"American education proceeds on the assumption that God is either dead or irrelevant." So argues philosopher Warren Nord in a provocative new book, "Does God Make a Difference?" published by Oxford University Press.
Conventional wisdom in public schools and universities, Nord claims, is that students "can learn everything they need to know about any subject (other than history and literature) without learning anything about religion." Students are uncritically taught to make sense of the world in "exclusively secular categories." And that makes public education "superficial, illiberal, and unconstitutional."
Before saying more about Warren Nord's arguments, I should disclose my longtime friendship with him — and my admiration for his extraordinary contributions to the field of religion and education.
Is Nord right? On the charges of "superficial and illiberal," I would agree. Ignoring the role of religion in history and society — and, more deeply, ignoring religious ways of understanding the world — deprives students of what used to be called a broad or liberal education.
Education, Nord rightly argues, should address the "big questions" about meaning and morality — questions that cannot be properly considered without giving religion a place at the curriculum table.
A religion-free education may be wrongheaded, but is it unconstitutional? Here Nord goes beyond where most legal scholars are willing to go by boldly asserting that public schools and universities violate the First Amendment's establishment clause by failing to be religiously neutral.
According to Nord, teaching about religion in public schools is not only permissible under the First Amendment (a point the U.S. Supreme Court has made many times); but it is also required by the court's past rulings about the constitutional necessity of government neutrality between religion and non-religion. There is nothing "neutral," he argues, about teaching all subjects through a secular lens without exposing students to religious alternatives.
Nord is well aware that the high court has never ruled that neglect of religion in schools — even serious neglect — rises to the level of an establishment-clause violation. Nevertheless, he insists that First Amendment neutrality should be taken by school officials as a constitutional mandate for including religion in the curriculum. With no Supreme Court decision to that effect, however, public schools and universities are very unlikely to view serious treatment of religion as a constitutional obligation.
After all, most court decisions applying the "neutrality principle" are a one-way street: Judges frequently strike down school practices that endorse or promote religion, but rarely see a First Amendment problem with excluding religion. In fact, lower courts in recent years often defer to the judgment of school officials when they censor student religious expression out of a concern (some would argue excessive concern) over the appearance of school endorsement of religion.
In short, despite the strong case made by Warren Nord and others, advocates for taking religion seriously in the public school curriculum will get little help from the courts. What we have is a weak "schools may do this" situation under the First Amendment — a long way from Nord's hoped-for "schools must do this."
Modest progress has been made in recent years in getting state standards and textbooks, in the social studies at least, to include some study about the major religious traditions. But "mentioning" religion more often is not what Nord means by serious treatment of religion. For public schools to be substantively neutral, Nord believes, they must engage students in robust study of religious ways of seeing and understanding the world not only across the curriculum, but also in at least one required course in religious studies.
Sadly, Warren Nord did not live to hear public reaction to the revolutionary proposals he makes in this book; he died in June, 11 days after sending final manuscript revisions to the publisher.
Throughout his nine-month battle with acute leukemia, Nord continued to work on this book — determined to finish making the case for including religious studies in schools and universities. It is not a religious argument for taking religion seriously; it is a constitutional, civic, moral and educational argument for providing students with the best possible education.
If you care about the state of education in America, read this book. As Nord reminds us: "An educational system that ignores the great existential questions — political, moral, spiritual, religious — is not worthy of respect, indeed, it shouldn't count as educational at all."
Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001; on the web at: firstamendmentcenter.org; by e-mail at: email@example.com.