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Religion and American Education:
Rethinking a National Dilemma. By Warren A. Nord

University of North Carolina Press, 481 pp. $49.95

The question here is the hostility of American public education toward religion. The issue is hardly new, but few scholars approach it as comprehensively as Warren Nord or are as prepared with a proposal for addressing at least part of the problem.

Nord’s plan for teaching religion as religion under existing First Amendment jurisprudence will not please everyone who seeks more religion in the schools. It ignores basic concerns of prayer amendment advocates-indeed, Nord opposes school prayer. He does provide, however, a design that could give religion a serious place in public school pedagogy, and does so as a self-conscious liberal.

What Nord wants is “curricular neutrality” toward religion as a force both in history and in the “here and now.” He envisions not only instruction on the world’s religions, but also respect for religious claims in the contemporary multicultural mix. He wants religion to be presented as forcefully as science or economics-and thus goes far beyond what “teaching about religion” usually means.

Nord would accomplish his goal through special courses and by persuading, even forcing, educators to acknowledge religion as an integral part of liberal education. High school students, he says, should be required to study the world’s religions, religion’s role in modernity, and moral philosophy. Above all, he wants students to understand that religion is a vital reality. He would sanction school-sponsored visits to services of worship so that students could “experience” and “appreciate” ritual.

The reader will not find the plan stated quite so succinctly in the book. Nord has an annoying way of stringing out his argument in scattered fragments. He gets systematic about the curricular scheme only in a few concluding pages, and he omits a clear explanation of why religion is an integral aspect of liberal education. The zealous choir already knows the reason, but what about the unpersuaded?

Nord, a professor of philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, writes primarily about elementary and secondary schools, but he offers some observations on higher education. One of his best chapters is on college-level “religious studies,” in which he argues that religious studies courses misconstrue religion by focusing on sociology and neglecting theology. He insists that teacher preparation for religion classes in public schools include theology.

In developing his notion of “curricular neutrality,” Nord takes on issues of linguistics and philosophy, but his main concern is the constitutional law produced by the Supreme Court’s decisions on church and state. He deals particularly with Establishment Clause rulings, notably those-like Everson v. Board of Education (1947), Abington Township School District v. Schempp (1963), and Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971)-that require secular government be neutral both among religions and between the religious and the nonreligious. Whether by intention or misreading, Nord says, these decisions are used to equate secular interest with the nonreligious, thereby stacking the deck against religion in publicly funded schools. The lamentable result is “religion-free education” that “indoctrinates” the young into viewing secularism as the only frame of reference-a state of affairs neither neutral nor fair.

This argument may have implications not only for the curriculum but also for school prayer. Nord’s “curricular neutrality” will likely give more aid to advocates of a prayer or “religious equality” amendment than comfort to strict separationists.

A tenet of Nord’s theory holds that a neutral government must never take “sides on matters of profound disagreement” within the nation. Since school prayer is clearly a matter of profound disagreement, it seems to follow that government should redeposit the question with local school boards, where it rested before the Supreme Court entered the fray in 1962. Professor Nord may want to check his liberal credentials at the door when he attends the next Church/State Section of the American Academy of Religion.

Nord would excuse from his required religion classes students with personal or parental objections-and believers may join nonbelievers in refusing the classes, for Nord demands that the courses be rigorously relativistic. The truth of no particular religion could be taught-only the fact that religions claim truth. The claims of religion and science would get the same weight, but nothing could be taught as the truth. Nord does not consider that widespread opposition to vigorously taught comparative religion might arise.

The Supreme Court in this book is less an active culprit in causing religion-free education than a codifier of the effects of secularization. Nord devotes more pages to the process of public school secularization than his neutrality thesis requires and fewer than would be necessary for a thorough cultural history of religion and education. Sweeping generalizations abound. A briefer, more cogent summary of public school secularization might have traced the repeated attempts across the twentieth century to move the public schools in the direction he desires.

Actually, Nord is not battling secularity , which is the unavoidable condition of the American nation as a non-ecclesiastical state. His target is secularism as an ideology. American public schools have been secular since they emerged as common schools in the 1830s. For a century they certainly had close affinity with religion-primarily religion refracted through Protestant moral and cultural norms. But public schools in this country have rarely engaged in the study of religion as such. Nord is proposing not so much a restoration as the creation of something new in response to a shift from an enforced Protestant culture to de facto religious pluralism and de jure secularism.

Nord is perceptive in revealing secularism as an operative religion within the educational and legal establishments. He is on point in calling the multicultural education industry to task for its neglect of religion as a cultural marker. He wisely cautions the “character education” minions against the assumption that morality exists apart from religion in the real world.

Contemporary America betrays a want of moral seriousness. In designing the curriculum, in writing textbooks, in educating teachers, we do not keep in mind that education is first and foremost a moral enterprise. Religion must have a central role in all of this. The idea that students can be educated about how to live, what kind of person to be, without taking religion seriously is at least illiberal and quite possibly absurd.

The author correctly acknowledges that failure by the public schools to deal with the linked issues of religion and moral education will lead inevitably to a voucher system. Nord finds no constitutional problem with vouchers; he is merely unsure they are socially sound. He worries about the poor who still might not have enough resources to afford a good school. Still, he sees vouchers as an option and holds them as a club over public educators’ heads.

The appeal for curriculum neutrality deserves serious consideration among educators, politicians, and religious thinkers. Nord may not offer a panacea, but he has an educational agenda more specific than usually comes from those who bemoan the lack of religion in the public schools. His program might not be right, but it is at least a program.

Elliot Wright is at work on a history of religion in American public schools.