Religion, Education, and Democratic Vitality

Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty
Religion, Education, and Democratic Vitality

31 May 2017

few days ago I was driving home from work and had an unusually long pause at a stop light near my home.  The bumper sticker pasted on the back end of the car in front of me captured my attention

“Your Liberal Education Hides the Bible’s Influence on Science, Humanism,
Charity, Love, Reasoning, Literature and Western Civilization.”  

I wrinkled my eyebrows.  Moments later I realized I was sitting in the driver’s seat alone in my car without an audience to share my displeasure.  Clearly, we are living in a time of political controversy and cultural ferment, and this bumper sticker expresses the sentiment of many religious people living in my home state of Kentucky.1 What is less clear to many people is how much education and religion are at the heart of our nation’s turmoil. Advocacy done by conservative and fundamentalist Christian groups informs proposals to advance “God’s kingdom” through public education and many approaches and arguments for charter schools.

I am not against teaching world religion and cultivating interfaith literacy in the public schools. Most U.S. Americans wrongly assume that the 1963 Supreme Court ruling that prohibited teachers from praying with students in the public school classroom meant that the subject of religion can never be taught.  A 2010 Pew Forum survey found that over half of those polled thought teachers were prohibited from offering a class on comparative religion. However, what separation of church and state actually prohibits is the establishment of a state religion.  The Supreme Court case prohibited indoctrination, something quite different than avoiding religion altogether. So, the real debate regards the purpose of public education and how religion should be taught in public schools.

The purpose of public education is to prepare residents with the basic skills and knowledge necessary to live in a democratic society and engage in civil discourse. Ours is a religiously pluralistic age.  A Pew Forum Research Center report suggests that that by the middle of this century it is likely that there will be more Muslims than Christians in the world.  By 2050, the Muslim population of the U.S, will likely double.

                                   That context matters.  

In light of these trends and projections, what we need most today from U.S. educational institutions, both public and private, is the cultivation of interfaith literacy. All residents need a basic understanding of a variety of languages, experiences, fields, ideas, and approaches to learning to know their neighbors and be able to engage in public reasoning. That means we need a common language in the sense of a way to speak to one another on the basis of shared goals, problems, ideas, hopes and dreams.   

Philosopher John Rawls argues that public reason is the very basis for our collectively binding decisions.  Policies promoting a particular sacred text or religious tradition above others cannot lead us toward interfaith literacy and violate the principle of impartiality that is part of our nation’s constitutional commitment to separation of church and state.  

I will be up front and honest with you that as a feminist scholar I approach Reinhold Niebuhr’s writings with a critical eye.2 However, I cannot dismiss his influence on contemporary theological thought and political discourse.  Within my own context, I find his reflections on the value of the humanities and the liberal arts to provide a strong foundation for understanding the role of education in a democratic society.

Niebuhr, a Reformed theologian, was well aware of the limits of human wisdom.  He did not think that education should frame its primary goal as the preparation for a particular vocation, be perceived as embodying complete “scientific objectivity,” or understood as the means to achieve “a simple cultural universalism.”  The primary goal and objective for education in a democratic society is to enable citizens to deal with the complexities and “intricate problems of a technical society.”3 Niebuhr thought that “the peace of pluralistic communities requires that there be some common ground between them … The pretension of any portion of the community, that its cultural or other standards are the final norms to which the whole community must conform must lead to strife.”4

In the U.S. today, we are in danger of losing the common ground we need for dialogue and public reasoning.  Preserving liberal education and the free expression of religion as ideals, practices, and part of our constitutional commitments is essential for the preservation of a truly democratic society.  Democracy requires us to build meaningful relationships in a spirit of reciprocity across lines of religious, class, gender, racial, ethnic, and religious difference.  We are living in another critical historical juncture where we need to consider carefully limits of “human wisdom.”  Religion and education may be at the heart of the U.S. political controversy and cultural ferment, but ultimately it is our democracy that is at stake.  Looking toward a larger understanding of the common ground and the common good are key elements in ensuring the preservation and continued flourishing of our democracy.

Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty is professor of theology and chair of the department of theology at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky.  Her most recent book is entitled The Problem of Wealth: A Christian Response to a Culture of Affluence (forthcoming Orbis Books, August 2017).

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  1. A bill was recently passed and signed into law that requires the public schools to create an elective course on “Hebrew Scriptures, Old Testament of the Bible, the New Testament, or a combination of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament of the Bible.” Wording used in the law reflects an impressive amount of deliberation among lawyers that must be intended to ensure that it will not be contested in the courts.
  2. For some discussion and debate concerning feminist responses to Reinhold Niebuhr see the roundtable discussion which includes eight essays written by different scholars in honor of the 50th anniversary of Valerie Saiving’s “Human Situation: A Feminine View.” Co-edited by Mark Douglas and Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty in the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion Volume 28 #1 (Spring 2012): 75-134.
  3. Reinhold Niebuhr, “Memorandum on the Study of the Humanities in American Colleges and Universities,” Collection of the Manuscript Division, The Library of Congress, Box 4.4, 10.
  4. Ibid., 13. 
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