Most of the rest of the Western World has basic religious education starting in grade school. My Irish friend was wondering at how Americans had no grasp on European history. He remarked, “Of course they would have to learn such basic differences as Protestantism and Catholicism.” Americans are so religiously uneducated as to be stupefied by something every European teenager knows. That has pretty far-reaching implications for the understanding of history and other humanities. We are disastrously uneducated about world religions that impact global events. Perhaps worse we are ignorant even of our country’s Christian diversity and makeup. We are this way principally out of fear of Christian fundamentalist backlash.
In the American school system, we have largely dealt with the problem of Christian fundamentalism by not teaching about religion, and trying (artificially, I might add) to strip religious issues from every other humanity. This is both educationally disingenuous and crippling. In a lot of cases, you either end up with nothing or whatever the fundies can sneak in by hook or crook. What a recipe for ignorance, and it shows.
Not teaching religion as a humanity actually plays right into the hands of fundamentalists, because they want only their version of religion taught in schools. But that just doesn’t tend to happen with curricula written by those who actually take this AREA OF STUDY seriously. The very phrase “America’s Religious Diversity,” which was the title of the first religion survey class I took as an undergrad, is terrifying to fundies. But what I believe is far more prevalent than fundamentalists this side of the Mason-Dixon line, is the fear of them. Let me give you a couple of personal examples.
When my son was in grade school, I was concerned when I learned that sex ed in the region was exclusively “abstinence only.” I called his school at the time to inquire about its policy, not even mentioning this specific concern. After hesitant phone jockeying, finally a terrified woman called to assure me that it was abstinence only. I now regret not making it clear to her that I was calling because I disapproved of this kind of education, or rather lack of it. I wanted my son to have a real sex education. I just said thanks, hung up, and later enrolled him in the “Our Whole Lives” Sexuality series. It was offered by the local Unitarian Church with help from other religious progressives in the region. It was a curriculum I had read and even helped teach at one point. The irony was that I had to rely on my religious community to teach about sexual and gender diversity, especially LGBTQ understanding, not to mention condoms, because the public schools wouldn’t teach it out of fear of another religious group.
I’ve had a lot of interesting encounters with the public school system as a “Christian” parent. I was thrilled that my son’s freshman non-required social studies class was teaching a world religions unit. It was only one week, but hey, I’ll take what I can get. However, learning that I was a Christian studying for my Master of Divinity, the teacher assumed I was going to complain about the unit when I brought it up at the parent-teacher conference. He finally understood I was trying to praise him when I told him about my decade of interfaith work and engagement.
It’s difficult to constantly battle the perception that because I am a Christian, I am a backward bigot. I don’t have time to inform people that my Christian walk has helped me become the opposite, that it’s not in conflict with my Christian faith, it is because of my faith. And that I am far from alone. But I do think that if Americans had the kind of religious education I’m advocating, they might not be as quick to stereotype. More importantly, they might know that the only thing we have to fear from fundamentalists is our silence.
Marleen Shepherd. She is a Master of Divinity student at Phillips Theological Seminary and has worked as religion reporter. Marleen is a progressive Christian raised into awesomeness by fierce, beautiful women.