It’s easy to understand why discussions of religion, no matter where they take place, make some people uncomfortable. But that’s no reason to ban the topic from American classrooms.
Many of the people who first came to America were seeking a place to freely practice their faith. The majority of our colonies, at one time, had official churches.
Over time, the idea of religious toleration developed, in which colonies with established religions would tolerate the practice of other faiths. By the time of America’s founding, we had moved beyond religious toleration to an American understanding of religious liberty, which is enshrined in our founding documents.
But in protecting “the free exercise of religion,” as the Bill of Rights puts it, we have sometimes gone too far. The separation of church and state does not require that the government shun religion, only that government not compel worship or favor a particular religion.
The American social studies classroom is the ideal place to talk about the role religion and faith have played in American history. As the National Council for the Social Studies writes, “Knowledge about religions is not only a characteristic of an educated person but is necessary for effective and engaged citizenship in a diverse nation and world.”
Even the American Civil Liberties Union agrees with this. “It would be difficult to teach art, music, literature and most social studies without considering religious influences,” notes a statement on religion in public schools jointly signed by the ACLU and numerous other organizations spanning the ideological, political and religious spectrum.
At the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University, academic programs are all based on the premise that the best way to learn about American history and government is to learn it from those who lived and shaped it.
To know what they thought, how they felt, and what motivated them personally and intellectually — in many cases their faith — our students read their letters, speeches, pamphlets and books.
The role of religion in American history and politics is part of this ongoing first-person story.
To understand the motivations and thinking of the early colonists, for example, we suggest that students read John Winthrop’s 1630 discourse, “A Model of Christian Charity,” which lays out a vision for building a godly commonwealth and urges Massachusetts Bay colonists to “be generous with their resources … considering the good of their neighbor to be integral to their own good.” Good advice for today as well.
Our suggested reading list on religion in American and politics includes 25 core documents that helped shape our nation, such as:
—Cotton Mather’s 1718 essay on “the principles of reason”
—George Washington’s 1790 letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport R.I.
—Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, delivered in 1865, and
—Henry Ward Beecher’s “Moral Theory of Civil Liberty,” written in 1869.
More recent writings include Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1933 address to the National Conference of Catholic Charities, the Rev. Martin Luther King’s 1962 Ebenezer Baptist Church sermon, “Can a Christian Be a Communist,” Ronald Reagan’s remarks at the 1983 annual convention of the National Association of Evangelicals, and Barack Obama’s 2009 address at Cairo University.
As any honest historian will attest, there is no way to divorce American government and history from the religious beliefs of those who created our government and lived that history.
The National Council for the Social Studies puts it like this: “Only through learning about religions and beliefs will young people be adequately prepared for citizenship in a religiously diverse society and world.”
Schools shouldn’t run from the topic; they should embrace it.