Do discussions about faith, religion and God have a viable place in America's public school system?
This question has been at the center of public debate for decades, with liberals and conservatives often clashing over how the First Amendment and the separation of church and state impact this dynamic. In the past, TheBlaze has explored the subject in detail, asking readers to share their views on the matter. But no matter how much the issue is explored, the notion of faith in public schools continues to be extremely contentious.
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Teachers often find themselves afraid to even bring up the topic, for fear that church-state separatists will go on the attack, accusing them of egregious constitutional violations. However, it seems at least one American educator isn't afraid of these threats, as he tackles the subjects quite regularly in the classroom.
Last month, James S. Morrison, a high school teacher from Red Wing, Minnesota, reached out to TheBlaze to inform us about a course he instructs -- one that critically examines faith and religion. In his initial e-mail, the public school teacher noted that what he does is very rare. Using his experience, Morrison also told TheBlaze that he hopes to push teachers to be more honest and open in the classroom.
"My goal in all of this: Move public education in the direction of inclusive honest curriculums that don’t shy away from controversial topics," he said.
While this may be appealing to some, it's likely that some evangelical Christians and religious people will take issue with some of Morrison's tactics. If you're someone who advocates for increased, teacher-led prayer in the classroom or, at the least, more mentions of God from a specific religious perspective, his course may not be your taste.
Why, you ask? Because this teacher facilitates discussions that look critically at any and all religions, not merely advocating one over others. And rather than leading prayer groups, what he's doing is essentially academically dissecting each faith system.
"Typically when I tell people I teach a religion class in a public high school they look at me as if I had just barbecued a kitten," Morrison joked in an e-mail interview with TheBlaze, going on to highlight how liberals and conservatives, alike, are skeptical when they first hear about his class.
"Liberals immediately become skeptical and concerned that I’m some sort of Jesus freak preaching Christian dogma," he continued. "Evangelicals react with the same kind of skepticism, but their immediate concern is that I’m an atheist trying to discredit God and Jesus."
Morrison isn't a Christian, but he told us that he's also not an atheist. Without an attachment to any faith, the teacher describes himself as an "agnostic social scientist with a passion for concrete evidence and logical reasoning." Naturally, he isn't looking at life through a faith lens and he's most concerned, it seems, with bringing students face-to-face with controversial content that they must learn to critically analyze.
The class hasn't come without a fair bit of controversy in Morrison's school district, as he claims that conservative Christians have threatened him with lawsuits. That said, he claims that the elective course has educated more than 2,000 students over the past 16 years -- and that his district has consistently backed him up.
Naturally, it's not surprising that he faces backlash over the course, as it critically analyzes Christianity just as it does other mainstream religions. Morrison explains, in detail, why Bible-believers have been so discontented with his work:
"They are uneasy with my class because I treat Christianity as one of many religions, and not the only 'true religion.' And they are especially outraged that I treat Jesus as one of many religious figures rather than the only son of God who died for the sins of the world. What they fail to realize is that legally I must treat all religions without bias and as 'social phenomena.' To do otherwise would be a violation of the Constitution. Ironically, the very groups that want prayer in schools and lament that God has been 'shut out of schools' are the ones who most strongly oppose me.
Some of Evangelical Christians only want their view of God in the schools. And if they can’t have their religious ideas promoted in schools, they don’t want any. And they especially don’t want any critical examination of religion to take place in public schools. In other words, they don’t want children to be exposed to ideas, theories, and arguments that might discredit their dogma and doctrines. It’s clear to me that the religious right wants a monopoly on the education of youth in America in [the] area of religion."
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This description, alone, will draw the ire of some conservatives who reject Morrison's tactics, but the educator insists that he's simply following constitutional protocol. As for whether he bashes religion, the teacher claims that he does not.
"I let the evidence do that," he said. "I present facts, arguments, evidence, and theories scholars debate and discuss from the past and present. I let the kids make up their own minds. I’m just the messenger."
That said, some might consider the content and questions being asked as falling under the "bashing" category. But what critics would see as slights against the Christian faith, Morrison and others who support his tactics likely believe that he is simply asking some uncomfortable questions that force everyone, even Christian students, to take a critical look at the faith.
The teacher outlined one of the major controversies that has upset parents in the past: His handling of Jesus Christ's resurrection. We'll let him explain in his own words:
"The way I address the resurrection of Jesus has not been well received by some evangelical Christians. I make it very clear to my students that resurrection stories are a dime a dozen in world literature, as are miracle birth and conception stories. This comes as a total shock to my Christian students. I never tell my students that Jesus did not rise from the grave. But I do expose them to scholarly arguments that cast doubt on the resurrection. For example, it is very clear among historians that part of the Roman crucifixion policy was to not give the body back; it was part of the punishment. And this, I tell my students, might explain why there is no body of Jesus, and that the story of his resurrection might be either be a myth, or possibly a metaphor for the “resurrected” Jesus movement after his death. Conservative Christians find this to be nothing short of blasphemy in the school, but it is clearly not.
My job, as I see it, is to help my students understand the religious debates and arguments taking place in our culture. What I do is no different from teachers who teach classes on health, government, or current issues. I just happen to focus on religion. I truly believe that religion is a monumental part of human history and is a topic that should not be ignored by public schools. The recent world-wide media attention given to the election of the new Pope is clear evidence that religion does matter to people and is something that needs to be taught critically and objectively to kids in public schools. To me, it’s a no brainer!"
So, it's clear to see why there's controversy. Morrison isn't handling light-hearted issues and he's tackling these subjects by poking at some uncomfortable curiosities.
The educator went on to tell TheBlaze why he believes America has such a large Christian fundamentalist population: Because public schools are not allowing children to hear alternative arguments (this is an interesting argument, considering that many evangelicals would claim that Christianity is struggling, because, in their view, public schools and universities indoctrinate young people away from the faith).
Morrison also believes that there are too many administrators and schools that are confused about the separation of church and state and that believe that he is actually violating the First Amendment by teaching the course. He claims, though, that this simply isn't the case and that more schools should be willing to educate children on the matter.
He warns that there's a real danger in not properly educating young people to understand religion -- and to think critically about faith. In his view, not including courses like his and an ability to properly analyze means that "religious extremism" will abound and that children will be out of touch with reality.
"Can we really afford to have a growing number of Americans view evolutionary science as being from Satan? Just think what might happen in America if biblical literalists took over the country," he said. "Public education would be sent back to the Dark Ages. And keep in mind, the religious right is a multi billion dollar growing industry with a political agenda bent on increasing its influence and numbers – they have already taken over the Republican Party."
Morrison believes that not allowing a critical examination of religion in schools will "almost guarantee the religious right's future success." He believes that he is a threat -- and that "truth and scientific reasoning" are threats to religious conservatives.
But he also cautions that teachers instructing such a course must be of a certain breed. Religious people, for instance, would, in his view, have a rough time following his blueprint in the classroom, as they have vested interests in specific theologies. It must be a person who is committed to scientific methodology and reasoning.
"I think the temptation to elevate one religion above others would be too strong for any teacher who passionately believes that his or her religion holds a monopoly on truth and wisdom," he said. "It would be very hard for such a person, in good conscious, to teach objectively and within the boundaries of the law."
Currently, Morrison is writing a book about the subject of religion in public schools and he keeps a blog that recaps what he's teaching in the classroom. The website, entitled "Teach Not Preach," is regularly updated. He's also working to get the word out about his religion course to other teachers across America who want to launch similar classes.
"I am making myself available to any teacher or district that is looking for some advice and direction," the educator said. "If children can dissect frogs in biology, they should certainly have a chance to dissect religion in social studies – it’s all the same. It’s all about learning and empowering children with knowledge."