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The Challenge of Teaching Religious Diversity in America

"The Status Quo is Not the Answer"

The Challenge of Teaching Religious Diversity in America

by Kristen Looney

As protesters fill the streets across the country, clog airports, and march down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House, many other Americans – on both sides of the partisan divide – take to social media denouncing President Trump’s recent executive order on immigration and refugee policy as un-American. Religious leaders, civic leaders, and elected officials are calling for a reversal of the “Muslim ban,” claiming that it is unconstitutional and against our core values as a nation. But what about our nation’s educators? In this charged political context, what are young Americans learning about religious pluralism in our public, private, and faith-based schools? Not enough.

  Father Steven Pavignano (l.) and Imam Talib Abdur-Rashid address a student during an interfaith dialogue at Seton Hall Preparatory School. – Photo: Interfaith Center of New York

Father Steven Pavignano (l.) and Imam Talib Abdur-Rashid address a student during an interfaith dialogue at Seton Hall Preparatory School. – Photo: Interfaith Center of New York

As President Trump begins to implement his campaign promises, some Americans celebrate, while others fear that his actions threaten religious freedom and legitimize the disturbing rise of religious intolerance. The FBI, Southern Poverty Law Center, Georgetown Bridge Initiative, Anti-Defamation League, and Hindu American Foundation have all reported an increase in hate crimes, bullying, and harassment motivated by religious bias over the past year. Too many American communities seem ill equipped to deal with the combination of fear and ignorance that sometimes accompanies the arrival of new and diverse neighbors. But what about our nation’s educators? Do they have the tools they need to build inclusive schools and communities? Not always.

My 17-year-old daughter came home from school on Inauguration Day and said that nothing had been mentioned in class about the events of the day. Every day after school I ask her if her teachers are talking about the implications of President Trump’s executive orders. Every day her answer is “No.” As a parent, a religious leader, and an educator I’m deeply concerned. The religious liberty of millions of Americans is now under threat – I think this is worthy of a class discussion. I do not expect our K-12 teachers to advance their own partisan political views, but I think we can – indeed, we must – expect them to open informed conversations about these pressing issues. How can our children grow up to be fully engaged citizens if they don’t talk about current events in school, and if they don’t have the civic knowledge and historical context required to interpret current events as they unfold?

How can our children grow up to be fully engaged citizens if they don’t talk about current events in school, and if they don’t have the civic knowledge and historical context required to interpret current events as they unfold?

I’m raising my daughter to be a leader in her community – to be part of the solution to the complex problems facing our nation. But in order to be such a leader, she needs to understand the community in which she lives. Without an understanding of the diverse religious traditions that make up the fabric of our country, she won’t appreciate the deep beliefs that motivate the economic, political, and social decisions of millions of Americans. Without this basic religious literacy, I fear our children will inherit the fear and ignorance that is fueling the rise of religious intolerance across this country.

As educators, religious, and civic leaders, we need to work with our local school districts to ensure that young Americans graduate from high school religiously literate. We must insist that our teachers receive appropriate professional development, in order to learn constitutional approaches to teaching about religious diversity. We need to review school district policies to ensure that they reflect the principles of religious liberty enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. Unfortunately, graduate schools of education have been slow to provide teachers with this vital training.

  Teachers exploring American Buddhism at the Chogyesa Zen Temple of New York – Photo: Interfaith Center of New York

Teachers exploring American Buddhism at the Chogyesa Zen Temple of New York – Photo: Interfaith Center of New York

Thankfully, there are organizations throughout the country working to fill the gap and provide our educators with this training. For example, the Interfaith Center of New York offers the excellent Religious Worlds of New York summer institute, a three-week intensive program that helps K-12 teachers throughout the country teach about contemporary American religious diversity. And the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute now offers online blended learning graduate level courses that prepare educators, as well as religious and civic leaders, for effective, principled leadership in a religiously diverse society.

The status quo is not the answer. In addition to marching and tweeting, we must make sure that the next generation has the knowledge and skills they need to lead effectively in our pluralistic society and globalized world.

This article was originally published by the Interfaith Center of New York on February 1, 2017.

Header Photo: A youth development program – Photo: The Interfaith Center of New York