Skip to site content

New Book Explores the Intersection of Education and Religion

In his book, Education, Religion, and the Public Good, Martin Marty addresses the intersection of religion and education. This book, and an earlier volume rose out of Marty’s work with the Public Religion Project for the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Marty considers education as a whole, from kindergarten through graduate school, public and private, and describes why education should concern all of us. He discusses why those who home school have a stake in the public schools, and why parents of public school children should be concerned about parochial education.

The pressing need for understanding the religious landscape is also addressed.

Marty recounts meeting with a group at a midwestern state university which was considering starting a religious studies program. Some on the committee saw little relevance to such a program. On the way to the meeting, Marty highlighted 18 stories in the morning paper that were either about religion or had a significant religious dimension. The university began the program.

He notes that a healthy understanding of history and culture is impossible apart from an understanding of religious motivations and commitments. One cannot understand social reforms such as the civil rights movement, for example, without understanding the religious commitment and vision of leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr.

What Marty shared with that university committee is certainly true today. The biggest story of our day is tied to militant Islam. Debate over human cloning, same-sex unions, global warming, economic globalization, the growing multicultural nature of American life and other major issues cannot be fully understood apart from an understanding of religious belief and practice.

Directly affecting education itself are such issues as creationism, sex education and values education (not to mention Ten Commandments displays and graduation prayers).

Marty is mindful of the difference between older university students and more impressionable secondary and primary students, but makes the case that for the sake of both students and society, religion cannot be ignored by schools.

Just how religion might be addressed in schools is more problematic. A strength of this book is that Marty comes at this question from various angles. He is not seeking to win an argument, but enter a conversation, and is more concerned about asking the right questions than he is arguing over answers.

This can be frustrating for those who want a blueprint for how it should all happen. But he wisely sticks to the goal of advancing the conversation, and hopes that this volume will encourage further discussion.

In doing this, he raises concerns about the interface of religion and education, especially church-state issues. Religious studies programs in universities must balance “impartial” study with the way that faculty members’ own faith (or lack of faith) inevitably enters the picture.

A myriad of questions surround religion in the curriculum for younger children: At what age can children understand instruction without being converted by it? Who would teach such material? If instruction were only about majority faiths, would this not automatically denigrate minority faiths?

Many parents are concerned that presenting a variety of faiths in a reasonably positive light would lessen their children’s own religious commitment, making their faith appear as simply one among many equally good choices. The obstacles are certainly formidable.

For all the difficulties inherent in such an undertaking, Marty frames the questions well and invites us to be part of a much-needed dialogue. Those concerned about the role of religion in public life and those who have a stake in American education would do well to read this book. This should be required reading for school administrators and governing boards at all levels.

Baptists have particular concerns for church-state separation and would benefit from this book.

David Russell is pastor of First Baptist Church (ABC/USA) in Ames, Iowa.