A recent conversation with my daughter and a possible pending Supreme Court case have gotten me thinking about the need for more religion in our public schools. Donna Kay Busch’s case initially caught my attention because it happens to involve the Marple Newtown School District my children attended. Apparently, in 2005 Ms. Busch’s son wanted to have his mother read from his favorite book during “All About Me” week at his local elementary school. However, when his mother came to read out of the Bible, the principal and the school district said no, basing their argument on the separation of church and state. Ms. Busch took her case to court, which she lost at both the District and Appeals court level. She and her lawyers have until August 31 to decide if they will appeal their case to the U.S. Supreme Court. I hope they do.
Now given the fact that Ms. Busch is being represented by the Rutherford Institute, there may be more in the details of this case than meets the eye. The Rutherford Institute is a Christian legal organization that has its roots in the writings of Samuel Rutherford and Rousas J. Rushdoony early proponents of the Christian Reconstructionist movement. Christian Reconstructionism’s stated goal is the implementation of theonomy, the application of Christian Biblical principles in the policies of government; in my view they represent the worst of religion-controlled government the Christian faith can offer. They are the “Puritans – take 2.” Thus, I grant that this case may not be the case to make the case for more religion in school.
However, on the surface I see no justifiable reason why this mother, and any mother or child, should not be allowed to bring their religion to school. Moreover, I believe schools should encourage and promote discussion about religion rather than stifle it. My daughter, Esther, a recent college graduate who majored in religion, made a strong argument to this effect. She expressed frustration that her degree did not enable her to teach religion at the public school level, when a deeper understanding of religion is critical to understanding and addressing many of the problems our nation confronts around the world in places such as Israel, Iraq, Iran, India and many African countries. Her point was that religion plays a huge role in the way people think, make decisions and interpret the world, as well as how governments and nations choose to operate. The current crisis in the Iranian elections is only the most recent example.
In the United States we operate in a schizophrenic manner when it comes to the role of religion in our lives. On the one hand, our presidents finish their speeches with an obligatory “May God Bless America,” and our children pledge allegiance to a “one nation under God,” yet we dare not try to actually talk about what such phrases mean once the school bell rings. Our politicians must walk this tightrope of affirming that they have some sort of religious faith and then pledging that that faith will in no way influence their decision making. In his most recent book, Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama made exactly that point. After taking a chapter to share his own spiritual journey, he finished by saying that a political leader’s religious perspective should not influence one’s policy making. How could that be? If religious faith is that which shapes our worldview and personal values, how can it not affect our decision-making? Who are we kidding? Doesn’t it make more sense for us to be open about our values and the religious systems that shape them, and examine them just like we might examine the evidence from a science project or an historical event?
Perhaps in this regard former President George W. Bush was more honest. He regularly referred to the influence his religious faith had on his decision-making and sought to make federal funds available to religious organizations promoting the common good through his faith-based initiative project. In Oliver Stone’s depiction of Bush in the movie “W.”, Bush’s conversion to Christianity, his sense of “call” to run for president, and his practice of ending White House meetings with a moment of silence were clearly portrayed. Regardless of one’s view of Bush’s theology or his politics, Oliver Stone makes clear that religion played a significant role in the way George W. Bush saw the world and to understand George W. Bush one had to understand his religious worldview.
The same could be said of many world leaders. The same could be said of cultures around the world ranging from Iran to Japan to South Africa to Brazil and even the United States. Shouldn’t students be exposed to all the major religious faiths, and even atheism, as a way of understanding the different worldviews from which many of the world’s peoples operate? If students only learn about religion in their place of worship, how will they ever come to a wider appreciation of the diversity of religious views? Expecting an evangelical church to present a credible case for Islam, is like asking Ford to explain all the benefits of a Toyota; it ain’t going to happen in a church or a mosque, but it could happen in school.
Now I am quite aware of the difficulty making religion more a part of public education in a fair and equitable way. The question of who decides what should or should not be taught becomes quite tricky. The ongoing debates over whether or not creationism or evolution ought to be taught in biology classes is a case in point. However, when the framers of the Constitution included the First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of religious expression, it was aimed at keeping the government from regulating religious expression and not aimed at keeping religion out of the public square. The First Amendment was designed to keep the government out of the church, not the church (or mosque or temple or ethical society) out of the school. Given the increasing religious pluralism of our society (e.g. there are now more Muslims than Episcopalians in the U.S. and Los Angeles is one of the most diverse Buddhist cities in the world), and the increased need for all people to know and appreciate various worldviews, it only makes sense to encourage study and discussion, and yes, even reading religious texts in schools.
As a starting point secondary school history and social studies classes ought to incorporate a study of religion into their curriculum. In many cases it would simply be a matter of including what has been “cut out” of the existing story. For instance, how can one talk about the European exploration and conquest of North America, or the American Revolution or the Civil War or the Civil Rights movement or 9/11 without talking about the significant influence of religion in those events? Certification for history and social studies teachers should include at least one course in world religions. Local religious leaders could be asked to speak in classes about their particular brand of faith. (Ironically, 15-20 years ago this was the practice in the Marple Newtown School district where the Bible reading case is being contested.) At the primary level religious holidays and events like “All About Me” could encourage families to share their cultural traditions, including those that are religious. Parents who object to such events could have their children “opt out” just as they can for sex education classes. Altogether, these kinds of common sense moves would create an environment for dialogue and mutual understanding rather contention, suspicion and fear. Spirituality and religion has a huge influence on the lives of many people, even those who consider themselves non-religious. Attempts to honestly examine belief systems, values and worldviews can only help create citizenry more knowledgeable about the people and world around them.