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Starter Activities

The following adaptable classroom activities suggest various approaches for introducing and/or extending learning on religion and democracy.

1. War and Persecution in Religion's Name
Many wars around the world have been and are still being fought in the name of religion — such battles are sometimes known as holy wars. Read more about what constitutes holy wars at the BBC's Religion & Ethics site. Resources include a description of The Crusades, details on what makes a "just war," and views of war by some of the world's major religions. Next, discuss with students the religious connections to The Crusades, the Wars of Religion in France, the more recent Islamic concept of jihad, and/or the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict. Consider also large-scale religious persecutions such as the Holocaust, the Spanish Inquisition, and the persecution of Muslims in Bosnia. Does religion promote these actions, or do people interpret faith in ways that support them? Divide students into groups. Ask each to choose one event to research and then explain how religion was used to support a particular social or political climate for that event. Have each group share its research. The class can then create a chart or some other graphic organizer to show similarities among these events. Some reference sites include:

NOW WITH BILL MOYERS: Faith in America: A Just War?

Washington State University: The Wars of Religion

Christian Science Monitor: Ten Major Religious Events in the West

Christian Science Monitor: Holy Wars - They're Back

MSN Learning and Research: Crusades


2. Building Upon Common Beliefs
The 1/3/03 NOW WITH BILL MOYERS broadcast features a roundtable focused on the essence of faith in America. (Note: A free transcript of this broadcast is available on the NOW Web site. Teachers may also tape the broadcast off-air and use it in the classroom for one year. Alternatively, programs are available for purchase from ShopPBS.) A portion of the discussion focuses on shared elements across religions that could bring together disparate communities. Work with students to brainstorm a list of world religions. Assign each student a religion to research, asking him or her to cite the religion's basic tenets, worship practices, and spiritual leadership (is there a God, for example, or some other higher order?). Some potential research references include:

Religions of the World

DMOZ Open Directory Project: Religion and Spirituality

Adherents.com (religious statistics)

In small groups, have each student present his or her studied religion. Then ask each group to identify similarities among the religions and create a plan to diminish tension and/or rivalries among different faiths. Invite each group to share its findings and plans.

3. Examining the Separation of Church and State
The clause on religion in the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment has triggered ongoing legal debate about the concept of "separation of church and state". Ask students what they think was intended by the statement, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." How has the statement been interpreted? Have exceptions been made related to the separation of church and state? What are the pros and cons of such separation? Have students test their ideas by taking NOW's Freedom of Religion Quiz. Follow-up by dividing students into teams to research key legal cases related to the separation of church and state, with each group representing one side of each case selected. Instruct each group to research its stance, develop an argument, and note any legal precedents. Have pro and con teams debate their points of view. Sites to support these activities include:

The Anti-Defamation League: Separation of Church and State

NoApathy.org: The Myth of the Separation of Church and State

Americans United for Separation of Church and State

4. The Link Between Democracy and Religion
The 1/3/03 NOW WITH BILL MOYERS' broadcast looks at the link between democracy and religion. (Note: A free transcript of this broadcast is available on the NOW Web site. Teachers may also tape the broadcast off-air and use it in the classroom for one year. Alternatively, programs are available for purchase from ShopPBS.) What is the essence of this relationship? What elements of democracy and religion are shared and how can they remain mutually supportive? What recent events may have undermined this connection? Invite students to review the broadcast's roundtable and interview transcripts to identify themes related to democracy and religion, such as religious freedom, tolerance of spiritual and religious beliefs, and communities of open discussion and understanding. Divide students into small groups to conduct research on democracy and religion. Invite individual students to select a theme of interest to them and instruct them to write a scholarly journal article on their understanding of the link between democracy and religion. Informational sites include:

University of Virginia: Center on Religion and Democracy

Catholic Educator's Research Center: Democracy and Religion in America


About the Author
Michele Israel has been an educator in varied capacities for over 20 years. As founder and director of Educational Consulting Group, Israel currently serves non-profit and educational institutions, providing services including strategic planning, curriculum development, and project management, produces learning materials and writes articles for companies such as the Public Broadcasting Service, Education World, and CNN/Turner Learning.



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