Q&A: Can teaching about religion reduce intolerance?

Where’s the line between teaching and preaching religion in school? It’s a question that school districts are still litigating, like in a recent battle in a Texas middle school over whether or not a Biblical passage cited in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” could be displayed on the school nurse’s door.

But while the courts banned schools from preaching about religion decades ago, most school districts in the U.S. require students to learn about the world’s religions, a fact that most Americans don’t know.

Faith Ed. book cover

For “Faith Ed.: Teaching About Religion in an Age of Intolerance,” Linda K. Wertheimer,  a veteran education and religion journalist, traveled across the country to provide insights into the different ways public schools teach about the world’s religions. Such instruction has not come without some controversy.

“There likely cannot be a one-size fits all approach given the diversity across the nation, but maybe schools can do more than they do now,” she writes in “Faith Ed.”

Wertheimer spoke with the NewsHour about some of these models and why she believes teaching about religion in school is more important now than ever.

Are people surprised when you tell them that most public schools require students to learn about the world’s religions?

Most Americans don’t even know that it’s legal to teach about the world’s religions. The Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, in 2010, did a survey on the public’s knowledge of the role of religion in public life. Eighty-nine percent of Americans know that a public school teacher cannot lead a class in prayer. Only 36 percent know that a public school teacher can legally teach a comparative religions class.

READ MORE: How young is too young to talk to your kids about religion?

Only 23 percent know that a public school teacher can read from the Bible as an example of literature. The general public, and I see this every time I give a talk, is usually very surprised to hear that kids are learning about the world’s religions in any fashion in a public school.

How long has teaching about world religions been a part of public school education?

Schools have had [a world religions elective] for many, many years. What’s different today is that because of state standards passed in the late 1990s and early 2000s, most schools across the country are required to teach about the world’s religions as part of social studies and geography. Depending on the state, they may have to begin it in sixth or seventh grade or not until high school.

There have always been some great world history teachers who’ve taught about the world’s religions in some fashion, but there are many, many generations that went through public school without ever learning about the world’s religions. So when I give talks to audiences, if the average is 50 and up, most of them are really shocked that schools are dealing with anything to do with religion, because they think that violates the separation of church and state. They’re confusing teaching versus preaching about religion in the schools.

Why did you set out to write this book?

I set out to write “Faith Ed.” for two reasons. One was a very, very personal reason. When I was 9, my family moved from western New York State to a small town in Ohio, and that very first week of school, this woman came in and she started preaching to us about Jesus. It was clearly a violation of the separation of church and state, but my school system was representing the mores of the community.

She had us sing “Jesus Loves Me.” And I was Jewish. I went home and I told my parents, and they complained, and the school district said, ‘Fine, Linda can be excused from the class.’ That led to me getting picked on because I was Jewish, and things would happen throughout my schooling there. We sometimes had assemblies on Easter or Christmas where the pastors would give prayers, and that sort of left a question in my head. Was it anti-Semitism? Or was it ignorance? Also what if instead of promoting just one religion, Christianity, in our public schools, our teachers had tried to teach about many religions?

Fast-forward to 2010, I’m a journalist living in the Boston area, and I hear about Wellesley Middle School in suburban Boston taking a field trip to a mosque. A parent chaperone came and secretly videotaped what had happened. A handful of boys on the trip were asked to join the line of worshipers. So, she videoed the boys praying or seen mimicking prayer in the mosque, and then three or four months later after the field trip, out came a video that said “Wellesley, Mass. public school students learn to pray to Allah.” Then this controversy ensued and the school district was accused of trying to indoctrinate the kids into Islam and there were all kinds of things that happened.

But what caught my attention was the fact that these sixth graders were spending January to June learning about the world’s religions. I then spent a lot of time investigating what actually happened, what were they learning and what difference was it making. What happens when they do lead to controversy? What are some of the great ways to do it? What should they avoid? How young should you go? So there were a lot of different questions that I wanted to pursue.

A boy attends the afternoon prayer at the mosque of All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) in Sterling, Virginia, U.S. May 19, 2016. To match Special Report USA-EXTREMISTS/TEEN REUTERS/Carlos Barria - RTSG93W

A boy attends the afternoon prayer at a mosque in Sterling, Virginia. Photo by REUTERS/Carlos Barria

You traveled across the country talking with school districts and teachers about their different approaches to teaching about religion. Do incidents like the one you had growing up in Ohio still happen today?

In the Bible Belt, in particular in this country, there’s still a huge tug and pull over how far can we go with religious activities on campus. It is legal for students to have clubs, but where it can get sort of touchy is if a teacher is the adviser for a religiously Christian club and actively participates and helps lead prayers or things like that.

In terms of what I experienced growing up in Ohio, that kind of practice was declared illegal in 1948 in the McCollum v. Board of Education case. But then in 1952, there was another case, Zorach v. Clauson, which said it’s okay to have these classes as long as they are offered outside of the school. That practice continues in many places around the country. But that does not violate separation of church and state, according to the Supreme Court, because it’s done away from school grounds. The good news to me is that many teachers are also trying really hard to teach about the world’s religions as a way of reducing ignorance and also reducing religious bigotry.

What did you mean in an article you wrote for USA Today that Christmas can be taught from an educational standpoint instead of a religious one?

Let’s talk about what’s in general been common in public schools over the years. Typically, in elementary school, many teachers figure, “let’s use the holiday calendar to do activities. It’s Christmas, so let’s color Christmas trees or have a math worksheet that deals with Christmas stockings, and let’s do our holiday concert on Christmas songs and maybe we’ll throw in a Hanukkah song, too.” But the problem with that is that there are many other religions besides Judaism and Christianity, and that’s not very educational. That’s looking at things more from a celebratory viewpoint than from an educational viewpoint.

In the Core Knowledge curriculum, which stems from the research of E.D. Hirsch Jr., the kids in the first grade learn about Judaism, Christianity and Islam and it’s taught through stories and activities, but it’s not about celebrating these religious holidays. They learn the story of how these religions are created. Who are the key figures in the religion? So if you’re teaching about Christmas, for example, who’s the key figure? It’s Jesus Christ. She wouldn’t show the “Rudolph” movie. She’d be careful to say this is what most Christians believe, and she would not say you should believe it. And this unit might be taught in October because this is when they are teaching their world religion unit.

READ MORE: 10 Commandments for talking to your kids about religion

You write about several controversies that have occurred in public schools around the teaching of religion. Are teachers afraid of getting into trouble?

I think in general a lot of teachers are nervous about teaching about religion if they’ve had no exposure to any religion except their own. Or if their school district has provided no training or if they’ve no opportunity to get training, they’re more nervous about teaching about religion. What I found in the elementary school was a lot more nervousness about it, particularly around Islam. It was not a religion they were familiar with. Some of them were fearful themselves in the aftermath of terrorist attacks. They wanted to do a good job teaching about it. Some of them were very devout Christians who had been taught that, “my way is the only way,” so how do I teach about it and keep my own biases out of it?

Middle and high school levels, I found less of that nervousness. If a controversy happened in their school, then yes, they were a little more gun-shy, but not gun-shy about teaching about it; gun-shy about how they would teach about it.

So what are some of the best ways schools are teaching about the world’s religions?

What I would say is that there’s no clear cut answer to your question. Wellesley Middle School is a good model for school districts that are willing to push the envelope. Wellesley does take the sixth graders every year on a field trip to a mosque and a Jewish temple. They bring in guest speakers of all sorts, and there can be some issues with how you do that. You really have to think carefully about who you are inviting and how you’re moderating that discussion. Another aspect of what Wellesley does is, they send a letter out to parents letting them know they teach the course and here’s why. They’re very transparent with parents about what they’re doing.

Modesto, California, is the only school system in the country that requires every high school kid to take a world religions course before they graduate. It’s only a nine-week course and it covers six to nine religions. What people can learn from Modesto is, how do you develop a course like this, and how do you engage your community so that you have buy in into the course. One of the things that Modesto did was that teachers took field trips to several houses of worship in the area, so they know that background. They also had religion scholars and First Amendment experts also come and talk to the teachers.

How have the students reacted to taking a world religion’s class?

Students in Modesto would tell me if they were Sikh or Muslim or Hindu that this course made them feel a little more accepted among their peers and a little prouder of who they were. At the same time they and some of their Christian peers talked about how the course taught them to stand up for the rights of the smallest minorities. One student told me that he heard someone at a family function say something that he knew was totally wrong about Hinduism, so he stuck up and said this is what I learned in high school class, and he immediately dispelled their stereotype.

There was a boy in Wellesley, Massachusetts, whose story really stuck with me. His name was Zain Tirmizi, and I met him when he was 12 in the sixth grade. He said, “A kid came up to me and said, ‘Do you have a bomb in your locker?’” Of course that upset him. But what struck me about Zain was that he went home and told his dad, and his dad said, “Try to tell him about your religion or what we do.” So Zain did, and he and the boy actually became friends. I interviewed Zain again in eighth grade and asked him if he thought the class really made a difference and he said yes. He can’t necessarily remember all of the facts, but it whet his appetite for learning more about world religions.

An ultra-orthodox Jewish family lights a candle on the first night of the holiday of Hanukkah in Jerusalem's Mea Shearim neighbourhood December 24, 2016. REUTERS/Amir Cohen - RTX2WDVL

An ultra-orthodox Jewish family lights a candle on the first night of the holiday of Hanukkah in Jerusalem. Photo by REUTERS/Amir Cohen

It seems like teaching about Islam has caused the most negative reactions in people. Is this in response to September 11th?

There’s no question that lessons on Islam led to the most controversies in school districts around the country and continue to do so. I think there’s a very clear connection to Islamophobia in our society, and from what I can glean from my research, these kinds of things really didn’t happen until after 9/11 in terms of parents or the general public objecting to lessons on Islam. And it’s been building. It comes into the schools through kids who will tease a Muslim boy. It comes into the schools in the form of parents who see their child bring home a worksheet on Islam and freak out. It’s happening all around the country. Often the parents aren’t understanding what’s being taught and why it’s being taught.

Does this stem from a fear of people losing their view of what they think America should look like or what they experienced growing up?

I think this is a continuation of the culture wars that have been going on a long time. It kind of ebbs and flows. And I think we’re right back in the middle of a culture war again as religious diversity in our country is growing. At the same time there are certain segments in our country, I think it’s a vocal minority, who believe Christianity and Christmas need to be restored to the schools. When you have the president-elect saying things like it’s time to say “Merry Christmas” again, that adds support to their cause. By the way, I think it’s fine to say “Merry Christmas,” but it’s just when you do that, you forget that our country has a good amount of religious diversity, that it’s not a Christian country, it’s a country for everyone.

I think there still are teachers wistful for the days of old. [Some of] the Wichita teachers I interviewed in my book were struggling with, “I’m being asked to teach about all these different religions including some I don’t know, and I feel like my own religion is getting a backseat. Or that we can’t do the things that I used to like anymore.” America is changing. And we are. We still are a majority Christian country, but the percentage of non-Christians is growing, as is the percentage of people who don’t affiliate with any religion. A quarter of Americans now don’t affiliate with any faith.

What do you hope people take away from “Faith Ed.”?  

“Faith Ed.” doesn’t say don’t take risks when teaching about the world’s religions, but what it does say is you do have to think about how you’re teaching, what methods you’re using when you’re teaching about religions, because religion is a trickier and more controversial topic than many others in education. You are teaching about a topic that is so near and dear to many people. And everyone has an opinion about it.

Linda K. Wertheimer

Linda K. Wertheimer, a 30-year journalist, is the former Boston Globe education editor and author of “Faith Ed.: Teaching About Religion In An Age of Intolerance.” Wertheimer was a reporter at The Dallas Morning News and The Orlando Sentinel and her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Boston Globe Magazine, USA Today and Time. In 2016, “Faith Ed.” won a national book award–second place in the Religion News Association nonfiction religion book contest. She has also appeared on several NPR radio shows, including KERA’s Think in Dallas; Radio Boston; and LA’s Air Talk, as well a nationally televised program on CBS about religion and democracy.