The Role of Religion Pt I: Public Education

This is the first in a series of post on the role of religion in America. There are three areas that I am going to blog on: Education, Politics and the Public Square. Hopefully, this will spark a decent debate.

I’ve never been one to debate the meaning of the establishment clause and what the writers of the Constitution meant when it comes to the separation of church and state. The reason is because it seems as though it should be common sense. But common sense is not so common and fanaticism and politics makes the situation worse.

Every society needs a moral standard and for the most part, America’s moral standard is derived from Christian principles. With that said, should we then assume that Christian philosophy, traditions and doctrine should play a more important role in our society than what it does today?

I think the problem is that no one has revealed the place where one crosses the line from democracy and theocracy. Basically, the debate is narrowed down to a few wedge issues: abortion, school prayer, intelligent design, gay marriage and the like. Then we have secularist fighting God in the Pledge of Allegiance, religious symbols in the public square and traditions with religious overtones. So everyone is fighting the boogey man as they see it and no one is clearly articulating what it is that they truly want.

So the question then becomes, how do we move the debate beyond talking points and symbolic wars? So rather than school prayer, which I find to be a ludicrous debate, or Intelligent Design, why not ask what role should religion play in public education?

I’ve already discussed Intelligent Design in science but why does the debate stop with one part of Biology and not Physics or Geology? Aren’t there biblical teachings that contradict those scientific disciplines?

The debate on prayer in school is another issue I am curious about. How does one allot time for children to pray without providing any guidance behind it? To simply call it is a “moment of silence” or a “time for reflection” diminishes the importance of prayer and turns the entire episode into a symbolic gesture with no substance behind it.

What confuses me most, and probably many others, is that I am never sure exactly what people mean when they speak of wanting religion to play a bigger role in public education. I can understand not wanting to give up traditions that may have Christian overtones. I see nothing wrong with Christmas plays or even having the Ten Commandment on display. But those are mostly symbolic but should the education go further in incorporating Christianity in schools?

So here are my questions:

1. What is the proper role of religion in developing curriculum?
2. Are only Christian overtones allowed in public schools or are overtones from other faiths welcomed as well?
3. How do we balance Christianity in public schools in communities where Christianity is not the dominant faith?
4. Should all science courses (Biology, Earth & Physics) include religious theories?
5. Should students be required to study the bible?


19 Responses to The Role of Religion Pt I: Public Education

  1. Dell Gines Says:
    Tough questions James. I think the seperation of the church and state is relevent and in place to prevent religious totalitarianism, however with that being said, I don't think it is meant to say religion can not be a part of public institutions.

    Remember, when the US was born, the Church of England was the dominant church, and a large majority of individuals came to America to have religious freedom.

    The fundamental fact I want to point out before I even address the more direct questions is the believe will always play a role in society because we have a democratic society where we create the laws that we want to be governed by, and the majority makes the rules. That means that if the majority wants rules that correspond closely with 'christian' values, then that is their democratic right to do so.

    More specifically to the questions though, I believe teaching faith is the role of churches and parents, but I believe that teaching religion is a subject that should be available in schools. By that I mean the general principles of major religions, the religious history of the United States, and other countries.

    Leaving religion out of history, and leaving religion out of modern American studies is bad education, because religion colors so many perspectives.

    So when religion is taught it should be taught professionally, just like any other course would.
  2. Bullfrog Says:
    Good topic for discussion James!
    I believe the key is not to RESTRICT religious expression.
    Children should not be forced to read the Bible by the state, but if a group of kids wants to get together during lunch and pray, they should not be kept from doing so because some other kids are "offended" at the site of people praying.
    I believe the Creation theory as well as Evolution should be presented so that students have the tools to make up there own mind which is more scientific. The current curriculum has un obvious bias towards evolutionary theory despite it's inherent problems.
    I personally believe there exists a bias AGAINST Christianity.
  3. James Manning Says:

    So what is the answer. How do we incorporate ID into the classroom and would that apply to Earth Science, History, Physics, Chemistry along with Biology?


    I wouldn't object to discussing the role of religion in shaping civilization. I think it would be appropriate considering that it does play an important role in our history.
  4. Bullfrog Says:
    A good political science teacher should teach all sides of a political issue, with no personal bias towards any particular rationale. I would suggest educational curriculum do the same when teaching natural sciences like Earth Science, biology, chemistry, and physics. It is possible to present ID without any reference to the Bible or God. Although Secular Humanism is what spawned the Evolutionary Theory, science teachers make no reference to this philosophy in the process of teaching the Big Bang Theory or Darwin's Theory of Evolution. I see it as a fair treatment of both theories without necessarily promoting some underlying religous dogma or human philosophy.

    I don't believe ID factors much into our human history, but I do believe excluding religion from the story history tells is disingenuous.
  5. James Manning Says:
    So my question, is this about introducing Christian influence or every religion? What about other religion theories pertaining to human development and evolution? I hear Christians bringing up this discussion but how does work when it comes to Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism? Or do we not even concern ourselves with those theories?
  6. Dave Miller Says:
    Good stuff James. Dell, you made a great distinction between faith, and religion. Too many people see them as the same thing. I would wholeheartedly agree that our schools should teach about religion and that faith should be left to families and churches. We should be teaching about the role of religion in America from its founding to the present. To not do so is to not be accurate with history. With this approach, we could teach about any religion that has had an impact on our country.

    Bullfrog, I am also with you and James 100% on the prayer issue. I believe it is diminished when it becomes a rote exercise. Yet that does not mean people should be restricted from praying at school, (legally they are not restricted, but in a practical sense they are in many places) because it may offend some peoples sensibilities. It drives me nuts when people say that the sight of people praying is impinging on their rights to not be subjected to religion.

    To your question about religious theories being taught in science, I say no, except where they might be germain to the discussion. Again, those beliefs are usually the beliefs of faith, which is better left to families and the church, synagogue, mosque, etc.
  7. MEP Says:
    It wouldn't be bad to include a religious philosophy class in public schools but it certainly should not be entirely Christianity. It should introduce students to the major tenents of major world religions and concepts from lesser-known religions to give a broad perspective. Our students would probably gain much from studying the peaceful teachings of Buhdism and Hinduism. The goal, of course, would not to push any particular religion but let the children choose their path based on what they learn and what their families teach them. They can't be any worse for the wear if their families are Christian, so they are Christians, but they note other teachings as well. At least they would be well informed. And isn't that what faith is all about - making it your own personal relationship?

    The thing that would be most interesting here (b/c I've taken similar classes) is that students will see that most major religions have many of the same principles at their cores. If you study Islam and Christianity, they are actually very similar.

    Classes like this might actually have very positive affects on perceptions of differences because of religion. They could, if nothing else, teach children to be more open minded and that would be wonderful.

    Of course, there would need to be some discussion of agnosticism and atheism as well - without demonizing those people.

    As far as ID goes - I don't think it belongs in a public school. Scientific theory belongs in a science classroom - religious theory belongs in a religious studies classroom.
  8. james manning Says:
    do you think it is possible that Christian parents would object to exposing their children to other religions?
  9. Dave Miller Says:
    I think it would depend on the family James. While I might think it is a good idea to be aware of and know about other religions, beliefs, faith systems, as Mep has suggested, I think you hit a nail square on the head with your question.

    It has been my experience in Christian circles (and I travel in a lot of them) that there are plenty of folks who would in fact object to their kids being subjected to teaching from other religions.
  10. Roderick Says:
    Dave Miller:It drives me nuts when people say that the sight of people praying is impinging on their rights to not be subjected to religion.

    Roderick: I'm sure by now everyone knows I love playing Devil's advocate so I have to ask ok let's assume that people are allowed to pray during school. How would you handle a Muslim student who's required to pray five times a day facing Mecca?

    That would be very disruptive to have to allow the student to get up in the middle of class, leave and come back. To make sure that said student doesn't miss anything the teacher would have to stop teaching and wait on the student to get back to class or if the student were giving a test would the student get extra time to complete the exam?

    What about Hindus and Wiccans?

    Dell Gines: By that I mean the general principles of major religions, the religious history of the United States, and other countries.

    Roderick: That sounds good in principal but I did a google search and it listed over 1,000 denominations of Christianity in North America and I am pretty sure some group would be offended if it was left out of the textbook.

    Let me give you an example of why I think it would be a bad idea to even teach religion as history in classrooms.

    Let's assume the teacher of a religious history class in Mississippi is practicing Mormon. He decides to bring a copy of The Book of Mormon to share with his class as a historical document and makes copies of passages and gives them to his class. I’m sure you can guess the rest of the story since most Mississippians are Baptist and wouldn’t like people teaching their children some foreign religion even if it were part of a history class.

    Bullfrog: I personally believe there exists a bias AGAINST Christianity.

    Roderick: And what do you base that belief on?

    Are you referring to the right-wing nonsense about the Wars on Christmas and Easter- which are based on pagan festivals co-opted by the Catholic Church so it could make money? LOL

    I find it kinda difficult that there is a bias against Christianity since 85% of the country identifies itself as Christian.
  11. BossMack Says:
    I remember watching the Pope's Funeral last year at around 3am in the morning live. I was fascinated by the way the Roman Catholic Church made every head of State (Except China) come thru and bow down. At that moment I realized that there is no true seperation of Church and State. I also feel that Religion as a class should be made available for students in public school. All Religion is Dogmatic and should be discussed in an open forum, I do feel there is a slant toward Roman Catholic Church.
  12. Bullfrog Says:
    James: As a Christian parent, I would not feel at all threatened by my child learning about world religions as I believe it is a relevant subject. In the end, they have to choose whether they want to follow God or not, I cannot force them.
  13. Bullfrog Says:
    Mep: you statement that only the "scientific" Darwin theory belongs in public schools is based on the premise that ID is un-scientific. A claim that is not that easy to defend in light of many scientific assertions that ID is at least plausible, if not MORE scientific than macro-evolution.
  14. James Manning Says:

    I think the Catholic Church and Southern Baptist have a lock on what is presented to us as Christian.


    You may be more open but I imagine that when most Christians discussing putting God back in the schools, they do not mean a discussion of all faiths and they would have a problem with legitimizing Buddah.
  15. Bullfrog Says:
    I guess that would be tricky; teaching the facts about all religions without legitimizing one over the other.

    That is where my job as a parent comes in. I need to teach my kids so that their faith can not be shaken that easily.
  16. MEP Says:
    You know, a lot of Christian parents probably WOULD object to their children being exposed to other religions in school.

    I wonder: Is that not what every non-Christian parent feels if/when his/her child is exposed to Christianity in school? How are Christian parents' concerns more important than the non-Christian parents'? I understand that a majority of US citizens claim Christianity, but isn't the purpose of separation of church and state to PROTECT the minority religions from being dominated by the one that is the majority? Do Christians REALLY want a theocracy? I doubt it. Do Christians realize that if we were a theocracy we would be EVEN MORE like Iran than we already are?
  17. Dave Miller Says:
    Hey Roderick,

    I love people that are able to play that role. Sometimes though I prefer the explanation of Peggy Hill in "King of the Hill." She calls it the advocate for the devil. Nice twist. Anyways, people should be free to engage in prayer at school provided it does not interfere with the education process that the school and hopefully the students are there for.

    So... no Christians cannot decide to have a 5 hour prayer session during the day, skip classes, etc. As for faiths that require regular prayer times, adherents to those faiths will have to make a decision with their family if they can attend a public school or might need to check out a private school.

    We are basically talking about being able to pray without harrassment during one's own free time.

    Bullfrog, what a pleasure to hear a conservative Christian sessentially say that he does not depend on the state to facilitate his childrens faith relationship. Yes!, it is a family issue and one day those kids will have to stand on their own feet and choose. I am sure your kids will be well grounded.
  18. Timmer Says:
    This debate is all probably over, but I will say this...being in education has allowed me, for one, to see that these issues get blown way out of proportion in just a few cases. The Liberal and Conservative Medias then end up sensationalizing the debates for their own purposes. Most intelligent teachers use these debates as a teaching tool rather than a hindrance to their students.

    I often wonder just why it all really bugs so many people so badly. I have come to believe it bothers us because we are told to be bothered. Keep the anger flowing to keep the ratings up!
  19. Diane S. Says:
    I'm afraid you and I are going to disagree on this. I strongly believe that a child should get their religious education at home and at their place of worship.

    I believe it is appropriate for our schools to teach science, including realms which are only theory, provided they are scientific theories which are taken seriously by the scientific community at large.

    Having said all that, I would have no objection to an elective course on comparative religion. I believe it is a legitimate area of scholastic study, especially for those students interested in the social sciences.

    Finally, I have a post on my blog for which I would specifically like to solicit your input. If you have the time and the inclination, I would be grateful for your commentary.

    Diane S.