The Misplaced Fear of Religion in Classrooms

Many people, whether they are parents or lawmakers, seem surprised that it’s legal to teach about different religions in public schools.

David Goldman / AP

A new school year inevitably brings new faces, new subjects, new opportunities, and increasingly in some communities, new storms of protest over religion on public K-12 campuses. In just the last several weeks, a Mississippi teacher was accused of belittling atheism in class, parents in Georgia raised a ruckus over a middle-school social-studies homework assignment about Islam, and a bill introduced in Tennessee would ban the teaching of “religious doctrine” in elementary- and middle-school classrooms. Critics are labeling that legislation anti-Muslim bigotry, while supporters are calling the historical lessons on Islam indoctrination.

An old rule of etiquette often taught to children from a young age is to never talk about religion in polite company. This sentiment carries over into public schools, where teaching about the world’s religions often sparks controversy and charges from some parents and activists that classrooms are an inappropriate place for this discussion. Yet educators frequently counter that a public-school curriculum is incomplete without religious literacy, which the American public sorely lacks. According to a 2010 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey, in a country of many faiths and beliefs, there is a stunning absence of knowledge of the world’s religions. And where better to discuss a thorny topic like religion, some say, than in a public-school classroom; they note that discomfort is a natural and essential part of the learning process.

This ongoing ideological struggle is the basis of a new book, Faith Ed: Teaching about Religion in an Age of Intolerance, in which Linda K. Wertheimer, a veteran education writer and editor, examines the friction and sometimes outright confrontation over teaching religion in public schools. She recently shared some insights and observations with The Atlantic. The interview that follows has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Melinda D. Anderson: Your own experience with religion and schooling is a main thread that runs through the book. How does your own life story influence your analysis?

Linda K. Wertheimer: When I was 9, my family moved to Findlay, Ohio. There were no Jews in our tiny school except for me and my two older brothers. For the first time in my life, I felt different, and my school’s actions made my Jewishness stand out even more. My public school in the 1970s and 1980s promoted Christianity in numerous ways, including assemblies led by pastors around Christmas and Easter. My peers and I never learned about other religions in the classroom. My life story shapes the questions I ask in Faith Ed. Would it have made a difference if my school had tried to teach us about many religions instead of one? Can education soften the divisions over religion between schoolchildren?

Anderson: “Teach, not preach” was a common refrain as a guiding principle for how schools should introduce the teaching of religion. Talk about the inherent tension between teaching students about religion and the credible fear expressed by parents especially of proselytizing.

Wertheimer: Some parents feared that if their children learned about another religion, they might fall out of love with their own faith. Or if a child came from an atheist or agnostic family, maybe he or she might suddenly want to embrace a religion. However, I wouldn’t describe that fear as credible when referring to world-history courses that wrap in instruction about different religions. The courses I observed teach students basic information about three or more religions to help them understand the geography, history, politics, and culture of a country or region of the world. Teachers were not asking students to pray or perform religious rituals.

If anything, schools are in a better place than they were in the 1950s and 1960s, when it was commonplace for teachers to lead children in prayer and recite Bible verses as part of the morning routine. The 1963 court ruling prohibiting teacher-led prayer gradually led to bigger efforts to educate children about many religions. But there is a real fear of proselytizing when it comes to classes about the Bible as literature or history. Parents should be the most concerned about those types of courses. Those classes can be taught objectively, and in fact, I found such an example at Lumberton High School, the target of so much fuss over a teacher’s lessons on Islam.

The biggest fear about world religion courses is how teachers are teaching about Islam and whether they are sugar-coating radical Islam. Some critics have questioned whether teachers are indoctrinating children in Islam. The irony is that most teachers in this country reflect the nation’s demographics. Most of them are white and female, and many of them are Christian. It’s unlikely they would try to convert children to Islam. The key to preventing classes from turning into preaching is training the teachers.

Anderson: Since 2000, Modesto, California, has done the unthinkable. Without mass outcry or resistance, all high-school freshman take a world-religions course as a graduation requirement. What was unique about Modesto among the cities you cited was the extensive teacher training that accompanied the rollout of their school system’s curriculum. What was the value of this in-depth teacher preparation?

Wertheimer: Modesto set a gold standard because of the way it designed its course and prepped the first teachers who taught the class. First, training was provided by the First Amendment Center on how to avoid stepping over the line separating church and state, and avoid potential controversy when teaching about religion. Many teachers became First Amendment advocates in their own schools and pointed out issues when they saw them. Educate don’t celebrate when it comes to religious holidays, for example. Secondly, teachers attended workshops taught by religion scholars and toured different houses of worship to get a deeper understanding of the religions they would teach, including Sikhism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. The school system, by the way, stopped training teachers for a while and only recently resumed training to respond to teacher turnover.

Anderson: A recurring theme in some of your interviews is the notion that public schools are hostile to Christianity, when Christianity was part of the curriculum on religions at all of the schools you observed. Clearly Christianity has not been banished from public schools. Who or what is driving this false narrative?

Wertheimer: Interestingly, those driving that narrative tend to largely come from outside the schools at the center of the controversies. The “who” or “what” depends on the region. In Tampa, David Caton, president of the Florida Family Association, was one of the opponents against a guest speaker on Islam at an area high school. So was Terry Kemple, the former executive director of the Christian Coalition of Florida. Both have been involved in campaigns against gay marriage. They referred to Christianity becoming a second-class citizen in schools but so did assorted speakers at school board meetings. In Wichita, Kansas, a lawmaker brought up that complaint, but some parents concerned about lessons on Islam weren’t worried about Christianity’s role in schools.

The main concern in recent years has been how Islam is handled in the curriculum and in textbooks. Opponents have included atheists and Jews. Supporters of the courses tend to be the students taking the classes and the majority of their parents. They are familiar enough with the material to understand that yes, they are learning about Christianity and other religions.

Anderson: One glaring aspect in the introduction of Islam, Hindu and all of the religions other than Christianity and Judaism was the complete absence of teachers who practice these faiths leading any of the teaching of religion in the schools you visited. Consistent with the windows and mirrors metaphor—where a teacher’s race, culture, religion enables students to peer into the realities of others and see themselves reflected in teacher’s identity—could more public school teachers of varied faiths provide a richer learning opportunity when teaching about religion?

Wertheimer: I think that depends on the teacher. Just because a teacher is Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or Sikh does not mean he or she is particularly knowledgeable in that particular faith or any religion, for that matter. Another tricky aspect is that many teachers are careful about not revealing their religion to students. They want to appear unbiased, particularly when teaching a course about religion. If a teacher wore a hijab, students would probably discern she was Muslim. Does that provide a richer learning opportunity? Perhaps. I met a public school math teacher who was Sikh and taught in a school near Modesto. She wears traditional Sikh clothing, including a head scarf, and believes she has helped dispel stereotypes by her presence in the school.

Anderson: From Texas cheerleaders holding banners with Bible verses at football games to an agnostic parent in Wichita, Kansas, “furious [to learn] that teachers were talking about religion,” separation of church and state when applied to public schools seems consistently manipulated and misrepresented. Is there just a basic misunderstanding of this concept?

Wertheimer: I think people generally know teachers cannot lead students in prayer and that schools cannot promote one religion over another. I think in some cases, it’s not a misunderstanding but rather a cockiness in some parts of the country that, “Since we’re all Christian here, we can do what we want.” A school superintendent I interviewed in Texas saw no problem with prayer at graduations or football games and told me, “It’s a little bit different here in the South.”

When it comes to courses about the world religions, though, I see a misunderstanding of what’s legal and what’s not. Many people, whether they are parents or lawmakers, seem surprised that it’s legal to teach about different religions in public schools, and studies back that view. The Pew Forum survey on religious knowledge found just 36 percent knew public school teachers could offer a comparative religion course, while roughly 90 percent knew teachers can’t lead a class in prayer. Adults and schoolchildren alike need instruction on the First Amendment and how the Supreme Court has interpreted what is legal and what is not when it comes to religion on school grounds.

I returned to my alma mater in 2013, and in general, the school was trying harder to toe the line on the separation of church and state. It had student Christian youth groups, which are legal as long as students lead them. The principal, though, said he thought it was okay to accept a high-school religious group’s invitation to lead the students in scripture at a meeting. He truly didn’t seem to understand where the line had to be drawn. On the positive side, a pair of middle-school teachers work together to plan how they teach about the world’s religions in social studies. They gave me hope because both cared so much about bringing the world to their students, many of whom had never met someone who wasn’t Christian. These students were getting the kind of education about religions that my peers and I never had.