Religious Literacy And Religious Liberty In Our Public Schools

The presidential nominee of a major political party actively promotes offensive religious tropes and encourages religious discrimination almost daily, and people are dying. Hate crimes against Muslim-Americans are roughly 500% more common now than before 9/11, and measurably higher since the start of the presidential election cycle. And Sikh-Americans have become frequent targets of attacks against Muslims.

In the midst of increasing social turbulence in the United States and across the globe, the changing religious landscape has polarized public discourse about the role of religion in the public square. For the first time in our nation’s history, Protestant Christians make up less than 50 percent of the population. The United States is now a country of religious minorities.

Yet we know that increasing diversity need not lead to greater discord. Half a century after Will Herberg’s seminal study of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews in the United States, many Americans are finally beginning to recognize and positively engage with other, often marginalized religious communities that have shaped this country since before the Declaration of Independence. Leading the way is Professor Diana Eck at Harvard, famous for documenting the long history and indispensable contributions of Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus in the United States. Under Eck’s leadership, the Pluralism Project provides accessible scholarship about encounters between people of all religions and none. The popularity of new initiatives like the Pluralism Project has opened a new chapter in the conversation about religious diversity in the United States. Nowhere is this more evident than American public schools.

Religious literacy has become a buzzword in the last decade, and religious literacy education has become increasingly popular in K-12 classrooms. An increasing number of teachers are inspired by scholars like Charles Haynes at the Religious Freedom Center (Newseum Institute), Diane Moore at Harvard Divinity School, and Stephen Prothero at Boston University who advocate for the study of religion across the curriculum. From large cities like Modesto, CA to small towns like Wellesley, MA, districts are creating opportunities for students to learn about religion in public life.

But many teachers lack professional development opportunities to learn about religion and constitutionally appropriate ways of teaching about religion in the public classroom. Indeed, a superficial understanding of religion and the First Amendment might do more harm than good in moving our society toward sustainable religious pluralism. In recent years, textbook controversies in states like California and Texas showcase the challenges that educators face in discussing the the role of religion -- in these cases, Hinduism and Christianity -- in world history and American public life. These challenges are compounded when educators lack a deep understanding of religious identity and the history of religious liberty in the United States.

Religious literacy requires an appreciation for the complex construction of religious identity. Given the strong influence of the Protestant Enlightenment, Americans generally think about religion in terms of “faith” or “belief,” and they often use these words interchangeably. In order to understand someone else’s religion, we ask what she believes and then try to deduce how that affects her behavior. Yet various studies show a complex interaction between the “three Bs” of religious identity: beliefs, behaviors, and our experiences of belonging.

What we believe -- including our theological, doctrinal, or scriptural commitments, as well as our social and ethical values -- affects the ways we behave in ritual settings and daily life. But the opposite is also true: the ways we behave day after day can lead us, only after the fact, to formulate a narrative or belief to make sense of our actions. For example, a daily practice of bowing, kneeling, or prostrating the body during prayer may more effectively inculcate a sense of humility than an attempt to subdue personal pride through reason. And studies conducted by Robert Putnam and David Campbell show that our gender, age, race, and ethnicity -- our communities of belonging -- all affect the way we express our religious identity. Consider the fact that nine in ten congregations in the United States have a single racial group that comprises 80 percent or more of its membership.  

Put simply, religious belief, behavior, and experiences of belonging affect and are affected by each other.

Public school teachers should help our children understand how individuals and diverse communities build their religious identities, and students should be able to articulate clearly how these complex religious identities affect civic engagement. We cannot have constructive, respectful conversations about the role of religion in our democracy if we neither understand religion nor the basis for our democratic commitment to religious freedom. Despite America’s religious diversity, Americans have relatively little practice learning about or engaging with people from other religious groups: the fact that fewer than four in ten Americans know a Muslim -- and fewer than three in ten know Buddhists or Hindus -- affirms the importance of weaving religious literacy into the fabric of K-12 education. By investigating processes of religious identity formation for a variety of religious traditions, our children are less likely to stereotype others and more likely to engage in conversations about religion in a way that acknowledges people's specific religious commitments.

To better prepare teachers for this more robust engagement of religion in the classroom, teaching institutions and continuing education providers should provide a basic introduction to the study of religion and the boundaries established by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. In fact, many educators remain in the dark about what they can and can’t teach when it comes to religion. Contrary to popular belief, the Constitution does not prohibit the study of religion. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court has strongly affirmed that “one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion.” But at all times this instruction must be academic, not devotional. Religious literacy education in public schools can and should encourage study about religion, not the practice of religion. Institutions and initiatives like the Religious Freedom Center (Newseum Institute), the Religious Literacy Project at Harvard, the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown, Generation Global, and Tanenbaum provide training and materials for teachers to better equip them to teach about religion in public school classrooms in ways that are academically and constitutionally sound. And star educators across the country -- from District 214 in Illinois to Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland and beyond -- help other teachers incorporate lessons about religion in their curricula.

Within the principles provided by the First Amendment, public schools can educate for religious literacy while upholding the rights of all students. Despite the current politicization of religious liberty, this fundamental right protects liberty of conscience for all, including historically marginalized religious communities and people who are not religious. Given our current political climate, religious literacy educators -- and perhaps more importantly, parents -- must also instill a deep commitment to the active protection of the religious freedom of our neighbors, guided by a deeper and more nuanced understanding of religious identity. Religious freedom is in peril, and religious literacy education in our schools and homes is our first line of defense.

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