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Teaching about Religions

A Democratic Approach for Public Schools

Emile Lester

Publication Year: 2011

"This provocative and timely book challenges Americans to rethink what it means to take democracy and religious freedom seriously in public education. Emile Lester takes the reader beyond culture war conflicts rooted in religious divisions and offers bold, new solutions for addressing our differences with fairness and robust toleration. Instead of battlegrounds, he argues, public schools can and should be places that include all voices in ways that prepare citizens to engage one another with civility and respect. Teaching about Religions is essential reading for all who care about the future of public schools---and the health of American democracy." --- Charles C. Haynes, Senior Scholar, Freedom Forum First Amendment Center "More than simply a synthesis of existing scholarship, [this book is] an original contribution to the field. [The] major themes are timely, and this book might well contribute to public discussion of important issues in our culture wars." ---Warren Nord, University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill "Arriving in the wake of a bitter battle over the place of Islam in America and in the midst of calls for greater understanding and civility, Emile Lester's new book is a timely contribution to the debate about the best ways to teach about religion in our nation's public schools. A pioneering researcher in this field, Lester offers thoughtful critiques of existing proposals as well as fresh ideas. His recommendations reflect painstaking efforts to understand the concerns of groups (most notably, conservative Christians) to which he does not belong, and a firm grasp of the difference between fostering understanding of other faiths and pressing for acceptance of them. Lester's prescriptions, always informed and fair-minded and sometimes provocative, should drive the debate forward in productive ways." ---Melissa Rogers, Director, Center for Religion and Public Affairs at Wake Forest University School of Divinity and Nonresident Senior Fellow, The Brookings Institution Frequent news stories about the debates waged between secularists and religious conservatives have convinced most Americans that public schools must choose between promoting respect for religious minorities and respecting the interests of conservative Christians. As a result, public schools fail to teach students about the meaning and value of protecting religious liberty and consequently perpetuate mistrust across the cultural divide, further empower extremists, and obscure the fact that most Americans of all religious backgrounds share a commitment to basic democratic principles. In response, the public schools in the religiously diverse and divided community of Modesto, California, have introduced a widely acclaimed required world religions course. Drawing on groundbreaking research on the creation of and response to the Modesto course as well as on political philosophy, Emile Lester advocates a civic approach to teaching about religion in public schools that at once emphasizes respect for all views about religion and provides a special recognition of conservative Christian beliefs.

Published by: University of Michigan Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. iii-iv


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pp. vii

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pp. ix-xi

In more ways than one, the Modesto City School District made this book possible. The incredible dedication, diligence, and hard work that Modesto’s school administrators, teachers, and community leaders showed in enacting a world religions course encouraged a dedication on my part to record their triumph. ...

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pp. 1-16

Over four years had passed since the Hindu temple where he worshiped had been the victim of vandalism, but Parmanand Tiwari, a respected leader in the Hindu community in Modesto, California, vividly recalled the details of the event in our phone conversation. ...

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1. The Distinctive Paradox of Religious Tolerance

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pp. 17-61

Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address is perhaps the most subtle declaration of America’s most subtle political thinker. Having urged Northern soldiers to stay faithful to the spirit of America’s founding ideals and fight to extend equality to all men in the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln strikes a more conciliatory tone in the second inaugural. ...

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2. Teaching Good Faith

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pp. 62-104

The history of universal state-run education is too often a story of power, not principle. Its origins lie less in a humanitarian impulse to spread knowledge and opportunity to all social classes than in the state’s desire to harness the energies of its citizens more effectively for its own ends and to favor the privileged and powerful many over the vulnerable few. ...

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3. A Cultural Mystery in Modesto

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pp. 105-148

Alittle over a decade ago, gay high school students in Modesto, California, began complaining of discrimination and wanted to form a student club for support. Modesto lies only 90 miles west of San Francisco, but the cultural distance is far greater. Modesto has a large evangelical Christian population, and many residents have taken to calling the city and its surrounding...

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4. An Intelligent Democratic Design to Teaching about Evolution

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pp. 149-192

Science emphasizes observation and evidence, but you might not know that from reading various evolutionary biologists’ appraisals of creationism’s future. Writing in the immediate aftermath of the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, Harvard biologist Ernest Mayr boasted that “this trial was the end of the fundamentalist attacks on evolution” (Larson 1997, 228). ...

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5. The Limits of Consensus and the Civil Politics of Teaching about the Bible

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pp. 193-234

“The Swede,” the protagonist of Phillip Roth’s American Pastoral, yearns for his own Eden. Born Seymour Irving Levov in Newark, New Jersey, he embraces his Scandinavian nickname earned by athletic prowess, marries a beauty queen runner-up, and moves her and his young daughter, Merry, to a dream home in a genteel hamlet in 1950s rural New Jersey. ...

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pp. 235-248

Chapter 5 addresses how the proposals in this book would respond to and avoid the problems with the curricular treatment of religion in public schools in the past. But recent developments in national politics present unique opportunities and perils for the future of American religion and democracy. ...


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pp. 249-282


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pp. 296-309


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pp. 297-310

E-ISBN-13: 9780472026746
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472117642

Page Count: 322
Publication Year: 2011