Back to School — And Religion Is on the Syllabus?

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It may surprise some, but a significant majority of Americans — including public school teachers — say yes.

When children return to school over the next few weeks, should they find religion on the syllabus?

Seventy-five percent of teachers believe public schools should offer a comparative religion elective, with 69 percent of parents saying the same. There is no meaningful political or ideological gap in support of such courses.

Fifty-four percent of teachers think public schools should offer a Bible studies elective; 61 percent of parents agree.

Those findings — from the 2019 PDK (Phi Delta Kappan) poll, a well-respected annual survey of public opinion about K-12 education — should encourage Americans concerned about religious illiteracy in this country.

Religious literacy advocates now have the law, educators and public opinion on their side. The U.S. Supreme Court went out of its way in 1963 to affirm that the study of religion is constitutional. Leading education organizations have affirmed the court’s sentiment that a “complete” education requires students to learn about religion and its relationship with social, political and cultural life. And now PDK shows that more than three-quarters of Americans want religious studies courses in schools.

So why aren’t more schools teaching about religion? The PDK poll provides a clue: fear of indoctrination. Thirty-eight percent of Americans are very or somewhat concerned that “Bible studies classes might improperly promote Judeo-Christian religious beliefs.” Notably, while 82 percent of evangelicals and 78 percent of Republicans favor such courses, only 51 percent of Democrats and 43 percent of liberals support Bible studies.

Fears are somewhat less pronounced for comparative religion classes. Twenty-seven percent of Americans are very or somewhat concerned such courses “might improperly encourage students to change their religious beliefs.” Concerns are highest among evangelicals, 37 percent of whom fear that a comparative religion course might lead a student to “question their family’s faith.”

Yet evidence shows teaching about religion, when done well, will not make students more or less religious; it will make students more likely to support the rights of others, including those with whom they strongly disagree.

We do not have to imagine what it means to teach about religion well. Over the past decade, education and religious studies groups have offered concrete guidance. The National Council for the Social Studies released national guidelines in 2017 for the study of religion. Earlier this year, the organization released a new book solely dedicated to the study of religion in the social studies classroom. Before that, the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature — the largest professional associations for scholars of religion and the Bible — published recommendations for teaching about religion and sacred texts without preaching. And the Religious Freedom Center offers written resources and online professional development modules for teachers and administrators focused on the practical application of religious studies and the First Amendment in the classroom.

We even have examples of strong, standalone religious studies courses in practice. For example, John Camardella, a teacher at Prospect High School in Illinois, has received national attention for his incredibly popular and well-respected religious studies courses for high school students. (In fact, the courses became so popular in the community that parents demanded that Camardella offer a parent-only version of the course once a month in the evening.)

Despite strong guidance and encouraging course models, Americans are wary of required religious studies courses. Again, fear of indoctrination may play a role. The PDK poll shows that only 12 percent of teachers and 7 percent of parents would favor a required comparative religion course. Even fewer teachers and parents — 4 percent and 7 percent, respectively — favor a required Bible studies course.

But religious literacy is necessary, not optional, for the health of our democracy. The American Academy of Religion has argued compellingly that religious illiteracy can reinforce bigotry and prejudice that fuel violence against marginalized communities.

Given today’s increasingly diverse religious landscape and rising religion-related hate crimes, we need to ensure that all children learn about religion in school. Schools without the capacity to offer a required standalone course about religion should integrate the study of religion into social studies and literature courses. Indeed, how can educators teach about history or literature well without some mention of religious individuals’ and communities’ roles in shaping the world around them?

Of course, mandatory religious literacy education would require better training for teachers. Right now, teachers receive very little, if any, training in religious studies. It’s a problem that can lead to unconstitutional or unsound lessons, which further stoke fears of indoctrination.

To ensure educators teach about religion without violating the First Amendment, education institutions should require all teachers-in-training to learn about religion before they set foot in a classroom. We would not let a physics teacher lead a physics class without some knowledge of math. Why would we let a history teacher offer a history course without some knowledge of religion?

Thanks to the PDK poll, we know that public opinion supports elective education about religion. Let’s take it one step further. Put religion on the syllabus — for students and teachers alike.

Benjamin P. Marcus is religious literacy specialist at the Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum Institute. His email address is: bmarcus@freedomforum.org.

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