Speaking before 2000 young people upon his recent arrival in Ireland, President Obama raised the old canard that religious education is divisive:
If towns remain divided—if Catholics have their schools and buildings and Protestants have theirs, if we can’t see ourselves in one another and fear or resentment are allowed to harden—that too encourages division and discourages cooperation.
This is a familiar refrain, one with a certain intuitive appeal, but studies are increasingly undermining it. As Ashley Rogers Berner wrote in our December 2012 issue, a 2008 study by David Campbell compared civic engagement among students from Catholic, religious non-Catholic, secular-private, assigned public, and selective magnet schools and found that students at non-state schools—which are largely religious—performed better. This was particularly pronounced in the case of Catholic schools.
Campbell’s results held even accounting for family factors like parental income, education, and religiosity and school-based factors like size and mandatory community service. So why is the president presenting religious education as divisive instead of as something that enriches the social order? That he spoke in Northern Ireland explains why he picked out Catholic and Protestant schools, but it does not excuse his mistake.
Of course, education’s aims are academic even before they are social and civic. Here, too, religious schools outperform their public counterparts. As Rogers Berner concludes: “William Jeynes, a professor of education at California State University, recently analyzed multiple studies and data sets exploring the link between religious schooling and attainment and concluded that religious education helps all children academically, but particularly helps minority and low-socioeconomic-status students close the achievement gap.”