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Protestantism and Non-Christian Religions

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National Council Considers Religion and Public Education

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Both nationally and locally the question of implementing the teaching of religious values in public schools has engaged many groups recently. It is fitting that Father Hardon should survey the present thinking, for he has made a special study of the Church and State question, especially legislation and Supreme Court decisions as they relate to education. His writings have sought for the avenues of cooperation. A frequent contributor to the “Homiletic and Pastoral Review” and author of the recent book, “Protestant Churches of America” (Newman Press), he is professor of fundamental theology at the Jesuit Scholasticate, West Baden College.

Within less than two years, two conferences were held on a national scale to discuss and implement the teaching of religious values in the public schools. The first was sponsored by the National Council of Churches in 1955, and attended by the writer as an observer from the Jesuit Educational Association. The second was under the auspices of the American Council on Education, which coordinates all the national and regional educational associations in the country. For three days (March 10-12), the sixty invited delegates examined the progress made since 1944, when the Council first introduced this delicate subject to American educators. In 1947 it cautiously recommended “that public schools avoid teaching religion, but that they incorporate in their curriculum an objective study of religious institutions.” A fair idea of the attitude in 1957 can be gained from the recommendations which the delegates submitted to the A.C.E. after long and often heated discussion, at the meeting held in Harriman, N.Y.

Areas Covered by the Conference

The main area of religious education which the conference analyzed was the basic question of whether and what kind of theological commitment is permitted for the public school. Most of the delegates were opposed to having the schools openly declare themselves committed to a theistic position which recognizes a personal God and the derivative moral law. They felt that generally speaking such commitment already exists as an expression of the private conviction of the teachers and school administrators. A vocal minority at the conference argued (unsuccessfully) against any theistic commitment, in theory or practice, on the principle that public education belongs to the state which by definition should have nothing to do with religion.

Changed Reaction

Typical of the rapid development in this matter is the changed reaction towards A.C.E. policy expressed by one of its spokesmen. Ten years ago it was sharply criticized for having loose ideas on the separation of church and state because it presumed to suggest that public schools might say something about the religious heritage of American history and institutions. “Now the climate of opinion has changed to the extent of putting us on the defensive for taking separation too seriously.” Legal opinion at the conference traced the development, at least since 1952, to the Zorach school case in which the Supreme Court practically reversed the McCollum decision and declared that, “We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.”

While theological commitment was the principal issue at the conference, most of the discussion centered on the more practical question of how religious values can be extracted from the actual content of the standard curriculum without violence to the subject matter or offending the freedom of conscience of the pupils. American history was examined as a typical medium where religious integration is possible. Two very competent studies were presented to the conference and thoroughly dissected by the delegates, who ended by approving them with minor reservations.

Essential Aspect

One study analyzed the role that religion should play in teaching the history of the United States in public secondary schools. “Religion,” the report stated, “is, by fact and tradition, so essentially an aspect of American culture that its study becomes a necessary element in the social education of the American adolescent.” The religious content “should be selected on the basis of sound historical scholarship, democratic values and the needs of the adolescent.” Among the aspects of American history that might be integrated, the report suggested “the contributions of Western heritage to religion in America…religious traditions and the institutions that are the product of developments during the colonial period (and) the growth of church organization in modern America,”

Another study examined the content of history text books that are presently used in public elementary schools. Several pertinent recommendations were made. Granting that teaching religious facts in American history is difficult, it can be done. “In fact it must be done to teach history validly, for certain religious facts are inseparable from it.” In practice, the integration should center on “events or movements in American history which have had unquestioned religious aspects,” like the Puritans, the Spanish missions, and the Declaration of Independence; and “persons of historical importance who in some way brought a religious element into the story of our nation,” as Columbus, Lincoln, and George Washington Carver.

Main Issues of Agreement

The basic function of the Harriman Conference was to solicit the judgment of the invited participants in helping the American Council appraise its present position and chart its course for immediate future. It was therefore a consultative assembly whose conclusions were not put to a formal vote but intended to serve as directives for the Council’s policy, research, and experimentation on religion in public education. It is beyond the scope of this article to review in detail all the conclusions reached by the conference in committee and general session. Moreover the full text has not yet been made public. Briefly, however, the main issues on which (in the writer’s judgment) the majority of delegates agreed would be these:

  1. The policy of the American Council on Education, formulated in 1947, was approved. Fundamentally it means opposition to “the artificial separation of the sacred and the secular - the setting apart of religion from the common life. The cultural evil against which we have protested is the non-relevance of spiritual ideals and sanctions to everyday life, whether in business, politics or education.

  2. ”Looking to the future, the conference recommended that the progress made to date should be further consolidated. Specifically, the need was felt for confirming the assumption that religious integration is beneficial to the pupils and society in general. To this end, a number of schools throughout the country should put integration into practice on a scientifically experimental basis. On the strength of established facts, proving the system feasible and beneficial, it will be easier to determine future policy. Along the same lines, textbooks in public schools should be examined to determine the amount of religious integration already operative and how much can still be achieved. However, most of the delegates did not wish to make increased correlation of religion and the standard curriculum depend on further research into the benefits of teaching religious values. This was generally assumed to be true. Consequently, except for a small minority, the conference thought it was unrealistic to wait until “a many-volumed series” of studies in American religious thought was completed before religion could be seriously treated wherever intrinsic to the subject matter as in literature, history, and the social sciences.

Properly Qualified Teachers

  1. Since balanced cultivation of religious values in public education requires properly qualified teachers, the delegates agreed that teachers’ colleges and training programs should be more effectively geared to meet the growing need. Also reference books and teachers’ manuals on the practical means for treating religions questions were recommended.

  2. After considerable debate, most of the conference recognized that the ultimate solution of the problem must be found on a community level, where the local church and civic leaders would be consulted on matters of policy. In the same context, not the least principle on which the delegates concurred was to admit that the prior right in education does not belong to the state but to the community and, reductively, to the family. This was implicit in all the deliberations of the conference.

There was a striking difference between the National Council of Churches conference on the same subject in 1955 and the recent meeting of the American Council on Education. The latter was less homogeneous and more concerned with principles than practical details. It also strengthened an impression that no group of churchmen could possibly convey. The integration of religious values in public schools, where currently practiced, is generally acceptable to educators and religionists’ alike and further development in this directions is inevitable, unless the secularist minority succeeds in quashing these efforts through legal or judicial instruments and critical propaganda.

Students at St. Joseph Academy, St. Louis, Missouri, approach the traditional and the contemporary n the world of art with an open mind and attempt to understand and respect the achievements of both through experimentation with various media and techniques. “Trying it” themselves has been found to be the most effective means of developing an appreciation.

Rev. John A. Hardon, S.J.

West Baden College
West Baden Springs, Indiana

Catholic Educator
Vol. 27 - #9, May 1957, pp. 595-595

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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