Research on Religion and Public Education

Project Number: 
Start Date: 
Tue, 11/01/1994
End Date: 
Tue, 12/31/1996

Elliott Wright of the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church examined the role of religion in public education. Elliott surveyed the extant literature on aspects of religion present in public education curricula, in non-curricular activities such as ceremonial observances, prayer, and equal-access religious clubs, in character and value education, and in the academic instructions about religion in the classroom. This general survey led Elliott to conduct more focused research on the following themes: Ritual observances in public schools such as prayer; the public school as purveyor of morals; the effort to teach about religion in public schools; the relationship of contemporary values education to religious education in an earlier era; and the outlook of multicultural education toward religion as an aspect of culture.
As part of the study, Elliott organized local and national dialogues among experts and interested persons about the implications of religion and religious pluralism for public education. The local dialogue was conducted by the Polis Center at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis; it aimed at exploring the practices, policies, and attitudes of teachers, school officials, students, public figures, civic leaders, and religious representatives on religion in education.
The national dialogue took place at the Center for Church-State Studies at the DePaul College of Law in Chicago in July, 1997. Involving some fifteen scholars from across the country, this dialogue aimed at bringing together major players in the school/religion debate. Wright observed that the issue of religion in American public schools belongs more to the history of American culture than to histories of religion or education. Public education in America was a product of Protestant culture historically. Only with the advent of multicultural ethos and the challenge to “Protestant hegemony” does one see the issue of issue of religion coming to the fore in American public education. Current discussions mostly centered on “teaching about religion” although there is a growing concern about “values” in education. The modernist concern seeks value education through character education without reference to any particular religion; the traditional approach seeks to inculcate values through exposure to moral heroism.
Wright views the public education and religion situation as a window to the unfolding of American ethnic, racial, social, religious, and cultural pluralism in recent years.