The Texas Board of Education, the nation’s second largest purchaser of public school textbooks, is revising its K-12 social studies curriculum and deciding how to characterize religion’s influence on American history. Three consultants have recommended emphasizing the roles of the Bible, Christianity and civic virtue of religion. As America’s children go back to school, how would you advise the Texas board? How should religion be taught in public schools?
As the Texas Board of Education wrestles with the place of religion in their history textbooks, I think of my father who was a Biblical scholar in the Bible Belt. My father taught me the value of good textbooks, critical scholarship and sophisticated analysis. He also taught me that the only way to understand the humanity of the religious other is through face to face experience.
My parents raised our family in Louisville, Kentucky, next door to a Jewish couple who became my second family. I went to church every Sunday, but often attended Friday night Shabbat service with Max and Ruth. We shared all major celebrations and life passages together. That’s how I learned about our different religions – where they aligned and differed – and how critical they were to who we were and how we understood the world.
Texas has an opportunity to break the mold on the stale debate raging now: Christian conservatives bent on telling American history as a story of biblical manifestation versus secular historians who edit religion out of American history entirely. It’s time to acknowledge that religion – but not just Christianity – has shaped our history and that we need to educate our children through both good textbooks and real encounters.
First, we must ensure that our textbooks approach the subject of religion with fairness to all our traditions. Although there is no “value free” way of teaching about religion, teachers and school administrators need to ensure that teaching about religion not be confused with promoting it. Our public schools are not the place to advocate for one religion over another, or any religion at all. Instead, they are a place to teach our children from an early age to ask curious questions, to think deeply about issues for which there are not simple answers – and about which they must ultimately form their own conclusions.
Further, the story of religion should be told in all its variety and subtlety. We must include not only the stories of our country’s founders who came to escape repressive regimes, but also of those who became perpetrators of religious repression. We must tell the stories of all our religious traditions that have been practiced since the beginning: for example, the indigenous religions of native peoples of this country, and the Islam that was brought here from Africa and practiced by some slaves.
Finally, we must tell the story of American history as one in which religion and public life are inextricably linked. One of my earliest childhood memories was marching with my (white) parents in a Civil Rights march in Louisville, Kentucky during the 1960s and ending up in church singing hymns. At the moment that my parents and I were marching, the very same Bible and hymns were being sung by other Christians as a justification to maintain segregation. The reality is that religion has been a powerful force in our country’s political history – whether on the side of social change or as a tool to maintain a repressive status quo.
But textbooks only take us so far toward understanding. And history only brings us to the brim of today. Children in public schools must be taught that religion has not just influenced American history and culture in the past, but is a living entity. Our children should be taught to respect and understand the richness and variety of religious (and secular) traditions that continue to contribute to our wider culture. And the only way to teach that kind of understanding and respect is through real encounters with each other.
In a New York City public school district, we at Auburn Theological Seminary piloted a program called FaithSpace last year that brought teens from the same neighborhood together to discuss their different faith traditions, rituals, doubts and experiences. We explored with them how religion is a powerful force that can exacerbate conflict or help to resolve it, can be a force for peace …. or war. And these high school students explored what they can accomplish in their communities and the wider world by making common cause with people of different faith traditions or none.
The results reflected the start of an educational transformation that can only happen face to face. Shane, a Christian raised in a strict Jehovah’s Witness home, learned to live with his discomfort while meeting Buddhists he had only known through stereotypes. Up to this point, Kora, a young Muslim woman had only experienced “interfaith dialogue” as verbal attack. In the FaithSpace program, she learned that instead of playing defense from the hot seat, she could discuss her religion and her community with the non-Muslims she goes to school with and be respected.
I suspect that the debate going on in Texas foreshadows similar conversations to come across the country. My hope is that we remember that we cannot understand who we are or where we come from without learning about religion – all of our religions. And we cannot learn about religion in all its complexities from textbooks alone. We must learn from one another, face to face, with the careful facilitation of our nation’s educators.