history can be understood outside of the trajectory of the religions that were born from it. Certainly, students need to know about world religions. But many conservative Christians will resent a curriculum that suggests that Eastern religions are somehow more important than Western religions. Moreover, most students today, even if they are devout, know little about the history of western religious traditions. That is the amnesia that education needs to work against the most, because you must know your own past before you can adequately understand other traditions. You also have to know something about religion to understand anything about most academic topics. To know anything about American history, for example, Judaism and Christianity are essential subject matter. This material must be taught in its full complexity, not just as social and political trends but also as a history of ideas, where what people believe makes a difference.

Third, religion classes should not discount or discredit the question of truth. A religion class that values tolerance as an end in itself will end up valuing nothing at all. Students cannot be asked to bracket their beliefs, because one purpose of studying religion is to help students deepen and broaden their beliefs. It is tempting in a religion class to treat all religions and all religious beliefs as the same. All religions, say, are about being a morally good person. Such vapid generalizations help nobody. Instead, they privilege not objective truth but a New Age eclecticism that is hardly above criticism. Doing justice to religious differences, then, is one of the hardest but most important tasks of the religion classroom. Teachers should let students become involved, let them argue, but they should also model how one can hold to a belief and be open to reformulating it and listening to others at the same time.

A true pluralism in education will exist only when those of faith feel that their positions are being taken seriously. When conservative Christians feel alienated from the educational process, they push for questionable political goals, like putting the Ten Commandments on courthouse lawns. All people of faith should be able to integrate their beliefs with their intellectual journeys. Becoming smarter does not necessarily involve becoming less religious. In fact, there is a good argument to be made that one cannot become fully educated unless one comes to terms with the moral, spiritual, and intellectual challenges of religious faith.

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