Teaching about Religion in a Pluralistic Society

By Bryant, David J. | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview
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Teaching about Religion in a Pluralistic Society

Bryant, David J., Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


Public education in the U.S.A. had a distinctly evangelical Protestant flavor in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the mid-twentieth century several developments helped to create a greater sensitivity to the need to remove religious advocacy from public education. The changes in education following from the effort to remove religious influences from public schools have often led to a lack of any education about the role of religion in history and society. The result is ignorance about a central aspect of human history and culture.

Supreme Court decisions have made it clear that the separation of church and state does not preclude teaching about religion in a non-sectarian way. It is my contention that this provides an opening for a very important component of education today. However, to be truly adequate, teaching about religion must be teaching about religions, for the truly educated person needs to know something about the diversity of religious traditions that have contributed to the world as we know it and continue to influence it. Moreover, education about religions needs to attend to their ongoing dynamic character, as well as their past historical manifestations. As the U.S. grows ever more diverse, learning about religions (past and present) is also necessary for an adequate understanding of American society. Courses exclusively focused on the subject of religions can be useful, but they cannot truly answer the need and are vulnerable to opposition from several quarters. I suggest that an effective way to begin to improve education about religions in public secondary education today is to include attention to America's diverse religious communities in courses on American history (or other courses that include a focus on contemporary America). Does religion have a place in public education in the United States? The effort to answer this question has created controversy, especially since the 1960s, when some landmark court decisions heightened public awareness of the issue. The debate has tended to focus on prayer and aspects of science education in the public schools, often leaving another, more important issue, in the background (if not altogether lost from sight): namely, the question of what, if anything, schools will teach students about the religions that have shaped, and continue to shape, major civilizations and countless lives. Many appear to have assumed that public schools should leave this subject alone since it harbors many dangers, both constitutionally and politically. Cases such as a recent effort in the state of Florida to teach Bible classes in some public schools, which were little more than Sunday School classes, help to fuel constitutional concerns. On the other hand, many have recognized, as Justice Tom C. Clark of the Supreme Court wrote in one of his opinions, "[I]t might well be said that one's education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization." (1)

This paper will support and extend the point made by Justice Clark. To do so, it will begin with a brief historical overview of the presence of religion in the public schools and some of the developments that led to its elimination from public education. With this context in mind, we can then turn to a consideration of why it is vitally important to include teaching about religion in the public classrooms of the United States and how this might be done in a way that both respects the constitutional principles involved and does justice to the educational task we face. There have been some positive developments in this area in recent times, yet there is still much to be done. The modest proposal I offer at the end may be one way to move toward a more satisfactory treatment of religion in the curricula of the public schools in America.


The earliest forms of education in the American colonies developed under the aegis of religious motivations, especially the need to educate clergy.

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