Forcing Religious Beliefs in the Classroom is not Condoned

America is changing and becoming something new. That is the purpose of teaching history. It is important to know what we have been, and, as importantly, what we have not been. With current politicians basing some of their electoral appeal on interpretations of U.S. history, it is more important than ever to teach as accurate and fact-based narrative as possible. That goes for the history of our religious past. as well.

Our founding fathers realized that no group is more dangerous to the social fabric of a country than religious extremists who believe they only have the truth. The lesson they learned from European history is that inter-religious warfare was vicious once differing versions of faith competed to become politically dominate. They realized that the only way for people with a variety of beliefs to live together in peace was to keep political and religious power separate. Would our country accept a religious-based government with a Roman Catholic in charge?

When John Kennedy ran for president, some Protestants feared Roman Catholic control of the country. How about a fundamentalist, a believer in the historical-critical approach to the Bible, a Universal -Unitarian, a millennialist, a literalist, a Greek or Russian Orthodox, or some other Christian sect telling other Christians how to believe? One cannot assume that, once in power, any sect would be tolerant of others.

I taught high school world history classes in both public and private religious schools. I taught the same content in the same way. Some people have asked me if students could pray in public schools? Yes, of course. I saw it most when giving tests, when a student looked at the questions and silently asked for divine intervention and help. What they could not do was to make a public show of their prayer, or force the other students to join in. In both school systems I enforced the rules of fair play, kindness, respect for others and obedience to school rules. Those are values one can expect from followers of any, or no, religious faith. In both types of schools, a teacher takes each student with their level of ability, their personality, and their willingness to learn, and challenges them to expand their intellectual backgrounds. At its best, by the end of the school year, the student has learned the structure of the content being taught, as well as how to continue to learn.

In world history class we studied the effect world religions had on the countries being studied. Religious beliefs are an important component in understanding the history and culture of any country. Learning about a world religion, in the context of the history of a country, is not promulgating a faith. For example, teaching about Hinduism is important in order to understand the history of India. The Hindu content is taught as the context of understanding history, not as religious principles students should, or should not, accept or reject.

Parents should not expect public schools to do the religious instruction of their children. Under our system, parents are free to follow and promulgate their version of religion in their home, their church and among their social contacts.  They are also free not to teach their children any religious instruction if they so choose. Parents are not free, however, to force their beliefs on their neighbor’s children in the public schools.