The First Amendment in the Classroom; or Is it Constitutional to Teach about Religion?

I recently read a book called, Religious Literacy: What every American needs to know and doesn’t (Harper Collins, 2007), which I enjoyed very much.  It really made me ponder a lot of things and I wanted to share a few notes. 

The author, Stephen Prothero is chair of the religion department at Boston University, and he has authored many nonfiction books on religion  and writes many reviews and articles for various journals and newspapers.  He treats religious beliefs with a great deal of respect and he discusses the history and ideas that support his thesis in a very scholarly way.  His website can be found here.

The basic premise for the novel is (from his website):

Do you get tongue-tied when asked to name the Twelve Apostles? Do you think Adam’s wife was Joan of Arc? If so, join the crowd. The United States is one of the most religious places on earth, but it is also a nation of religious illiterates. Many Protestants can’t name the four Gospels, many Catholics can’t name the seven sacraments, and many Jews can’t name the first five books of the Bible. And yet politicians and pundits continue to root public policy arguments in religious rhetoric whose meanings are missed, or misinterpreted, by the vast majority of American citizens. This is in my view a major problem in contemporary civic life. “Religious Literacy,” … explores this problem, pinpointing key moments in U.S. history that spawned our current epidemic of religious illiteracy and offering practical solutions to remedy this problem, including mandatory religion courses in the public schools. The book also includes a Dictionary of Religious Literacy with key terms, beliefs, characters, and stories that every American needs to know in order to make sense of religiously inflected debates: from abortion and gay marriage to Islamic terrorism and the war in Iraq.

He begins by talking about a quiz that he made for his students (which can be found here if you’d like to take it) and proving that Americans fared very poorly on their knowledge of  things that they profess to believe.  (No small surprise there, simply because we live in a society of entertainment, and to become literate in Culture or Religion is usually only done if one is self-motivated.)

Prothero goes on to give the history of Religion in the USA and how it was the Believers and not the Atheists that led to the secularization of  American schools.  At the beginning of the public schools in the US, readers like Noah Webster’s Spellers, and the McGuffy Readers were pious schoolbooks and were slanted toward Protestant teachings.  Roman Catholics took opposition to these teachings in the schoolhouse (and rightly so, considering that many were aimed at teaching against Catholicism).

Now, I’m summing up a great deal of highly interesting information here, but eventually, the first amendment was invoked and religion began to take it’s place out of the schools and the responsibility for religious instruction fell largely on the American Home and the Sunday School.

Prothero then suggests a remedy  – which is to bring religious studies back into the Public School.  This of course, as a teacher, is the part that intrigued me the most.  His main premise is – Religious people make huge life decisions based on their beliefs.  Since most news stories are about religion (Iran, Iraq, Israel, etc) and many major political decisions are based on religion, then we need to do a better job of understanding faiths, our own and others.

But the question is, can we talk about religion in schools?  Is it Constitutional?  Many teachers are fearful to even mention the subject at all.

The answer, that the Supreme Court has given, is  – yes. It is Constitutional to teach about religion in the Public Schools.  WHAAAT??? 🙂

What is illegal is to teach “Sunday-school-style religious instruction” (Prothero, p.128) or in other words, a school teacher cannot proselytize his/her pupils into a religion, but s/he may teach about religion.

Prothero gives  five different quotes from Chief Justices that very clearly outline the Court’s decisions about teaching religion.  I will repeat those ideas here (more detail can be found on p.128-129 of this text or from the court rulings themselves).

  • Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson (McCollum v. Board of Education, 1948) –  “Music without sacred music, architecture without the cathedral, or painting without the scriptural themes would be eccentric or incomplete, even from a secular point of view. … Certainly a course in English literature that omitted the Bible and other powerful uses of our mother tongue for religious ends would be pretty barren.  And I should suppose it  is a proper, if not indispensable, part of preparation for a worldly life to know the roles that religion and religions have played in the tragic story of mankind.” Jackson also stated,  “The fact is, that, for good or ill, nearly everything in our culture worth transmitting, everything which gives meaning to life, is saturated with religious influences.”


  • Justice Thomas Clark (Abington v. Schempp, 1963) – “[I]t 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 consistent with the Fist Amendment.”
  • Justice William Brennan (Abington v. Schempp, 1963) – “The holding of the court today plainly does not foreclose teaching about the Holy Scriptures or about the differences between religious sects in classes in literature or history.  Indeed, whether or not the Bible is involved, it would be impossible to teach meaningfully many subjects in the social sciences or the humanities without some mention of religion.”
  • Justice Lewis Powell (Edwards v. Aguillard, 1987) “Courses in comparative religion, of course, are customary and constitutionally appropriate.”  and The Supreme Court (Stone v. Graham, 1980)  –  “the Bible may constitutionally be used in an appropriate study of history, civilization, ethics, comparative religion, or the like.”

Prothero states:  Few school administrators understand the crucial disctinction that these justices have repeatedly made between studying the Bible academically (which is constitutional) and reading it devotionally (which is not). He says that schools that educate teachers don’t understand or teach the distinction that the First Amendment makes in teaching religion, and so the teachers remain silent.

But, [s]ilence can lie as well as words, of course, and in the case the lie is that religion doesn’t matter: it has no social, political, or historical force so students can get along just fine without knowing anything about it.  This approach flies in the face of decades of Supreme Court rulings.  It also lends credibility to the complaint, common in conservative Christian circles, that public schools, far from being religiously neutral are actively promoting a ‘culture of disbelief’.

… the First Amendment requires of state governments not just neutrality among religions but also neutrality between religion and irreligion.  The current state of  obeying the law by avoiding religion may well be violating the Constitution, by indoctrinating students into a secular world view.

He goes on to say that when we don’t teach the youth about religion in general, it fails to prepare students for citizenship in a world in which religion matters.

At the end of his book, Prothero gives a Dictionary of Religious Literacy that covers topics from Abraham, to Buddhism, to yoga,  Zen, and Zionism.

I highly recommend this book, both for it’s historical account of religion in education and it’s very informative section on what we can do under the Constitution.  As a teacher, I find it encouraging to know that I will not be “put in the stocks” for saying the words Bible or Jesus Christ in my classes.

Meeting those from History

“I feel sorry for anyone who misses experience of history, the horizons of history.  We think little of those who, given the chance to travel, go nowhere.  We deprecate provincialism.  But is it possible to be as provincial in time as it is in space. Because you were born into this particular era doesn’t mean it has to be the limit of your experience.  Move about in time, go places.  Why restrict your circle of acquaintances to only those who occupy the same stage we call the present?”

– David McCullough, Brave Companions – Portraits in History, p.223

nature spring 2009 046

“Get to know the great and noble human spirits in history and literature.”

Elder Eric B. Shumway, Ensign November 2008, p. 56.

When I was young, I read voraciously.  I went through a period of time in which I had a hard time connecting to books.  Recently, I’ve rekindled that joy in reading as I have started to look into histories and non-fiction writing.  I’ve especially loved listening to books on CD from the library while I do the very important, but at times mind numbing work of domestic upkeep (cleaning, cooking, laundry and driving among other things).  In no way do I count myself as an expert on the subject as I’ve just begun to really appreciate the value of self-education.

I will however, list some enjoyable books that I’ve read and ask you to do the same.  I am also curious about your recommendations.  So please list your favorite historical and/or non-fiction books, topics of books that you’d like to study,  and any recommendations for others.

Historical/Biographical –

  • 1776, David McCullough
  • John Adams, David McCullough
  • Brave Companions (Portraits in History), David McCullough
  • The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution, David O. Stewart
  • Einstein: His Life and Universe, Walter Issacson
  • Boy: Tales of Childhood, Roald Dahl
  • The Presidents of the Church: Insights into their Lives and Teachings, Truman Madsen

Haven’t read but want to –

  • Salt: A World History, Mark Kurlansky
  • Kings of the Hill, Dick and Lynne V. Cheney (about congress)
  • God in the White House, a history : how faith shaped the presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush, Randall Balmer
  • Alice: Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Stacey A. Cordery ( About Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter and how she shaped politics behind the scenes)
  • Washington Itself, E. L. Applewhite (guide to the city landmarks of Washington DC)

Any Recommendations? (Looking for good books about ) –

  • Elisa R. Snow
  • Catherine the Great
  • Queen Victoria/ Prince Albert
  • Marjorie Pay Hinckley (or any of the Prophet’s wives or Mothers)
  • Any former Relief Society, Young Women, or Primary President’s Biographies
  • William Wilberforce
  • Jane Austen
  • Wordsworth or Whitman
  • Winston Churchill

Of course, this is not in any order, nor is it comprehensive in nature.

I really feel that it is important to learn from those that went before.  My father has been fighting cancer off and on for years now.  I’ve always considered him my “link” to family history, the one to go to for all of the answers.  The problem is, a lot of my Dad’s knowledge is an oral history.  I think that it is so important that the stories and memories of my family are preserved for future generations. Because, unlike these noble, notable names of figures in history, the legacies of my predecessors is not as well documented.

David McCullough (Brave Companions, p.206-7) said that as he was researching for his biography on Truman, he interviewed a man, a retired Secret Service Agent, who “knew not only Truman but Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin, and Eisenhower as well.”  Mid-way through the interview, McCullough embarrassed, apologized for asking him questions about things that he must have been asked to talk about many times before.  The man replied that no one had ever asked him about any of it.

My Mom, in Africa where she was born and raised.
My Mom, in Africa where she was born and raised.

My mother said that people used to ask her about her story, but lately, people don’t seem to be interested.  She’s lived a brilliant, exciting, fascinating life.  I hope that I never get tired of learning from and about others.  Well, I’ll just have to add historian to my list of things to do!