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Why Religion Belongs in the Classroom

Don't shy away from teaching how religion has shaped U.S. history

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As public schools prepare for the fall, several states are grappling with an issue that seems to be a perennial newsmaker: how to deal with religion.

In Florida, for example, state lawmakers recently passed legislation clarifying the right of students to express their religious beliefs in public schools. In West Virginia, a voluntary “Bible in Schools” class, funded by parents and other private donors, was challenged on constitutional grounds by an organization called the Freedom From Religion Foundation. (The school district in question has suspended the program as the lawsuit progresses.) And in Wisconsin, residents of a school district were upset when a speaker from the Islamic Resource Group, a Muslim cultural-education program, addressed middle schoolers on the cultural and religious context surrounding the popular book I Am Malala.

Don't shy away from teaching how religion has shaped U.S. history
—Getty

To some, religion and the classroom are a toxic mix to be avoided at all cost. But should it be considered toxic when religion has played such an important role in shaping America’s identity, purpose, and politics?

While it’s easy to understand why discussions of religion make some people uncomfortable no matter where the discussions take place, discomfort is no reason to ban the topic from the classroom. In fact, even the American Civil Liberties Union concedes that a proper education is virtually impossible without understanding the role religion has played in shaping history and society.

“It would be difficult to teach art, music, literature, and most social studies without considering religious influences,” notes a joint statement on religion in public schools signed by the ACLU and some three dozen other organizations. The statement goes on to acknowledge that educators should objectively teach about the influence of religion on the Pilgrims, persecuted religious minorities, and many crusaders for abolition, women’s suffrage, and civil rights.

"While it’s easy to understand why discussions of religion make some people uncomfortable no matter where the discussions take place, discomfort is no reason to ban the topic from the classroom."

The center I head at Ashland University runs a number of academic programs—including a master’s-degree program for high school and middle school history, civics, and government teachers—based on the premise that the best way to learn U.S. history and government is to learn it from those who lived it and shaped it. To know what they thought, how they felt, and what motivated them personally and intellectually, our students read their words, found in letters, speeches, pamphlets, and books.

The role of religion in American history and politics is no different.

To understand the motivations and thinking of the early colonists, for example, we suggest reading John Winthrop’s 1630 discourse “A Model of Christian Charity,” which lays out a vision for building a godly commonwealth by imploring his Massachusetts colonial audience to be generous with their neighbors and their resources.

Good advice, even for today—especially for today, some might say.

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Altogether our reading list includes 25 core documents, including Cotton Mather’s 1718 essay on the principles of reason; George Washington’s Letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, R.I.; Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address; and Henry Ward Beecher’s 1869 “Moral Theory of Civil Liberty.”

Of more recent vintage, we recommend Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1933 speech to the National Conference of Catholic Charities; Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1962 “Can a Christian Be a Communist?”; Ronald Reagan’s remarks at the 1983 annual convention of the National Association of Evangelicals; and Barack Obama’s 2009 address at Cairo University.

As any honest historian will attest, there is no way to divorce American government and history from the religious beliefs of those who created our government and lived that history.

Schools shouldn’t run from the topic; they should embrace it. The better students understand the past, the better equipped they will be to face and shape our civic future.

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