A Thorny Path to Tread: Teaching about Religion

By Albert J. Menendez and Edd Doerr

Adapted from "Chapter 2: Teaching about Religion" in Religion and Public
Education: Common Sense and the Law
(1991), available from Americans
for Religious Liberty, P.O. Box 6656, Silver Spring MD 20916) or via
[This abridged rendering of the authors’ material is placed on this Web resource with their


Teaching about religion in public schools can be both constitutional and
desirable. It can also be unconstitutional and undesirable. It all depends on
how it is done.

Some naive souls imagine that teaching about religion can be
accomplished, as if by magic, with little preparation, planning or foresight.
They are wrong. The history of sectarianism in American education
suggests that misplaced emphases can easily turn religious study courses
into little more than indoctrination sessions.

Indeed that seems to have been the case in nineteenth century schools when
a strong Protestant bias permeated the curriculum, from the Puritan primers
of colonial days to McGuffey’s
Readers to the partisan strife engendered by
anti-Catholic biases in school texts well into the 1890s. (Such strife caused
community instability and political turmoil in Boston and several other
communities during the last decade of that century.)

Ruth Miller Elson’s pioneering study of school textbooks,
Guardians of
Tradition: American Schoolbooks of the Nineteenth Century
(University of
Nebraska Press, 1964) found that an evangelical Protestant worldview
pervaded U.S. history, social studies and literature texts long after the
country had become religiously pluralistic. Only Protestant contributions to
history and literature were recognized. All other religious traditions were
ignored, or, worse, denigrated. Even geography texts clearly preferred
Protestant to Catholic or Eastern Orthodox countries. They were seen to be
industrious and cultivated.

Since World War II, fear of controversy and desire for profits on the part of
textbook publishers seem to have led to a downplaying of religious themes
and events in history and social studies texts. Several organizations, from
right to left on the religious and political spectra, concluded that too little
attention was being given to religion—including the history of the struggle for
religious freedom—in most textbooks.

Inadequate textbooks are only a small part of the problem, and their
inadequacy is nothing new. Several scholars have concluded that religion
never has been dealt with adequately in texts. A comparison of 1930 to
1965 books revealed a general dearth of useful religious information.

It is true that textbooks have tended to overlook religion, but the reasons for
this are seldom discussed. Textbook publishing is a highly profitable and
competitive business with sales in the billions. Our school populations are
highly pluralistic, and religion is one of the touchiest subjects. In order to sell
books, publishers have to avoid offending or making nervous the people
responsible for selecting or approving textbooks for the schools of a district
or state.

Can a textbook mention one religion or denomination without giving some
sort of equal treatment to all? Should a textbook present only the positive
side of religion and ignore the dark side? One critic bemoans texts which
fail to discuss the reasons for the first Thanksgiving and the religious
motives of the Puritan and Pilgrim settlers. Yet, a balanced treatment of
religion in early New England would have to discuss the intolerance which
led to the Salem witch trials, the execution of Mary Dyer for being a Quaker,
and the exile of Anne Hutchinson for holding unauthorized religious meetings
in her home. The Great Awakenings may be left out, but so too is the
mention of religious support for slavery and religious insensitivity to other
forms of social injustice. Schools and publishers evidently have found from
generations of experience in hundreds, if not thousands, of communities that
neglecting religion is safer than paying much attention to it.

But the real challenge is developing a mutually-agreed-upon framework for
teaching about religion in a lively, intelligent way that is consistent with our
Constitution—and in a way that respects, even celebrates, religious

A number of responsible organizations have worked to promote
constitutionally acceptable, pedagogically respectable programs for
teaching about religion. They have promulgated guidelines and position
statements. Those at the forefront in speaking to the issue have included the
Public Education Religion Studies Center (PERSC) at Wright State
University (now defunct), the National Council for the Social Studies (which
represents thousands of teachers who daily confront these issues), and the
lively and thoughtful journal
Religion & Public Education, edited by Michael
Waggoner (520 Schindler Education Center, University of Northern Iowa,
Cedar Falls IA 50614).

The American Association of School Administrators (AASA) issued the
following set of recommendations for schools which are trying to resolve the
religion/education controversy:

"If your school district is concerned about appropriate ways to include
teaching about religions in your school curriculum, here are some important
considerations: The study of religions in public schools is permitted by the
Constitution as long as the subject matter is presented objectively as part of
a secular program of education. Teachers of religion courses should be
sensitive to varying beliefs of their students. The First Amendment does not
forbid all mention of religion in the public schools. It does prohibit the

or inhibition of religion. Public schools are not required to
delete from their curriculum materials that may offend any religious
sensibility. The decision to include—or exclude material from the curriculum
must be based on secular, not religious, reasons. The material must be
presented objectively. Religion should be taught with the same care and
discipline as other academic courses. Schools should be especially
sensitive to the developmental differences between elementary and
secondary school students. Subjects or teaching methods that may be
appropriate for secondary students may not be appropriate for younger

Those school districts that are trying to deal responsibly with this issue of
teaching about religion have adopted a multiplicity of approaches best
suited to their needs. Kristen J. Amundson, in her book,
Religion in the
Public Schools
, (AASA, 1986), noted: "There are at least three major trends
in teaching about religions in American schools. The first is an objective
study of religions, generally included as part of the social studies curriculum.
. . .A second major trend is an increased involvement of students in
exploring religious influences on art and literature, as well as studying such
religious works as the Bible for their artistic and literary content... .A third
major curricular trend is helping students understand the relationships
between civil government and religious liberty. Such an understanding is a
critical part of preparing youth to live in a multi-faithed society."

Agreeing on general principles, however, is far easier than actually
designing programs for teaching properly about religion. The difficulties are
really rather formidable, certainly more so than in any other part of the

Simply finding room in the curriculum for more material is not easy. Already
American students get less instruction than their counterparts in other
advanced countries in science, mathematics, and foreign languages. In only
a minority of states are students required to study world history in high
school. Few students are exposed to literature other than by American and
British writers. Remedying these deficiencies would be less controversial
than adding more instruction about religion to the curriculum, and yet even
that would require lengthening the school day and/or year and the
expenditure of a great deal more money.

Even beefing up instruction about religion in existing history courses raises
the questions of how much new material is enough and what material should
be taken out to make space for new material. Further, at what grade levels
should students be exposed to what and how much material?

Then, too, few teachers are presently qualified to teach about religion. If
teachers in other subject matter areas are required to be qualified and
certificated, shouldn’t teachers who deal with religion be properly trained in
accredited universities?

Finally, although there is general agreement as to what should be taught in
science, math, Spanish, and music courses, there seems to be little
agreement about precisely what should be taught about religion. Should
instruction be about the history of religion, or the creeds formally espoused
by various religious traditions? Should course work deal with only religious
traditions found in the United States at the present time, or also with
religions around the world? Should courses deal with the sociology,
psychology, and demography of religion?

There is some agreement among experts that instruction about religion
should be integrated into history and social studies courses, but here we still
encounter problems. Fair, factual, and adequate teaching about religion
means that a balanced picture be presented, the bad along with the good. If
students learn that many European settlers in the New World came here to
improve their own religious liberty situation and/or to "spread the Gospel,"
they should also learn that European settlers wiped out native populations,
forced conversions, and persecuted dissenters. It should not be forgotten
that statues on the lawn of the Massachusetts state capitol call attention to
the hanging of Quaker Mary Dyer on Boston Common in 1660 and the
expulsion of Anne Hutchins on from the colony in 1638. If Martin Luther
King’s contributions to the advancement of civil rights are studied, so too
must be the actions of other religious leaders to hold back those

If teaching about religion in history courses is not to be mere applesauce, it
will have to deal with controversial subjects. In world history, and to an extent,
in U.S. history, schools would have to deal with such thorny subjects as how
to treat the Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and other scriptures; Catholic and
non-Catholic differences over the development of the papacy; syncretism in
the history of Christianity; the extermination of the Albigensians and
persecution of the Waldensians; the Inquisition; Calvin’s Geneva; the
religious wars after the Reformation; the unpleasant facets of the Crusades;
the wars between Christians and Muslims; the long history of anti-Semitism
and other often murderous forms of bigotry; the role of religion in social and
international tensions; the conflicts between religion and science; the
religion-related "troubles" in Northern Ireland; the role of religion in French,
Spanish, and other European colonizations; religion and the Vietnamese
quagmire; religion and liberation theology in Latin America; religion in the
Spanish Civil War and World War II. And these are just some of the
problems in world history that would require fair, factual treatment.

In U.S. history, some of the equally thorny issues would be native American
religion; French and Spanish missions; the European religious background
of migration to North America; the execution of Quakers in and expulsion of
Anne Hutchinson from Massachusetts; Salem witchcraft trials; colonial
establishments of religion and bigotry; revivalism; Deism; anti-Catholicism;
anti-Semitism; pacifism; the evolution of religious liberty and church-state
separation; the history of various denominations and movements;
denominations and religions founded in the U.S.—Christian Science, the
"Campbellite" churches, Shakers, Mormonism; new religions—Unification
Church, Hare Krishna movement, Scientology; "deprogramming"; religious
utopian experiments; religion on both sides of the slavery issue; Black
religion; non-Western religions in the U.S.; nativism; the temperance
movement; the controversy over evolution and other conflicts between
religion and science; religion and welfare programs; contemporary
church-state problems; religious conflict and abortion rights; religion, war,
and conscientious objection; the modernist-fundamentalist debate;
important theologians; religion and the Vietnam War; women and religion;
religion and the civil rights movement; religion in public education; the
relation between religion and values, daily life, and behavior; the new
Religious Right and politics; the "unchurched"; liberal religion and

Finally, students would need to learn about religious pluralism. Labels like
Catholic, Protestant, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Evangelical, Humanist, Quaker,
fundamentalist, etc. do not tell us very much about how any person really
thinks, acts, or makes moral or political decisions. Each label covers a wide
spectrum of persons. Further, opinion polls which purport to show
Americans’ beliefs tell little that is substantive and much that is conflicting.
Instruction which oversimplifies what Americans or any others believe is not
educationally sound.

Religion is probably the most difficult topic to deal with in public education.
While in theory it can be done properly, in practice it presents daunting
problems. History cannot be taught without some references to religion, but
these require much of teachers, curriculum designers, administrators, and
textbook writers. Without adequate safeguards for objectivity and balance,
and against slanting and bias, the schools would do well to do too little rather
than too much.

Teaching About Religion
in support of civic pluralism
Without adequate safeguards for objectivity and balance,
and against slanting and bias, the schools would
do well to do too little rather than too much.