Raising religiously literate Americans: A Q&A with author Linda K. Wertheimer

My first degree was in education. My current studies focus on religion. When a book called Faith Ed,: Teaching About Religion in an Age of Intolerance came out I was compelled to read it. Not only did the author — journalist Linda K. Wertheimer — provide an in-depth and thoughtful look at particular cases of controversy and success in religious studies education at primary and secondary levels across the U.S., but she rightly highlights a public education system wrestling with the practicalities of how to nurture a new generation of religiously literate U.S. citizens. 

To explore the topic and the text more I caught up with Wertheimer. Below is our Q&A. 

*Listen to Wertheimer speak at Books & Books: Miami, FL | Sunday, Jan. 17th 4pm.

Where did you draw your inspiration to write this book?

Faith Ed. grew out of two events, one in my childhood and one more recent. When I was in fourth grade, my family moved from western New York state to rural Ohio. I was the only Jew, other than my brothers, in our new school system. My school had weekly Christianity classes taught in the classroom by a woman from a local church. My parents had me excused from those classes, but peers noticed that I left and asked why. I told them I was Jewish, and as a result, I experienced some ostracism as well anti-Semitism. I always wondered, though, if my peers’ treatment was more ignorance than anti-Semitism. I wondered, too, if it would have made a difference if teachers had taught us about many religions instead of promoting only one. Those kind of questions inspired me in part to write Faith Ed.

The second event that led to writing this book was hearing about a suburban Boston middle school’s field trip to a mosque and a subsequent controversy. I was fascinated to learn that sixth-graders were spending half a year learning about the world’s religions and even more intrigued to find out that learning about religion was required as part of social studies. I wanted to know more.

What's the one takeaway you want people to get from this book? 

My hope is that readers realize the importance of teaching about religion in public schools and the difference it can make not only for religious minorities but for those in the majority. I also hope this book can renew dialogue about the best way to teach about religion and how young to begin such instruction. It’s more vital now than ever to emphasize the importance of religious literacy because education can reduce ignorance and the bigotry we’re hearing aimed at Muslims in particular these days.

Do you feel that education is a necessary precursor to respect and tolerance? Is it enough?   

The goal should be that we learn to respect other faiths rather than simply tolerate them. I do believe education is a great way to help achieve respect for different religions. Is it enough? No, because education only reaches those in the classrooms. What about the adults who never learned about other religions? We need to figure out how to reach them. Children are greatly influenced by their parents.

You focus a lot on Islam; what other religions are being marginalized without proper religious education? 

It is not just Islam that is greatly misunderstood. Students who were Sikh, Jewish and Hindu spoke of being bullied because of their faith. So did a Jehovah’s Witness. Religions in the minority as well as lesser known branches of Christianity all face some of the same issues as Islam.

People on all sides of the issue have passion and purpose in their reasoning. Do you think the passion is helpful or hurtful to the cause of education about religion? 

I don’t think passion is a problem as long as educators and parents can be objective whether they are teaching the material or their children are learning it. Some of these protests against lessons on Islam stemmed from ignorance and bigotry. There wasn’t enough reasoned discourse about the events.

Who is doing education about religion right?

The author Linda K. Wertheimer. 

I think educators could look at a variety of places for models. For elementary schools, the Core Knowledge curriculum is worth checking out. The Core Knowledge Foundation [featured in the book] consults experts on different religions to design its materials. First graders learn basic information about different religions in a neutral, balanced way. The curriculum is based on what students should learn as part of social studies and geography.

Modesto, CA [also featured in the book] has been held up as a model repeatedly because it’s the only school system in the country to require all high school students to take a world religions course before graduation. The course lasts only nine weeks and is really a basic look at six or more faiths. While the course doesn’t delve deep, the teachers do spend time teaching about the First Amendment and the separation of church and state. They also coach students how to ask questions without offense about religion. A study by researcher Emile Lester shows promising results, including the likelihood that students will stand up more for a religious minority.

How can families augment their child's learning in school? 

If their children attend a public school, then they likely will get some education about religion. Most states require study of religion as part of social studies and geography in middle and high school. But families can learn more about different religions from a variety of sources. Start with the children’s section in your local library and ask the librarian to point out books on different religions and holidays.

Parents can educate themselves by reading books about the world’s religions and then sharing their knowledge with their children. I’d recommend Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions or Stephen Prothero’s God Is Not One. Prothero’s Religious Literacy is also a great book to read to improve your religious literacy. Also part of education is based on experience. Take your children to other houses of worship. Visit churches, temples, mandirs, shrines, and mosques on your travels if you can or in your own community.

What message do you have for fellow journalists in an age of religious intolerance and ignorance? 

Educate yourself about different religions so you don’t unintentionally boost stereotypes. Meet clergy and activists of different faiths. If you know the least about Islam, do something about it. Attend a service at a local mosque or a local interfaith event. Write stories that help improve the education of Americans on religion. Don’t just identify a person as Christian. Are they Protestant, Catholic, or Lutheran or something else? Realize that all religions have diversity and try to understand the layers.

Anything else you want to share? 

Yes, many Americans don’t know it’s even legal to teach about religion in public school. They think Supreme Court cases in the 1960s kicked all religion out of the classroom. Those court rulings merely prohibited promoting one religion through prayer and the recitation of Bible verses. Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark in the 1963 Abington v. Schempp ruling made it clear that if anything, schools needed to do more regarding religion – but in an academic way. His words still ring true today: “It might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization.”