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Taking Religion Seriously Across the Curriculum

It’s time those who set the educational standards in our state and nation bring balance to the classroom by taking religion seriously across the curriculum.

Many evangelicals speak with certainty that America’s moral decline is due to prayer and the Bible being taken out of public schools, even though students are free to carry Bibles to school and can pray to God any time of day. Students can even pray in groups and form clubs to promote Christian values and principles.

What has been taken away is not the right of students to pray or read religious material at school, but the teacher’s or administration’s decision to establish one religion over another, which has been illegal for government entities to do since Congress passed the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Recently a prominent leader of the Southern Baptist Convention protested the actions of a public school which gave students the assignment of living as “Muslim” children for a day. They were to dress like Muslims and stop at certain times of the day and pray like Muslims. He protested and made the point that the ACLU would be coming down hard if the school had a day where the Lord’s Supper was shared with students as an experiential exercise about Christianity.

He’s right. Baptists have historically embraced the ideal of separation of church and state. This principle helps insure that the government is not able to dictate to the church how to conduct its affairs, and that the church or any religion is not allowed to use any aspect of the government to promote its beliefs.

The point by the Southern Baptist leader was well made, although the same denomination in recent years has sought to erode the cherished principle of separation of church and state. To champion the principle of separation of church and state, one must protest just as much if one’s own religion is promoted over others in government-funded arenas.

But this still leaves a huge question. Is there ever a time when it is appropriate to teach about religion in public schools? Perhaps this was the intent of the “Muslim” day at the school previously mentioned. Could it be that the school’s leaders were recognizing that the school is ignoring the role that religion plays in society, and to ignore that fact in educating our children leaves a deficit of knowledge and understanding?

I agree that it is not the task of public schools to proselytize or promote any particular religion over another, but is there a way to teach and prepare our children for a life and world where religion still plays a significant role—without stepping on the First Amendment, maintaining a separation of church and state?

Warren A. Nord and Charles C. Haynes believe there is, and they lay out just such an argument and plan in their book Taking Religion Seriously Across the Curriculum. They attest that completely disregarding religion in the classroom ignores its importance in society and its contribution to history. They argue that in ignoring religion completely, public schools have ceased to be “neutral” on the subject, an intent of the First Amendment.

Nord and Haynes argue that if textbooks left out the role of blacks or women in history and literature, it would be said that the textbooks were neither neutral nor objective, but prejudiced. In our government’s seeking to be fair by not establishing one religion over another, the pendulum has swung too far by leaving religion out of textbooks and the curriculum. Under the current system, many public schools are prejudiced against religion, not neutral.

Nord and Haynes believe it is essential, not optional, to include teaching about religion in the curriculum. Current events constantly demonstrate that religion is not confined to history but is relevant to contemporary life.

Students who understand others’ religious beliefs develop a greater understanding of other people. Reginald C. Armor said: “To understand another does not mean that one has to agree with all that he says or does. Understanding, however, is the basis for getting along with people in our daily contacts. Friction, bickering, and confusion in our environment cannot exist where there is understanding.”

In helping students understand religion’s role in society, Nord and Haynes argue that religion should be included in the curriculum where it naturally fits in. In regard to history, many social movements and conquests have been driven by religious beliefs.

Can the story of those who settled in the New World be accurately told without explaining their desire for religious freedom? Can Martin Luther King Jr.’s part in the Civil Rights Movement be told accurately without including a discussion of his religious beliefs?

As it is, our public schools pretend that religion does not even exist. In doing so, Nord and Haynes argue, we fail to introduce students to the major way people make sense of the world. We teach students to think exclusively in secular ways about every subject in the curriculum.

This isn’t neutrality. Nord and Haynes assert that this is secular humanism, “the idea that secular nets are adequate for catching all of reality and that religion is irrelevant to the search for truth.”

The tragedy is not that public schools have taken prayer and the Bible out of schools. The tragedy is that the curriculum in public schools has been sucked dry of virtually all mention of religious content, Christian or otherwise.

This sounds more communist than American. It’s time those who set the educational standards in our state and nation bring balance to the classroom by taking religion seriously across the curriculum.

Michael Helms is pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie, Ga. A version of this column first appeared in The Moultrie Observer.