Religion-Free Texts: Getting an Illiberal Education

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IN THE CURRENT culture wars, religious liberals tend to ally themselves with the educational establishment against those on the Religious Right who are attacking the public schools. In politics and theology, I line up with the left. Nonetheless, I believe with the right that public education is hostile to religion--not least to liberal religion. The problem isn't the absence of school prayers. Schools respect the religious liberty of students in prohibiting religious exercises. There is no hostility to religion in that. The problem is that systematically excluding religious voices from the curriculum makes public education fundamentally illiberal--something that, ironically, most liberals fail to see.

During the past few years I've reviewed 82 high school textbooks in a variety of subjects--history, economics, home economics, literature, health and the sciences--for their treatment of religion. I've also read the national content standards that have been developed for K-12 education over the past decade by thousands of scholars, teachers and representatives of professional organizations. To keep my discussion' manageable I will comment only on high school texts and standards in three subject areas: economics, the sciences and history. But the problems we find here cut across the curriculum at all levels of education.

* Economics. The scriptures of all religious traditions address justice and the moral dimensions of social and economic life, as does much recent moral theology--from the social gospel through liberation theology. Most mainline Christian denominations and many ecumenical agencies have official statements on economics and justice. Central to scripture and this literature is the claim that to understand the economic domain of life we must apply moral and religious categories to it. Yet in the 4,400 pages of the ten economics texts I reviewed, all of the references to religion add up to only two pages, and all are to distant history. In the 47 pages of the national economics standards there are no references at all to religious ways of understanding economics.

Neither the texts nor the standards address poverty as a moral or spiritual problem; indeed, they say little about poverty at all. They are silent about the relationship between the First World and the Third. They ignore the effect of economics and technology on the environment. They are oblivious to the moral problems of a consumer culture. They ask no questions about dehumanizing work. They emphasize the importance of the profit motive and competition, and never mention that profits may be excessive or that competition may have its costs. They never speak of the dignity of people, the sacredness of nature or our obligations to any larger community (or to God).

The problem isn't just what's left out, however; it's also what's included. The texts and national standards teach neoclassical economic theory. According to this theory, economics is a "value-free" science, and the economic world can be defined in terms of the competition for scarce resources between self-interested individuals with unlimited wants. Values are subjective preferences. Decisions should be made according to cost-benefit analyses that maximize whatever it is we value and that leave no room in the equation for duties, the sacred or the unquantifiable dimensions of life. Economics and religion seem to be entirely separate realms.

My findings confirm what sociologist Robert Wuthnow discovered in his study of American religious life: people divorce economics from religion. When "asked if their religious beliefs had influenced their choice of a career, most of the people I have interviewed in recent years--Christians and non-Christians alike--said no. Asked if they thought of their work as a calling, most said no. Asked if they understood the concept of stewardship, most said no. Asked how religion did influence their work lives or thoughts about money, most said the two were completely separate. …