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December 1, 1993

Beyond the Culture Wars

Using the guiding principles of the First Amendment, Americans must agree on a shared civic framework within which to negotiate our deepest differences.

Tragically, the public schools have become battlefields in the culture wars that divide our nation. Bitter clashes over such issues as sex education, multiculturalism, and religious practices have placed children and teachers in the crossfire of controversy. Extremes have surfaced on all sides, and any notion of a common vision for the common good is lost in the din of charge and counter-charge. As alienation and frustration deepen, public education is weakened and our future as one nation of many peoples and faiths is called into question.

What Is at Stake?

To take seriously the clash of values and religious convictions in public schools is not to suggest that the United States is on the brink of becoming Bosnia or Northern Ireland. Thanks in large measure to the Religious Liberty clauses of the First Amendment, this country remains the boldest and most successful experiment in living with religious differences the world has ever seen. Nevertheless, at a time of unprecedented religious division and diversity, we would do well to remember that e pluribus unum remains a fragile experiment sustained only by a virtuous citizenry.

Recent events suggest that any escalation in the culture wars will make the public square of America (and thus the public schools) an increasingly hostile place in which to debate public policy. Writing about one such event, the murder of a doctor who worked in a Florida abortion clinic, Charles Colson warns: The crime was not only senseless, it was symbolic—its message that a democracy poisoned by hatred and division can be as dangerous as the streets of Sarajevo.... Our public square threatens to become Matthew Arnold's darkling plain, where ignorant armies clash by night. 1 At issue for this nation, as for much of the world, is the simple but profound question that runs through modern experience: How will we live with our deepest differences?

Nowhere is the need to address this question greater than in public education. Not only are schools the storm center of controversy involving religious differences, but they are also the principal institution charged with transmitting the identity and mission of the United States from one generation to the next. If we fail in our school policies and classrooms to model and to teach how to live with differences, we endanger our experiment in religious liberty and our unity as a nation.

A Question of Fairness

We have much re-thinking to do if public schools are to continue as the place of nation-building they were founded to be. A painful first step might be for all sides to acknowledge the failure of public education throughout our history to find a constitutionally permissible and educationally sound role for religion in the schools.

Many chapters in our history illustrate the futile quest for a false consensus over beliefs. Thomas Jefferson, the great “separationist” himself, failed to see that absence of “sectarian” teaching in the schools does not ensure governmental neutrality or fairness. Jefferson assumed that what he understood to be “non-sectarian” teaching about nature's God was simply the truth of the matter. As Robert Healey pointed out, “The kind of religion which Jefferson believed had a place in public education corresponded exactly with his own beliefs.” 2 In the 19th century, Horace Mann proposed “natural religion” for the schools of Massachusetts, and indeed a generalized Protestant curriculum lasted well into this century (Jorgenson 1987).

In recent decades, many Americans have assumed that the Supreme Court decisions of the early 1960s (prohibiting state-sponsored prayer and devotional Bible reading) settled the question. Others have resisted the Court's rulings and have continued to advocate state-sponsored religious practices in the schools. Many educators and textbook publishers have attempted to avoid controversy by avoiding religion altogether. The fact that the Supreme Court in the prayer and Bible reading decisions encouraged teaching about religion has been, until recently, widely ignored by people on all sides of the debate (Will et al. 1981).

The repeated failure of public schools to find a proper role for religion has helped to convince growing numbers of religious conservatives that the schools are hostile to religion. As the “textbook trials” in Tennessee and Alabama during the 1980s demonstrated, the exclusion of religious perspectives from the curriculum and the adoption of “values clarification” and some self-esteem programs fuel charges that a worldview is being consciously promoted in the schools—be it secular humanism or, more recently, New Age religion (Bates 1993).

Confused by new accusations of indoctrination, many public school leaders respond defensively, stating flatly that the schools simply offer a “secular program of study” consistent with the First Amendment prohibition of state-sponsored religion. Unfortunately, those who take this position tend to equate the absence of religion in the curriculum with constitutional neutrality in matters of faith.

In fact, exclusion of religious perspectives is anything but neutral or fair. Students need to learn that religious and philosophical beliefs and practices are central to the lives of many people. Omission of discussion about the religious and philosophical roots of developments in history, economics, literature, and other subjects gives students the false impression that only nonreligious ways of seeing the world are valid (Haynes 1990, 1991). One does not have to agree that public school educators have deliberately imposed secular humanism to acknowledge that a secular view of human life pervades the curriculum, and that some widely used approaches to values education are rooted in psychological theories antithetical to many traditional religions (Nord 1990).

Much more needs to be said about the larger questions concerning the underlying philosophical assumptions of the public school curriculum and about what constitutes “fairness” in teaching history, literature, and other subjects. My purpose here is only to suggest that the charges and counter-charges about “values and religion” in the public schools must be seen in the light of the long debate about the role of religious perspectives in the curriculum.

If we are ever to find common ground, public education leaders must acknowledge what is valid about criticisms of the curriculum. Conversely, critics of public schools must recognize that most teachers and administrators do not intend to promote a secular or New Age worldview. Both sides must develop an honest assessment of what is actually going on in the curriculum, and then explore together how to make it more balanced.

All sides need to recognize that battles about worldviews cannot be resolved either by excluding all religious perspectives or by establishing one religion (or worldview) over all others. Both approaches have been tried in our history, and both violate the spirit and the letter of the First Amendment.

A Return to First Principles

Clearly, religious consensus in the United States is not possible, but a consensus that we share as citizens is not only possible but necessary for the health of our nation. Civic agreement, however, must be built on the recognition that the democratic first principles of our framing documents are obligations for citizens of all faiths or none. In matters concerning religion and the schools, the First Amendment's Religious Liberty principles provide the civic ground rules within which we must negotiate our differences.

One of the most significant re-statements of the commitments we share as citizens is found in the Williamsburg Charter, a document drafted by representatives of many faiths. In the words of the introduction: The Charter sets forth a renewed national compact, in the sense of a solemn mutual agreement between parties, on how we view the place of religion in American life and how we should contend with each other's deepest differences in the public sphere. It is a call to a vision of public life that will allow conflict to lead to consensus, religious commitment to reinforce political civility. In this way, diversity is not a point of weakness but a source of strength. 3

  • Rights: Religious liberty, or freedom of conscience, is a fundamental, inalienable right. A society is only as just and free as it is respectful of this right for its smallest minorities and least popular communities.

  • Responsibilities: Central to the notion of the common good, and of greater importance each day because of the increase of pluralism, is the recognition that religious liberty is a universal right joined to a universal duty to respect that right. Rights are best guarded and responsibilities best exercised when each person and group guards for all others those rights they wish guarded for themselves.

  • Respect: Conflict and debate are vital to democracy. Yet if controversies about religion and politics are to advance the best interest of the disputants and the nation, then how we debate, and not only what we debate, is critical. 4

Working within this framework, citizens are able to negotiate differences and find agreement. In the school districts and communities where this framework has been put in place, most Americans across the religious and political spectrum are ready to work together to develop a common vision for the common good in public education.

Finding Common Ground

The most heartening examples of how the guiding principles of the First Amendment can work are the agreements reached in the last five years on the role of religion in the public school curriculum. Beginning in the late 1980s (in the wake of the “textbook trials” in Alabama and Tennessee), I joined with Oliver Thomas of the Baptist Joint Committee to convene leading educational and religious organizations in an effort to find common ground on some of the religion and schools conflicts. Recognizing that lawsuits and shouting matches were dividing our communities and undermining our schools, we came together convinced that we must do better.

After a year and a half of much discussion, we reached our first agreement, “Religion in the Public School Curriculum: Question and Answers.” Four months later we forged a second agreement, “Religious Holidays in the Public Schools: Questions and Answers,” followed by a third statement providing guidelines for implementing the Equal Access Act. 5

For the first time in the history of public education, a broad spectrum of religious and educational groups agreed on at least some of the issues that have divided us for so long. The National Association of Evangelicals, the American Jewish Congress, the National Education Association, the Christian Legal Society, the National School Boards Association, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, and other national organizations agreed on the constitutionally permissible and educationally sound ways in which religion may be included in the curriculum. These statements acknowledge the importance of study about religion in public education, and warn against both religious indoctrination and hostility to religion in policies and curriculums.

To date, more than a million copies of these agreements have been circulated, providing a starting point for communities and schools seeking to forge their own agreements. Much as we did on a national level, local school districts are discovering that the civic framework of the First Amendment does work if tried, enabling citizens to find common ground across their deepest differences.

Yes, but How?

For more than three years, First Liberty Institute has worked to encourage the religious liberty principles and civic responsibilities that flow from the First Amendment. Our statewide effort in Georgia involves teams from some 80 school systems in a program designed to help parents, board members, administrators, and teachers address religious liberty issues in school policies and classrooms. Our California project, “Rights, Responsibilities, and Respect: Educating for Citizenship in a Diverse Society,” is also under way. Everywhere we have worked, we find enthusiasm for building consensus and drafting new policies. Significantly, support has come from both the Right and the Left of the political and religious spectrum.

The starting point for local districts and communities must be an agreement on civic ground rules, rooted in the “three Rs” of religious liberty: Rights, Responsibilities, and Respect. Within this framework, all perspectives have a right to be heard, and each citizen has an obligation to protect the freedom of conscience of all others. Agreeing on civic principles allows dialogue to begin, and enables people of all faiths or none to work toward consensus on the proper role of religion in the public schools.

If the resulting agreements and policies are to inspire broad support in the community, all stakeholders must be fully represented in the discussion. When reaching out to critics of the schools, particularly conservative religious groups, school leaders must look beyond stereotypes to find those representatives most interested in dialogue and consensus. Given the lack of civility in the public square of America today, it is not easy to build bridges of understanding and trust, but it can be done.

While there are extreme voices in the debate, we know from experience that most teachers, parents, administrators, and school board members are committed to a principled dialogue, and to fair, open public schools. This includes the vast majority of parents often labeled as members of the Religious Right. Sadly, a few groups on either side thrive on “demonizing” the opposition, often lumping all individuals and groups under one frightening label. Tactics such as these may successfully raise millions of dollars through direct-mail, but they destroy the fabric of our life together as citizens. The media feed the problem by allowing the extremes to dominate the debate.

To get beyond the labels, trust needs to be carefully rebuilt—beginning with a willingness to listen. But listening is meaningless if parents or others in the community sense that most questions have been answered before the process begins. Some school reform initiatives, for example, stress the importance of local participation, but then reject the possibility that communities may not endorse the reform. Some state mandates encourage communities to write “mission statements,” but leave little room for local decision making about the educational mission of the schools.

Listening and trust are also difficult, if not impossible, in districts unprepared for conflict concerning religion and values in the schools. Every district should have comprehensive policies on these issues, developed and endorsed by a broad spectrum of the community and followed up by teacher and administrator education focused on implementation. Taking a proactive—rather than a crisis management—approach to areas of potential controversy is an opportunity for public schools to demonstrate a genuine interest in the concerns of parents, and a concrete commitment to finding a proper role for religion and religious perspectives in the schools.

Local participation in a proactive process of policy development is particularly important in values education. While there is widespread agreement about the importance of civic and character education, we are divided on how, or if, schools should address social and moral issues about which we disagree. (The disastrous handling of the Rainbow Curriculum in New York City is a case in point.) Local communities and schools, applying the principles of the First Amendment, must find their own approaches. As is the case in a democracy, there will be winners and losers. But if the opposing sides have had a place at the table, and if there is genuine effort to protect the conscience of all parents and students, then the “losers” on a particular policy or curriculum decision will remain supporters of the public schools.

A Common Vision for the Common Good

If we are to live with our deepest differences in increasingly diverse schools and communities, we must acknowledge that what divides us is often deeper than what unites us. The source of our unity, therefore, must be the guiding principles of our common compact. The agreement we must now seek in public education is not over religious beliefs or political policies but, rather, a shared commitment to the religious liberty principles by which citizens with deep religious differences can negotiate their differences with civility and respect. As American citizens, we can and must develop out of our differences a shared understanding of the role of religion and values in public schools, and, in so doing, reforge a common vision for the common good in public education.


Bates, S. (1993). Battleground: One Mother's Crusade, the Religious Right, and the Struggle for Control of Our Classrooms. New York: Poseidon Press.

Haynes, C. (1991). A Teacher's Guide to Study About Religion in Public Schools. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Haynes, C. (1990). Religion in American History: What to Teach and How. Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Jorgenson, L. (1987). The State and the Non-Public School, 1825–1925. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

Nord, W. (1990). “Taking Religion Seriously.” Social Education 54, 5: 287–290.

Will, P., N. Piediscalzi, and B. Swyhardt, eds. (1981). Public Education Religion Studies: An Overview. Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press.

End Notes

1 C. Colson, (April 11, 1993), Washington Post.

2 R. Healey, (1962), Jefferson on Religion in Public Education, (New Haven: Yale University Press), p. 17.

3 A complete text of the Williamsburg Charter is available from First Liberty Institute at George Mason University, 4210 Roberts Rd., Fairfax, VA 22030.

4 These statements are taken from the Summary of Principles of the Williamsburg Charter.

5 Copies of all three agreements are available from First Liberty Institute.

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