Round Peg, Square Hole

What is the proper role for religion in American public schools? That’s the question historian Ben Justice asked us yesterday at the American Educational Research Association meeting. I’m still stumped. I can’t see an easy way to reconcile the fundamental tension between two contrasting goals.

round peg square hole

It ain’t gonna fit.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH may remember the first episode. If you don’t, here’s the catch-up: Historian Ben Justice put together a panel to wrestle with the proper role of religion in public education. Religious studies scholars Stephanie Mitchem and Mark Chancey joined in, as did philosophers Colin MacLeod and Harvey Siegel. And me.

Our panel agreed—public schools need to teach about religion without teaching religion. And public schools need to be inclusive religious spaces. That is, public schools need to welcome people of every faith and none, but they can’t themselves promote or denigrate any specific religion. Sounds simple enough.

But there have always been disagreements and likely always will be. How do we solve them? As Colin and Ben wrote in their recent book, when it comes to questions of majority rule and minority rights, we’re not all going to agree on every problem. Our goal, instead, should be “legitimacy in the face of religious pluralism.”

In other words, people don’t have to agree with various school policies. If they see them as fair, however, as legitimate, then they will go along with them. And that brings us to our dilemma.

For some religious people, the notion of “inclusive” public schools is not a way to talk about the proper role of religion in the public square. Rather, for many Americans, “inclusivity” is itself a religious idea. So instead of having conversations about how we can all be welcomed in our public schools, we end up with a fight between two religions, only one of which admits to being a religion.

Clear as mud.

But it seems a little clearer when we look at examples. We see it everywhere we look. Consider a class in the history of religion, for example. In an inclusive school, a teacher might teach kids about the development of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. She might explain to kids—trying to be neutral, trying not to favor any religion or non-religion over another—about the ways different people at different times believed different things about God and humanity. She might describe the ways Christianity grew out of Judaism, the way different Christians came to disagree with one another. Her goal, she would probably tell you, is not religious. She doesn’t want to preach; she only wants to teach.

For some parents, students, and activists, though, such a curriculum is not neutral at all. They might reasonably want their children to share their belief that their religion is true. For many religious people, the universal claims of their religion are absolutely central. That is, many religious people need to understand their faith as True with a capital T, not only true for them at their specific historical moment.

For religious people like that, a school curriculum that thinks of itself as neutral is not neutral at all. It is teaching, instead, the intensely religious idea that religion is a human invention rather than a divine revelation.

This is more than just an abstract game of what ifs. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH know well, in the last hundred years American Protestants split on exactly this sort of disagreement. Liberal Protestants often embraced the notion that their religion was a human creation, or, to be more precise, that their own understanding of religion was a human thing. Conservative Protestants, including those that mobilized as “fundamentalists,” disagreed. Vehemently.

For evangelical Protestants, the notion of an inclusive public square has always been the enemy. It has always been the rallying cry of their religious enemies. As I’ve argued in my 1920s book and my book about educational conservatism, religious conservatives—especially but not only conservative evangelicals—have learned for generations that the fight against “inclusion” was a religious fight against a religious enemy.

So how can we get people to think of “inclusion” as a legitimate goal? It will never be seen as legitimate if it is seen as a strategy by a competing religion. What then?

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1 Comment

  1. The problem is religious and non-religious people accepting the fundamentalist way of framing things in simplistic either/or, true or false categories that refuse the universal and the common. Social construct or divine revelation. Our books and doctrines or theirs. It’s poor reasoning and poor theology that not very long ago took openly antisemitic and anticatholic forms.

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