I have many old friends which, I would imagine, seeing the title of this article would be fairly shocked. These folks are well aware of my personal history. Having become a convert to Christianity during the Jesus Movement of the early 70’s, I fully embraced fundamentalist Christianity. I was ever so certain that the world was going to hell in a hand basket-being subverted by the godless institutions of our society. These institutions included liberal churches, the Democratic Party, the federal courts and judges, and public schools. When I entered the teaching force in 1977, I knew it would be difficult. Somehow, I had to get God back into the classroom. Yet, the law did not permit this. I clung to a Higher Law, watching my back on one hand and speaking about my faith whenever possible on the other.
Later, I attended seminary and became a minister. I lived in the hills of southwest Virginia. In my community, the public school paused before lunch while the principal offered a brief prayer over the speaker system before the students went to the cafeteria. It would seem as if my ideal world had come, but not so.
Something happened to me during the seven years since I began teaching until I began attending seminary. I call that something sanity. I came to see that the public school cannot become a supporter of any religious agenda. Although this was in the early days of the Moral Majority, and my Virginia parish was not far from Lynchburg, I could clearly see that things had gone too far. The school is a place for all, a place where much of our socialization takes place, and early ideas about democracy and living together find root. Yet, right in the midst of it all was a strong effort to make Christians of the school’s most vulnerable clientele.
Later, I was to earn a doctorate in education. Until that time, I was largely unfamiliar with the concept of a hidden curriculum. The hidden curriculum consists of all the little things that schools do to convey the message to conform. The hidden curriculum also punishes nonconformity. During the days of my doctoral program, I often thought back to the school down the road in Virginia. I wondered what the hidden curriculum was teaching secular children. Perhaps they were learning that prayer is just some words you say before lunch with no real conviction. What was it teaching the Jehovah Witness children? Did they desire to be coerced into prayer in a manner of which their parents might not approve? What did it teach those from families that attended church in this very fundamentalist environment? Perhaps they learned that everyone is a Christian, or ought to be one, at any rate.
I thought about all of this long and hard. I felt a sense of shame that I did not speak up about a practice I questioned because I was concerned about my status as a minister in the community. I questioned if any type of school sponsored prayer was ever appropriate. Thinking as a minister, school prayer seemed to water down the devotion I tried to convey to my congregation when I preached. It had to be so nuanced, nothing that would upset many folks. As an educator, I wondered if it didn’t somehow cross the line and involve government in the business of religion. As an educator and a Christian, I wondered if it didn’t somehow diminish the role of both faith and politics.
Schools must provide children with a religious education. By that I mean that religion is a prevalent and historically important force in the American experiment. Schools that desire to provide any type of well-rounded, liberal education can’t just ignore religion.
Neither can they ignore diversity and the absolute right to have one’s own religion or no religion at all. I think diversity is a good starting point for the public endeavor of religious education. Students need to know that the United States is a widely diverse nation in terms of race, culture, lifestyle, and religion. They need to learn lessons of respect and tolerance for those of religiously diverse points of view. To do that, they must have some understanding of the experiences of others. It would seem that by religious education in the public school setting, we are talking about teaching for tolerance.
It is a lesson that we had better teach well and teach soon. Thinking back on the events of 9/11, I am horrified to consider what actions may be encouraged by religious and cultural intolerance. Listening to the voices of conservative religious commentators and pundits, I hear the rising tide of intolerance and fear among America’s evangelicals and fundamentalists who continue to see Islam and other religions as the enemy.
We need religious education in the schools so that children will learn that it is acceptable for a Christian to befriend a Muslim. We need religious education so that children will know that not all people are believers and that the majority of those who aren’t are decent, caring people.
Our nation is diverse. Our schools are diverse. Diversity is bound to grow with each passing year. We need religious education in our schools and we need it now.
James Alexander is a professor of elementary education at a liberal arts college in Kentucky. He holds graduate degrees in theology and education and earned his doctorate in curriculum and instruction at the University of Arkansas. His interests are in literacy education, philosophy, and the impact of fundamentalism on society. He maintains a blog related to fundamentalism at http://repentantfundie.blogspot.com
He has published numerous articles and book chapters on education as well as religion. His latest book, Stories of a Recovering Fundamentalist: Understanding and Responding to Christian Fundamentalism, is available at [http://www.recoveringfundie.com] James lives in Kentucky with his wife, Irene, a special education teacher.