Teaching Religion in the Classroom Just Got More Political

By Kate Stoltzfus — July 18, 2016 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The Republican Party hopes more public schools will have classes that teach the Bible.

A draft GOP platform now includes support for public high schools to incorporate elective Bible classes, the Washington Post reported. The party called “a good understanding of the Bible” necessary “for the development of an educated citizenry,” according to the platform’s language, which will be introduced to and adopted by delegates at the Republican National Convention this week.

The addition was a hotly debated one, even among party members. Supporters said the goal is merely to encourage teaching students about a historical document that will help provide cultural context for U.S. history and other literature. Other delegates believe the Bible is better left outside the classroom—even if the goal is purely academic. The announcement comes several months after a bill in Idaho that would have allowed schools to use the Bible for academic studies was vetoed by the state’s Republican governor.

Whether or not to incorporate learning about religion in public schools—and more importantly, how best to do so—is a familiar issue that goes back decades. The Supreme Court decided in 1963 that the Bible has a place in public schools if it is taught objectively, according to the Washington Post. The responsibility of navigating that line between informative teaching about religion and the promotion of a specific faith, which is illegal, largely falls to teachers.

Lots of educators agree that some knowledge of the Bible is valuable for students, but many disagree about how to teach it in a way that doesn’t veer into religious promotion or indoctrination. Teachers who incorporate Biblical material into curricula can face fierce backlash. “Even with the best of intentions, people’s own biases creep into their presentation of the material,” Mark Chancey, a professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University, told the Washington Post.

The fine line between religion and public schools isn’t limited to the Bible and Christianity: Some social studies teachers have experienced increased hostility for lessons about Islam, an Education Week opinion blogger wrote, citing a fearful and antagonistic national climate about Muslims. In fact, presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump’s own rhetoric about Muslims has made some students feel unsafe, a Southern Poverty Law Center found. More than one-third of teachers who responded to the survey said they’ve observed an increase in anti-Muslim or anti-immigrant sentiment at school.

So how can teachers best navigate religion in the classroom, especially in these tumultuous times?

By teaching a wide variety of religions, according to some sources. The Hartford Teacher Education Project, a program of the Harvard Divinity School, shows teachers a cultural-studies method to improve religious illiteracy among students, which focuses on religious diversity and how religions relate to culture, economics, and society.

Benjamin Pietro Marcus, a research fellow for the Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum Institute, offered some guidelines in an April post for Education Week‘s Global Learning blog, including lessons about how behaviors of religious groups might change as individuals live out their faith. “Teachers should help students investigate not only what religious communities and individuals believe but also how they act (behaviors) and create community (belonging),” he wrote.

And Kimberly Keiserman, an education program associate for the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, suggests a combination of legal guidance and methodological lessons when teaching religion. She wrote in a post for EdWeek’s Global Learning blog in February that the importance of teaching Islam and other world religions “is critical to preparing students for global citizenship.”

Teachers, do you incorporate religion into your classroom lessons—and if so, what is the best way? Share your experience in the comments, and follow the Politics K-12 blog for updates on this week’s Republican National Convention.

Source: Image by Flickr user Sang Valte, licensed under Creative Commons

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.