Religion and education have a complex legal, political, and ethical relationship, particularly as it relates to what teachers can and should do in the classroom vis-à-vis their own religious identity. Robert Nash suggests that teachers often fear to express or even admit their religious identity and that this silencing runs counter to the pluralistic ideal of expressing and embracing other parts of their identity, such as race or gender (although, of course, these are often marginalized as well). Religious identity is troublesome, however, because teachers may not only face prejudice but also be predisposed to practice it themselves. This entry attempts to define religious identity, then looks at how it can influence teaching practice and what the courts have had to say on the issue.
What Is Religious Identity?
To define religious identity requires a broader concept than religious beliefs or religious values. To define it as “being religious” excludes those who are undecided, ambivalent, passively nonreligious, or actively antireligious. To qualify it simply as belief or a set of values reduces it to an internal phenomenon of the intellect, emotion, or spirit. If religion were solely a matter of belief and thought, it would be only marginally relevant to teachers as it could be easily contained within the individual and not have to affect anyone else.
Religion, however, also entails an important dimension of behavior and action, the external manifestation of what a person does that defines and gives shape to his or her religious identity. What one does testifies to one’s devotion to a standpoint on religion as much as (or more than) what one says or thinks.
Likewise, affiliation and community are fundamental parts of defining religious identity, both at present and in the context of history. Religious identity has a social dimension and shared body of experience that frames a person’s life-space long before any conscious choice of belief can be made. Identity can also be ascribed to a person by others, often with stereotypes attached, even if the person does not claim it, believe it, or act on it.
In describing a person’s religious identity, the direction and magnitude of each of these factors— belief, behavior, and belonging—are relevant and important in understanding how their religious identity affects them. For teachers, this provides a more nuanced framework for understanding what teachers do and why, as well as the different ways their religious identity could come into play.
Religion Versus Profession
The connection of religious identity to a teacher’s professional self can be described in several ways. For many, the connection is incidental; religion and profession are compartmentalized in different parts of the teacher’s life-space and have little to do with each other. At the other end of the spectrum are those who perceive that one’s religious beliefs cannot be separated from their daily life and work. They are unable or unwilling to separate teaching from their religious identity, whether in the content of classroom work (where explicit connections are drawn and reinforced between religion-related ideas and ideals and content area topics in all school subjects, from math to science to history to language) or teaching style and method, or even how the room is decorated.
Beyond the classroom, religious identity compels an impulse to find teachers, students, communities, and schools of similar identity to one’s own. Whether teachers tried working in a public context or avoided it because they found it too inhospitable to how they felt they needed to teach, those whose religious and teacher identities are tightly integrated are often winnowed out of the public teaching pool.
In between these extremes are teachers who perceive barriers between how they would like to embody their religious identity and how they are (or believe they are) allowed to do so by the school culture, policy, or community expectations. To reconcile these competing demands, teachers can take different approaches. They could introduce religious content, lessons, materials, and ideas obliquely, indirectly, in coded language, and in the guise of other things, so that if challenged about bringing their religious identity into play, they could simply deny it.
On the other hand, teachers could be quite open about introducing their religious identity but justify doing so within inclusive teaching about the full spectrum of religion and spirituality, universal themes and ideas, ethics, values, and personal and community relationships. Religion could even be read more broadly as a type of culture and explored as a subdivision of pluralistic, multicultural study.
A key balancing point in this is how teachers react and respond to the religious identities of others, especially those whose identities differ from their own and those who are religious minorities. Being attentive to and championing the cause of such students is a way for teachers to remedy imbalances, although it could create a sense of social capital, in that teachers advocating for the needs of other religious identity groups might feel entitled to do more advocacy for their own as well.
What The Law Says
The legal issues around what teachers may do with their religious identity in schools are complex. The anti-establishment and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment offer conflicting imperatives for what a public school teacher should be able to do as an agent of the state and as a free citizen. Clearly, teachers in public schools cannot openly favor one religious standpoint over another or mandate religious activities. Still, neither teachers nor students forfeit their individual rights and do have a legitimate interest in not having their religious identity kept out of sight, restricted to a purely private sphere. Free exercise entails more than freedom of conscience, belief, or speech, but the dilemma is where exercise ends and establishment begins, especially when balancing majority versus minority rights around religion.
Thomas Jefferson’s idea of separation of church and state, which is often invoked to support restricting religious speech, activity, or exercise in schools, is nowhere stated in the U.S. Constitution, and U.S. Supreme Court decisions have given no single clear answer. The chief precedent on the issue, the 1971 Lemon v. Kurtzman decision, does allow public agencies to address religion as long as the policy or activity also has a secular policy purpose, does not have the primary effect of promoting or inhibiting religion, and is not an “excessive entanglement” with religion.
The 1984 Equal Access Act also guarantees religious students, groups, and clubs equal rights with nonreligious groups in access to school facilities and resources. The continuing challenge for teachers around how to use their religious identity in schools is finding the right balance, not favoring all religion or secularism, and not silencing or inhibiting any religion in a quest for neutrality or allowing one standpoint on religion to be privileged over others.
This last point is a special difficulty because the commonality of Christianity (at least in a generalized, mainline Protestant sense) in the United States and many other countries creates a societal “Christian privilege.” Christine Clark and associates describe this as operating similarly to other privileged identity features (e.g., male or White privilege). Teachers, especially those who are themselves Christian, must learn to recognize the ways in which privilege attaches to their religious identity or that of their students, even without awareness or intent, and to work to reduce or eliminate it. Clark would suggest that this is usually Christian privilege, although others argue that in schools and society, it is a privileging of secularism that is a larger problem; Stephen Carter’s Culture of Disbelief is a strong critique from this perspective.
Teachers face real conflicts when their religious identity is not something they can (or wish to) easily hide, even when privilege and prejudice around religion would suggest that they should, and usually must invent their own idiosyncratic solutions for what to do with their religious identity in their work and career choices. Theorists such as Nash and Nord both suggest that this is insufficient, that teacher preparation should be more intentional about preparing teachers to deal with the intersection of religion and education, not just as a subject to be studied but as it personally affects them and their students. Works such as Sears and Carper’s Curriculum, Religion, and Public Education, involving perspectives from across the spectrum of religious identity, are a good first step in helping beginning teachers think through different perspectives on this difficult question.
- Alley, R. S. (1999). The Constitution & religion: Leading Supreme Court cases on church and state. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.
- Carter, S. L. (1993/1994). The culture of disbelief: How American law and politics trivialize religious devotion. New York: Doubleday.
- Clark, C., & Brimhall-Vargas, M. (2003, Fall). Diversity initiatives in higher education: Secular aspects and international implications of Christian privilege. Multicultural Education, pp. 55–57.
- Clark, C., Brimhall-Vargas, M., Schlosser, L., & Alimo, C. (2002, Winter). It’s not just “Secret Santa” in December: Addressing educational and workplace climate issues linked to Christian privilege. Multicultural Education, pp. 52–57.
- Nash, R. J. (2001). Religious pluralism in the academy: Opening the dialogue. New York: Peter Lang.
- Nord, W. A. (1995). Religion and American education: Rethinking a national dilemma. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
- Sears, J. T., & Carper, J. C. (1998). Curriculum, religion, and public education: Conversations for an enlarging public square. New York: Teachers College Press.
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