Teaching About Religion: A Middle Way for Schools

by Niels C. Nielsen

Dr. Nielsen is Rayzor professor of religious studies at Rice University in Houston, Texas.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, January 4-11, 1984, p. 17. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission.  Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org.   This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The Supreme Court has explicitly encouraged “teach about religion” as part of a curriculum of secular education. In the landmark Schempp-Murray decisions, it often has been overlooked that although the justices forbade worship in the schools, they encouraged “teaching about religion.”

The 20th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark Schempp-Murray decisions, proscribing prayer and Bible reading in public-school classrooms, took place in 1983. In the post-1963 controversy, it often has been all but forgotten that the justices’ decisions had a double intent: both the advocacy and the practice of religion (for example, worship) were forbidden; at the same time, the Supreme Court explicitly encouraged “teaching about religion” as part of a curriculum of secular education. This second part of the court’s prescription has received much less attention than the first, and the implementation of it has been only occasional at best.

Two conference-symposia held in the anniversary year attempted to appraise the progress made in teaching about religion in public education. Baylor University’s J. M. Dawson Studies in Church and State convened the first of these in March. The National Council on Religion in Public Education (NCRPE) extended its annual meeting in Indianapolis (with funding from the Lilly Endowment and Gemmer Foundation) to include a special symposium on the question early in October. When they are published, the papers from both meetings will be of importance in clarifying basic problems. Issues of principle, as well as practical needs, were considered.

The mood of both conferences was marked by concern over contemporary developments. Did the members of the high court recognize that part of their ruling would be so hard to implement? Did they understand that the symbolic power of their prohibition of prayer would continually overshadow other issues? Of course, the courts must uphold the First Amendment provision against any and all who wish to capture the public schools for their own sectarian teaching. But the question of what can be done to implement the court’s recommendation that schools teach about religion is also relevant.

Speaking at the Indianapolis coloquium, Dean M. Kelley, the National Council of Churches’ executive for religious and civil liberty, criticized advocates of school prayer. He argued that they seek to return to the polity of the period of William and Mary, when one form of religion was established and others only tolerated. But the total exclusion of religion from schools is not the only possible alternative. Teachers can be trained to treat it with both objectivity and historical perspective -- with an aim to inform rather than to convert.

Fundamentalists -- identified by their biblical literalism -- represent a pre-Enlightenment stance. By contrast, advocates of the total exclusion of all religion from the public-school curriculum speak from a post-Enlightenment perspective. The U.S. was founded on an Enlightenment ideology that recognized the importance of religion as well as the danger of its propagation by the state. It is to the Founding Fathers that the Supreme Court has appealed repeatedly in its decisions. Jefferson, for example, did not propose the total exclusion of religion at the new University of Virginia, but encouraged its nonsectarian presentation.

Any long-term view of American education must ask how well the nation’s total cultural heritage, including religion, is being passed on. In the Schempp-Murray decisions, the Supreme Court recognized that one’s education would be incomplete without some knowledge of the Bible and the history of religions. (“Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistent with the First Amendment.”) Yet the present population of the country, especially the student population, actually knows less and less about the Bible.

Teaching about religion is not just a way of avoiding issues. It is necessary to say and to know what religion, Christianity included, has been and done historically in order to talk about it responsibly. There is a legitimate place, therefore, for teaching about Judaism and Christianity, as well as other world religions, in public education. Curriculum strategies for such teaching deserve support from religious institutions and agencies even though they cannot sponsor them directly. Religion in the public-school classroom need not be as divisive as critics of the religious right allege.

How the national religious ethos has developed since the court’s 1963 decision was a first consideration for both the Baylor and Indianapolis meetings. Harvey Cox put the matter in perspective at the beginning of the Indiana colloquium. The Schempp-Murray decisions were made in the era of the death-of-God theology, when, moreover, religion was viewed increasingly as a private matter. Today, both trends have been reversed. Whatever else may be said about the American cultural scene, religion is not in decline today. Children who do not hear about God from their parents learn about God from television. Media religious programs usually reflect the popular, often fundamentalist interest in religion. Right-wing groups are becoming known for interest in social concerns that serve their own needs. Even for fundamentalists, religion is no longer simply a private matter. The religious New Right has taken a very vocal interest in education, charging that the public schools in particular are permeated with secular humanism.

Like school officials, the majority of pastors in mainline denominations have done little apart from making general policy pronouncements. No one in the power structures of education seems to be working effectively to find an appropriate place for religion. It is not difficult for religious groups to join with secular agencies like the ACLU in opposing fundamentalism, scientific creationism and school prayer. But positive strategies that would take religion out of quarantine in public education are another matter.

The field is left to the fundamentalists, who derive much of their following from an outspoken reaction against secularism. The issue of religion in public education has fallen largely into their hands. Never mind that they often confuse the private and public worlds, placing the Bible above and outside of history, as Samuel S. Hill and Dennis E. Owen point out in their excellent study The New Political Religious Right in America (Abingdon, 1982). Fundamentalist leaders attract large followings, in part, presumably, because of their easy answers. But it may also be because others have defaulted on this crucial issue.

The fundamentalist charge that secular humanism is a religion taught in the public schools is, of course, omnibus. Appraising the issue at Indianapolis, a specialist from Indiana University’s School of Law noted that the case would be helped if the definition of secular humanism as a religion could be made to stick -- but it cannot. Having sampled public opinion as well as having made a more precise legal interpretation, the lawyer concluded that the charge would not hold up in court; Religion evokes worship; secular humanism does not.

Fundamentalists and their allies do begin to have a case when their opponents argue simplistically that the public schools are God-neutral rather than godless. Indeed, much of American public education is conducted under the banner of religious neutrality, and public opinion is increasingly restless about it. Our uneasiness about living in a secular society seems to be influencing our feelings about education, often in irrational ways -- stimulated, in part, by television evangelists. But symptoms must not be mistaken for the underlying condition. As the legal specialist at the Indianapolis meeting remarked, religion cannot be taken out of public education simply by court rulings; it will disappear from the schools only if it ceases to live in the “thoughts and hearts of citizens.”

If one listens to superintendents and other school officials, it is clear that they have become generally more defensive. Many of them see themselves as caught between fundamentalists on the one hand and antireligious people on the other. Religion in public education seems to them to be explosively controversial. Most of all, they fear litigation. In reaction to fundamentalism, many administrators intentionally avoid any mention of religion in the public-school setting -- an unhappy educational situation, to say the least. In the face of threats from both the left and the right, they wish to continue its omission from the curriculum.

School officials who earlier were willing to speak out for at least some form of teaching about religion now retreat into silence despite the Supreme Court’s explicit encouragement. Even so, such people are often accused of having a “hidden religious agenda” because of the remnants of the Hebrew-Christian tradition in the schools’ religious values, holidays and customs. By contrast, public opinion seems to favor more, not less, religion in the schools.

School superintendents are agents of their school boards, hired to carry out board policy and wishes -- and this leads to dilemmas. If they are insubordinate, they are subject to dismissal. School boards often reflect that portion of popular opinion which is uncritically proreligion and wishes religion and/or its values to be recognized in the curriculum. Prayers are still said in more schools than might be expected. But when threatened with litigation, some local boards retreat and relent, to the dismay of their constituencies.

Instead of giving up, those interested in the intelligent treatment of religion in the schools might try various alternatives. Tuition tax credits, now court-sanctioned in Minnesota, could be followed by other revisions and changes. Milton Konvitz of Cornell University Law School has argued that earlier stands of principle have already been modified -- and not for the better. The Supreme Court justices recognized a wall of separation between religion and public education in the first decisions with which they entered the field directly after World War II. Yet even in their early decisions, Konvitz finds, this wall of separation was breached and compromised by the invoking of a general welfare provision.

Is there compromise in Senator Mark Hatfield’s (R., Ore.) proposal to allow religious meetings on high school premises? University student members of the “Cornerstone” evangelical group won court permission to meet on a state university campus in Missouri. The larger question is whether the courts will allow the same right at the high school level. Interestingly, the Hatfield proposal is supported by lobbyists for the National Council of Churches, who have long opposed school prayer and Bible reading. It is not the separation of church and state but the right of free speech which the court invoked in the Missouri precedent.

If the Hatfield proposal is written into law, it should be accompanied by very careful safeguards to protect school officials. One hears continually of cases in which evangelical student groups have been encouraged and allowed a place in school programs. A reason given is that they contribute to a healthy moral atmosphere. Later, it has become necessary to restrict such groups because of their exclusiveness and intolerance. However, like so much of the popular discussion, the Hatfield proposal has little or nothing to do with crucial curriculum matters.

At present, the NCRPE is the principal agency promoting teaching about religion. James Wood of Baylor University, the group’s president during the past year, is a seasoned, knowledgeable scholar of church-state relations. Charles R. Kniker, editor of the NCRPE bulletin (soon to become a full-sized magazine) Religion in Public Education, teaches in the department of education at Iowa State University.

Lynn Taylor, who directs the NCRPE administrative offices at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, lists five areas as relevant for teaching about religion: (1) religion and literature, including the Bible as literature; (2) religion and the arts; (3) value studies (values inevitably are taught, whether their religious basis is recognized or not in public education); (4) world religions; (5) American religion. Taylor favors what he calls “natural inclusion” rather than the imposition of religion on the curriculum. In his view, teaching about religion uses analysis and description, not proclamation or celebration. He has directed his efforts to giving already certified teachers the necessary tools and understanding for this kind of teaching. Largely because of his program, more than 30 per cent of the high schools in his state offer elective courses about religion.

Interfaith curricula have been developed in a number of states since the Supreme Court’s ruling 20 years ago. They offer a middle option between the extremes of fundamentalism and dogmatic secularism. There are alternative strategies: curriculum enrichment as well as full-length course offerings. The first is possible because social studies as well as literature courses must deal with religious subject matter: Islam in the Middle East, Buddhism in East Asia, religion in American life. Religious themes in the works of many writers need to be discussed in teaching literature.

By far the most influential program now in use is that developed by Lee Smith and Wes Bodin of St. Louis, Minnesota. Originating in a suburban system near Minneapolis, their course on world religion grew out of a controversy about school holidays. The local community, approximately one-third Lutheran, one-third Jewish and one-third Roman Catholic, was sharply divided. The high school elective course that Smith and Bodin developed has significantly improved interfaith relations. Its carefully crafted materials (filmstrips, tapes and texts) are used nationwide -- indeed, throughout the English-speaking world. Funded by three successive grants from the U.S. Department of Education, the project was able to develop class-tested materials and to enlist the support of recognized historians of religion.

An important aspect of Smith and Bodin’s material is their encouragement and support of pluralism. Each student is expected to be what he or she is religiously; there is no advocacy. At the same time, clergy in the communities where the course has been used report that younger members of their congregations come to them, seeking information.

Discussions of religion in education have been forced to include consideration of the Christian Day School movement as an alternative strategy. Such schools have grown rapidly and have an almost exclusively Protestant fundamentalist constituency. When viewed as part of a church’s ministry, schools have claimed freedom from state control in the name of the separation of church and state. At the same time, many seek government subsidy in the form of tax exemption. Tension about accreditation and government regulation continues to be sharp, and incidents receive national publicity. It is clear, however, that the “threat” to public education posed by the new religious schools can be exaggerated.

There need not be an either/or situation, with education divided between Christian schools that teach religion and public schools that exclude it -- all in the name of the separation of church and state. The kind of curriculum suggested by the Supreme Court continues to offer a “middle way” based on religion’s cultural role.

At the beginning of the Minnesota course, Smith and Bodin ask students to identify religious agencies (synagogues, churches, hospitals, schools), places and persons that they know in their local community. The list turns out to be a long one. Why should all that it represents be taboo in the American public-school curriculum, when it is so deeply a part of American life -- past and present? The NCC’s Kelley reported that recently a leading born-again Christian remarked in public that a great door had been opened by the Supreme Court’s decision on teaching about religion, but it has not yet been walked through. There will have to be more recognition of the need to walk through that door before major dilemmas are overcome.

The Supreme Court reference to teaching about religion is even more important and worthy of implementation today than it was 20 years ago. A better understanding of its meaning -- amid a growing pluralism -- could bring great gains for public education.