Religion & American Education: Rethinking a National Dilemma

Religion & American Education: Rethinking a National Dilemma

Religion & American Education: Rethinking a National Dilemma

Religion & American Education: Rethinking a National Dilemma


Warren Nord's thoughtful book tackles an issue of great importance in contemporary America: the role of religion in our public schools and universities. According to Nord, public opinion has been excessively polarized by those religious conservatives who would restore religious purposes and practices to public education and by those secular liberals for whom religion is irrelevant to everything in the curriculum. While he maintains that public schools and universities must not promote religion, he also argues that there are powerful philosophical, political, moral, and constitutional reasons for requiring students to study religion. Indeed, only if religion is included in the curriculum will students receive a truly liberal education, one that takes seriously a variety of ways of understanding the human experience. Intended for a broad audience, Nord's comprehensive study encompasses American history, constitutional law, educational theory and practice, theology, philosophy, and ethics. It also discusses a number of current, controversial issues, including multiculturalism, moral education, creationism, academic freedom, and the voucher and school choice movements.


From the beginning, many of the most violent battles in our ongoing culture wars have been fought over the proper place of religion in public education. Unhappily, in the heat of battle—in court fights, direct mail campaigns, school board elections, and the dispatches of journalists from the front—public opinion has been all too easily polarized. As a result, we are apt to find ourselves uncomfortably (and uncritically) caught in a dilemma defined by the most militant of the combatants for their own ideological or even tactical purposes.

As the story is usually told, on the one side of our culture wars are those religious conservatives (the "Religious Right," or the "Radical Right," as their opponents would have it) who believe that American education has been captured by the forces of secular humanism and thus has become godless and hostile to religion. It is their goal to restore religious purposes, practices, and teaching to public education. On the other side are those liberals (or "secular humanists") for whom the "Religious Right" is a dangerous intruder into the secular space of modern public institutions. For them, religion is properly a private matter, irrelevant to the purposes and content of education, and it is their goal to remove any vestiges of religious purpose, practice, and teaching from public schools and universities.

The battle lines of our culture wars run through every community in America, but our dilemma is very much a national dilemma in a more profound way, for it is bound up with the way in which we have constituted ourselves as a nation. The proper place of religion in our public life generally, and in public education in particular, is governed by the Constitution of the United States. For most religious conservatives, America is a Christian (or Judeo-Christian) nation, and to further their ends they would dismantle the wall of separation between religion and government. Most liberals, by contrast, believe that America is a secular, religiously neutral nation, and they would keep the wall of separation high and impregnable.

In logic a dilemma is a specific kind of problem—one that presents us with two equally unacceptable alternatives. Happily, the dilemma I have outlined is a false dilemma; our alternatives need not be drawn in such stark terms. We need not make schools Christian or eliminate all religion from public education; there are alternatives. We need not dismantle the wall of separation or . . .

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