This weekend I re-watched President Obama’s eulogy for South Carolina state Senator Clementa Pinckney, who was one of nine victims in the June 17, 2015, shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. If you haven’t watched, it I have included the complete eulogy below. Amazing Grace indeed.
Empathy, knowledge, goodness toward the “other”, open minds and hearts… all of these are traits and behaviors to seek and internalize – especially for our students. To help with this, I recently had the pleasure of asking Benjamin Marcus, Religious Literacy Specialist with the Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum Institute to share his work and offers ideas about how educators can connect with the center.
Our exchange is below. Be sure to share this post with your network and reach out to Ben to see how teachers and students in any class can be better prepared in a diverse, interconnected globalized world. Enjoy!
1) Can you provide an overview of how the Religious Freedom Center came to be?
We owe our existence to Dr. Charles Haynes. We are indebted to his decades of experience gathering religious, civic, and educational organizations—from across the political, ideological, and religious spectrum—to write consensus statements and guidelines about religious freedom and the study of religion in public schools. Dr. Haynes and his colleagues recognized the need to provide clarity about religion in public schools amidst the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s, which followed a number of U.S. Supreme Court decisions about religion and education in the 1960s. Our Center inherited and builds on the legacy of the consensus documents compiled by Haynes.
Reorganized in 2010 to expand on religious liberty initiatives begun by Dr. Haynes at the First Amendment Center in 1994, the Religious Freedom Center is a nonpartisan national initiative focused on educating the public about the religious liberty principles of the First Amendment.
We are pleased to be part of the Freedom Forum Institute family, which is the educational and outreach partner of the Freedom Forum. The Freedom Forum—dedicated to free press, free speech, and free spirit—is a nonpartisan foundation that champions the five freedoms of the First Amendment.
2) What are some of the connections among the USA’s founding, religion, and public education?
It is impossible to tell an accurate history of public education in the United States without talking about religion. For a compelling, clear history of the relationship between religion and public education, I refer people to Between Church and State: Religion & Public Education in a Multicultural America by James W. Fraser. In the book, Fraser describes how public education pioneer Horace Mann designed common schools—early versions of today’s public schools—as a site of a “tolerant” form of “religious education” that would be appropriate in a multi-religious nation. Since Mann’s work in the 19th century, Americans have sought to create public schools that are more and more inclusive of students of all religions and none. We have seen schools transition from curricula that favor Protestants of various denominations in the 19th century; to schools that assume a student population of Protestants and Catholics (and sometimes Jews) in the early- to mid- 20th century; to schools from the 1960’s to today that wrestle with what it means to neither favor nor disfavor religion, including any particular religion, or non-religion.
3) How do you reply to claims that religion should not be part of public education?
We differentiate between teaching religion confessionally to make students more or less religious, and teaching about religion academically so that students understand how religion operates in private and public life. Teaching religion is unconstitutional, whereas the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed the legitimacy of teaching about religion. In the landmark decision Abington v. Schempp (1963), Justice Tom Clark wrote:
It might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.
At the Religious Freedom Center, we are convinced that education about religion is not only constitutional; education about religion is necessary for understanding the world around us, whether or not we are religious ourselves.
4) Yes, the distinction between teaching religion as dogma and as an academic pursuit. In turn, how does the study of religion support efforts by schools to implement global citizenship and cultural competency programs?
According to the American Academy of Religion’s 2010 guidelines for teaching about religion, religious literacy is defined as “the ability to discern and analyze the intersection of religion with social, political, and cultural life.” This definition inextricably links the study of religion with the study of culture. If our students are to understand history or contemporary politics and culture, they must understand religion and the relationship between religious communities. If students are to live productive, respectful lives in a religiously diverse democracy and an increasingly interconnected world, they need to know about how religion motivates and sustains people in a fractured era. Students—who may be religious or atheists, who may live in deeply religious communities or pervasively secular cities—also need to recognize that not everyone belongs to a religious community.
The academic study of religion will enrich schools’ efforts to cultivate students’ global competency and cultural literacy. We do not expect schools to create standalone religion courses. Instead, we hope that schools will think about how to integrate the study of religion in existing curricula. For example, think about how much richer a lesson about the American Civil Rights Movement or the partition of India would be if students consider the religious forces at work.
5) Please share some successes you and the Religious Freedom Center have had in the K-12 education world.
We are delighted that the National Council for the Social Studies approved the Religious Studies Companion Document as an official part of the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards in June 2017. This document is the first of its kind adopted by a major national education organization. Teachers and administrators can refer to the guidelines to learn about the disciplinary concepts and skills related to the academic study of religion that students should master by the time they graduate high school.
This was a collaborative effort of an eight-person writing team, a thirty-person advisory committee, and our partners at the American Academy of Religion. I was proud to chair the writing committee of that document in my capacity at the Religious Freedom Center, and I am thrilled to see that some districts around the country have already begun to align their curricula with the guidelines.
6) The Pew Center’s 2014 study on religious affiliation in the USA is pasted above. If a teacher,department, or school wants to get involved with you, what are the opportunities to do so?
We provide a number of training opportunities and curricular resources for K-12 educators. Educators might enroll in a graduate-level, semester-long class with the Religious Freedom Center designed to train teachers to teach about religion. If they do not have time for a semester-long class, they might choose to logon to our professional development website, Constitution2Classroom.org. There they can enroll in our free, on-demand, self-paced professional development modules, each of which take roughly one hour to complete and include videos, readings, interactive games, and reflection questions. Our online modules cover topics related to religious freedom concerns in schools, religious literacy, and civil dialogue.
Teachers might also choose to arrange a consultation between the Center and their department, district or school. We often organize live professional development workshops—at your school, in the Newseum, or via Zoom.
If educators are interested in working with us in a way not listed here, we encourage them to reach out to us so that we can discuss their request in greater detail.
Last but not least, we encourage educators to visit our website, ReligiousFreedomCenter.org, to access free guidelines, consensus statements, and classroom resources about religion and public education.
7) What’s on the horizon for the Religious Freedom Center in the immediate future and beyond?
This summer the Religious Freedom Center has partnered with the National Council for the Social Studies to offer a Religious Studies Summer Institute from July 10-12 in Washington, DC. Participants will broaden their professional competence with the disciplinary concepts and tools of religious studies, and they will increase their confidence in teaching about religion in constitutionally appropriate ways. Educators can register online.
We are also pleased to work with the Society of Biblical Literature to create academically rigorous and constitutionally appropriate lesson plans about the Bible and related topics for U.S. history and world history classrooms. SBL is the world’s largest association of scholars who study the Bible from an academic perspective. Teachers should contact us for a copy of those lesson plans, which should be available mid-summer.
Beyond this summer, we plan to deepen and broaden our relationship with schools and districts interested in teaching about religion. We are incredibly lucky to have a variety of training opportunities and resources available for educators. Our goal now is to spread the word as far and wide as possible.
8) Anything else you would like to share with our readers?
The Religious Freedom Center is here to support you! Please don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions or requests. We would love to work with you. In an increasingly polarized age, students need the knowledge and skills to navigate difficult questions related to religion and public life. Our future as a productive, rights-based, religiously diverse country depends on it.
Thank you Ben. I look forward to our continued work together. Each opportunity has benefited our teachers, students, and my work in social studies education. I encourage readers to reach out to Ben and the Religious Freedom Center. Their support will help prepare students to be successful in the future.