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Preparing students for active democratic citizenship means teaching them … How to Talk About Religion.
Religion is a conversation stopper. This memorable assertion by philosopher Richard Rorty certainly rings true in many people's experiences with civic disagreement. When citizens point to religious scripture or the will of God as the reason for their political positions, Rorty asserts, there's nothing left to talk about—they've entered the realm of incommensurable criteria, leaving us with no way to judge among claims. And even if they were to try to keep the conversation going, the presence of religious language and dogma would almost certainly derail it, leaving a pileup of suspicion, mistrust, and ill will. It often seems that our public square would be better off without religion playing a role.
The Elephant in the Room
Anyone who pays attention to public discourse in the United States will note that "religion talk" is very much a part of the civic conversation, for better or worse—as evidenced, for example, by the influence of such organizations as the Moral Majority or the Christian Coalition. But even many Americans who know full well that the public square can't simply mirror their personal beliefs would find it non sensical to deliberate about civic convictions while ignoring their religious ones.
It's not just conservative religious ideology and organizations that influence citizens' perspectives these days. Many supporters of environmental protection, progressive taxation, and assistance to the poor, for instance, draw their motivation from religious sources. And although organizations on the Christian Right may garner more headlines, their progressive counterparts—such as Sojourners and the National Council of Churches—also seek to influence the populace's civic views. The same ideological diversity exists within other religious traditions as well.
Simply put, anyone who seeks to engage thoughtfully and critically with the ideals and realities of democratic citizen ship must have an appreciation for the role that religion plays in citizens' lives. This is particularly true in U.S. society, where more than 80.percent of citizens claim a religious affiliation (Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 2008). Moreover, survey data show that citizens often draw heavily from their religious convictions when forming positions on public policy (Putnam & Campbell, 2010).
Nevertheless, any sensible public school teacher would be justifiably wary of routinely bringing religious talk into the classroom. Church-state conflicts abound in American society, and few contexts are as incendiary as public schools when religion enters the mix. Part of the problem is a confusion about the purposes of religion in the curriculum: Is it simply to teach students what different people believe? Is it to cultivate some sort of tolerance? Or is it something more?
Daunting as it may be, our public schools need to aim for more—students need to gain fluency in talking about religion and its role in society. They need to recognize how religion influences our public square and learn how to talk across religious and other ethical differences as we navigate our public life together.
Cultivating Civic Multilingualism
In recent years, the call has increased for U.S. students to study foreign languages. In an interconnected, global society, the argument goes, Americans must be able to communicate effectively with a diversity of peoples and cultures, whether for purposes of commerce, research, or national security. But given the prevalence of religion talk in today's world, another form of fluency is increasingly needed: Civic multilingualism is the ability to converse across different religious and ethical perspectives in search of understanding, compromise, and common ground. At home and abroad, this may represent the greatest social challenge of the 21st century.
To meet this challenge, public schools cannot sidestep the influence of religion in society. Nor should they cultivate a model of citizenship that avoids religion talk altogether. In fact, religious communities and their distinctive languages of justice have contributed powerfully to pivotal democratic movements in U.S. history, such as the abolition of slavery and the civil rights movement. And despite the many well-publicized ways that religious talk and religious interest groups can trouble our democracy, social science research consistently suggests that religious Americans are more civically active; they join community organizations, address community problems, and participate in local political life more than their secular counterparts (Putnam & Campbell, 2010; Smith & Sikkink, 1999; Weithman, 2002).
But civic activity doesn't automatically translate late into civic improvement. The qualities of such activism—and the conversation that accompanies it—matter a great deal. We should not accept the status quo of religious talk in the public square, which too often resembles a series of indignant soliloquies delivered with self-righteous certainty. The idea of civic multilingualism is that citizens in our diverse democracy will bring with them to the public square their own religious and ethical languages and their own ways of seeing and ordering the world, but they will also communicate respectfully and effectively with those who hold conflicting perspectives.
How Can Schools Help?
It's often assumed that religious perspectives will most likely surface in the context of history or literature, but if we consider how widely religion permeates our world, it becomes clear that many subjects—science, art, music, foreign languages, health, and so on—are equally important opportunities to develop civic multilingualism.
Consider a 10th grade biology class embarking on a genetics unit. The teacher presents a curricular hook in the form of provocative questions about cloning and genetic testing, which almost inevitably result in some students drawing on religious convictions to articulate their positions.
"The Bible says that God knit us together in the womb," one boy contends, "and we have no right to alter that design." The teacher could respond by simply acknowledging the existence of religious arguments and then encourage her students to "stick to the science" as they explore these issues. But this misses an important opportunity to help cultivate civic multilingualism—demonstrating respect for competing ethical perspectives by striving to understand them.
For example, parents who would refuse to screen for genetic abnormalities may view that decision as an act of faith and unconditional acceptance of their children. Those who would screen may view their responsibility as parents to include giving their children a healthy start to life, if at all possible. Once students understand competing points of view, they're better prepared to explore ways in which those holding such views might reach accommodation, compromise, and perhaps even common ground.
Several important conceptual distinctions can foster this kind of civic multilingualism and help teachers engage productively with the challenges of religion in the classroom.
1. Focus on respect instead of tolerance.
Public schools often see their role as promoting tolerance of diversity, and this is certainly important. But tolerance can be entirely ignorant—students don't have to know anything about other beliefs or ways of life to tolerate them. Respect, however, requires an appreciation for why religious adherents believe or live the way they do. Students who have this understanding of their fellow citizens' religious commitments will be better equipped to thoughtfully discuss those commitments, especially when conflicts arise in the public square.
For example, consider the ongoing debates about religious dress in public life, both in the United States and abroad. When deciding whether any restrictions on religious attire are appropriate, it's not enough to know that some Muslim women choose to wear headscarves as part of their religious observance. Respect requires an appreciation for how this choice may represent an integral facet of their identity. Without such insight, students risk evaluating those commitments through a lens that views clothing choices as little more than fashion statements.
2. Respect doesn't mean endorsement.
It's important for teachers and students to understand that appreciating why others believe and live the way they do doesn't necessarily mean agreeing with those ways of life. Demonstrating respect by seeking to understand the significance of the headscarf for some Muslims or the way in which faith healing plays a central role in the lives of Christian Scientists is distinct from endorsing those beliefs ourselves.
We can certainly demonstrate respect toward beliefs we disagree with. In fact, a lack of critical engagement with other perspectives can demonstrate a profound disrespect—"You aren't worth the time and energy for me to provide a critique!" We demonstrate civic respect toward others not by agreeing with them, but by striving mightily to understand what they value and why, and then being willing to explain our disagreements. Such insight doesn't guarantee fruitful deliberations, of course, but it's hard to imagine how a deep-seated ignorance of our fellow citizens and their priorities could lead us to fair and respectful decisions about the shape of our public life together.
3. Reasonable doesn't mean right.
Reasonable disagreement is the heart of civic virtue—it involves a genuine engagement with conflicting perspectives and a recognition that others usually have coherent reasons for believing what they do. But even when we recognize the reasonableness of other perspectives, we might conclude that competing arguments have a stronger case. Teachers need to help students understand that reasonable doesn't necessarily equal right.
Consider the debates over governmental fiscal policy and the religious arguments that have been made in support of competing sides of the issue. Advocates for increased social spending cite scriptural admonitions to care for the poor and vulnerable, whereas those who seek spending cuts argue that saddling future generations with massive debt violates religious precepts as well. At the same time, however, recognizing the reasonableness of other perspectives can often make us more willing to seek compromise and accommodation, even while holding firm to our own beliefs.
4. Religions are internally diverse.
Religion is a complicated subject, and many public school teachers understandably despair of doing it justice in the classroom. Recognizing the remarkable diversity within religious traditions makes such a task seem even more daunting. But this internal diversity should also provide comfort to teachers—they don't need to feel responsible for providing the definitive viewpoint for any particular religion because there typically isn't any.
Some examples of religious behavior and conviction bear this out. Plenty of Muslim women choose not to wear headscarves or even view them as symbols of gender oppression. Likewise, some Christian Scientists seek conventional medical assistance for a variety of ailments. The full range of perspectives within religious traditions is rarely encompassed in a single example.
Recognizing diversity within religious traditions serves two other functions: It can help students outside those traditions avoid stereotyping or overgeneralizing, and it can help students inside those traditions recognize that even among the "faithful," there might be reasonable differing perspectives.
5. Focus on the civic implications, not the beliefs themselves.
Public schools are not the place for debating the truth or falsehood of religious beliefs. But that doesn't mean there's no place for critical engagement with religion. Teachers should help students focus on the civic implications of religious beliefs, regardless of whether they endorse them.
Here are some vital questions for the public school curriculum. Given the inevitable conflicts among different ways of life—and the impossibility of everyone changing their minds to agree with one another—how do we craft a civic life together? Where can we compromise or accommodate? And when do we let the democratic process create winners or losers, while remaining committed to continuing the conversation?
An exploration of the arguments surrounding abortion rights, for example, will need to acknowledge the religious sources of many citizens' desire to see abortion outlawed. But it's beyond the expertise of most public school teachers, and certainly beyond their ethical prerogative, to subject those religious reasons to theological critique (for example, Does the Bible really condemn abortion?). Instead, the relevant civic questions are these: Given these conflicting perspectives among citizens, how should we use the power of the state to regulate abortion (or not)? Are there areas of agreement, potential for common ground, or possibilities for accommodation? There's certainly a place for insider critique of religious texts and interpretations, but that place is not the public school.
6. Public and private mix but shouldn't match.
Focusing on the civic implications of religion—what it means for our common life together—is a crucial distinction for civic multilingualism. It doesn't ask students to question the core of their religious beliefs or how they practice those beliefs in their private lives. Instead, it asks us all to recognize that the application of private beliefs to civic life together will often be a matter of reasonable disagreement.
This points to a crucial distinction between the private and public realms. Students need to recognize that the public square cannot simply be a mirror of their private beliefs, religious or otherwise. This doesn't mean that religion must be constrained solely to the private realm of society. That's not a requirement of democracy, and it's certainly not how people actually live. But few of us want to live in a theocracy, even of our own making, much less one crafted by others' religious beliefs.
The distinction between public and private not only protects and accommodates reasonable disagreement but also provides room for those who believe in absolute or singular truth. The message to such students should be that good citizens don't need to abandon their convictions that absolute truth exists, and they have substantial room to live their private lives in accordance with those convictions, but no one gets to fully impose his or her version of that truth in the public square.
7. Students should know their teachers' convictions—about respectful conversation.
There's a wide range of opinion about how much teachers should disclose about their own personal beliefs. Some of this will undoubtedly be determined by context—the age of students, the matter under discussion, the relationships and culture in the classroom. But one thing teachers should always demonstrate passionate conviction about is that respectful conversation and reasonable disagreement are essential practices in a democracy.
Teachers can also model the practice of "learning as you go" when striving to understand unfamiliar perspectives and beliefs. It's simply not possible for teachers to be sufficiently informed about every public issue, much less the ways in which various religious perspectives inform citizens' stances on those issues. But students can benefit from walking through the process of investigation and deliberation with their teachers, observing the questions they ask, such as, What are my biases in approaching this issue? What are the strongest arguments for competing perspectives? How do competing perspectives criticize my own views? and How does this issue affect people whose perspectives and experiences I don't, or can't, share? Students also benefit from observing the sources their teachers consult to increase their knowledge as well as their teachers' commitment to civic multilingualism.
A Commitment Worth Making
Gaining proficiency in a language obviously entails learning vocabulary, grammatical rules, and other propositional knowledge. But to truly understand a language, to gain genuine fluency, speakers must understand the cultural context in which it is spoken. In the same way, although civic multilingualism requires communicative skills—active listening, delaying judgment, acknowledging the strength of opposing arguments, and so on—it must also extend beyond procedural techniques and explore the contested cultural terrain of religion and what it means to the faithful.
Civic multilingualism will not emerge spontaneously in classrooms. As political theorist Benjamin Barber (1992) reminds us, citizens are not born—they have to be made. Neither can this capacity be developed in a brief unit on character education or democratic engagement. Teachers need to be intentional and persistent in their focus on modeling and encouraging civic multilingualism in their students, creating a classroom culture in which conversations about religion and other deeply held beliefs are seen as integral to the education mission. When this culture of conversation is embraced by the school as a whole, the prospects for civic multilingualism become even stronger.
Schools need to help students learn how to keep the civic conversation going—even when religion is part of the mix. Ignoring the reality of our religion-infused milieu will only come at our peril. It's when we sidestep the role of religion in our society that we ensure the conversation will stop well short of what we need to craft a civic life together.
Barber, B. R. (1992). An aristocracy of everyone: The politics of education and the future of America. New York: Oxford University Press.
Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. (2008). U.S. religious landscape survey. Retrieved fromhttp://religions.pewforum.org
Putnam, R. D., & Campbell, D. E. (2010). American grace: How religion divides and unites us. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Smith, C., & Sikkink, D. (1999). Is private school privatizing? First Things, 92, 16–20.
Weithman, P. J. (2002). Religion and the obligations of citizenship. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.