About this blog: Can religion be taught in our public schools? Just the question is enough to ignite fresh battles in our unceasing culture wars. On one side are those who want no religion in the public schools, on the other are those who encourage prayer in the classroom. Emile Lester proposes a new path in this age-old war in his book “Teaching about Religions: A Democratic Approach for Public Schools,” to be released later this month by the University of Michigan Press. Lester, an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and International Affairs at the University of Mary Washington, finds hope for improving civil discourse on religion through an innovative course offered in the Modesto, Calif., public school system. Here, he explains.
The Kentucky Senate recently passed a bill allowing public schools to teach classes about the Bible. Of course, neither the Constitution nor Kentucky state law prohibited teaching about the Bible. Kentucky State Rep. Reggie Meeks dismissed the bill as a sop to conservative Christians, comparing it in an unlovely metaphor to “waving meat in front of a dog.”
Rep. Meeks may be right that the bill is a political stunt, but it does address a real concern. Conservative versions of Christianity seem to have been left behind in public school discussions on religion in recent years. The oversight begins with public schools teaching only evolution without mention of its alternatives. Students reading American history textbooks learn little about evangelical Christians other than unflattering references to their participation in the 1925 Scopes “monkey” trial.
Conservative Christians are not the only ones who suffer from the way Americans treat religion. The controversy over the Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero last year suggests the precarious position of many non-Christian religious minorities in American society. Intolerance of these minorities did not begin in public schools, but public schools have done precious little to combat it.
Americans have been fed a steady diet of media stories about the culture wars — a barrage that leaves them believing it is impossible to improve respect for conservative Christians and non-Christian religious minorities through the public school curriculum.
But public school officials in Modesto, Calif., would beg to differ. Modesto requires all students to take a course in world religions. Students spend the first two weeks of the course learning about America’s history of religious liberty. Each of the remaining seven weeks focuses on the traditions of a major world religion.
Many conservative Christians worry that urging students to respect other faiths may dilute belief in their own religion. But the course teaches that respecting the rights of all religious believers does not mean accepting the truth of others’ beliefs.
Patrick Roberts, an assistant professor at Virginia Tech, and I surveyed approximately 350 students who had gone through the course. Our research showed that after the course students were more likely to respect basic religious rights and believe it is important to learn more about Islam. Five of 23 students we interviewed said the course strengthened their faith. None told us their faith was weakened.
The course also won support within the Modesto community. Modesto is in an area known as the “California Bible Belt” because of its many evangelical Christians. On consecutive days in Modesto, I interviewed the co-pastor of the Church of the Brethren, who condemned the Bush administration’s “hyperpatriotism,” and the associate pastor at Modesto’s evangelical First Baptist megachurch, whose office prominently displayed a framed picture of Ronald Reagan. If you were to sit them in a room together to discuss religion and politics, they would agree on very few things. But both heaped praise on the world religions course.
Modesto’s course is a start, not an end. Gains in tolerance were impressive, but would have been more lasting if the course lasted longer. A way to more fully remedy the neglect of under-represented religious views could be to offer elective courses in addition to the required world religions course. Those electives could examine Jewish, liberal Christian and conservative Christian beliefs, and the theory of intelligent design and its critics.
Still, the relative success of Modesto’s course should be measured against the failure of its alternatives. Although the Kentucky Senate was right to call out public schools for largely ignoring religion, its remedy was merely symbolic and slanted. Legislators and educators who want to make American schools and society more welcoming not only for conservative Christians but for all believers would do better to look to Modesto’s model.