Have a Little Faith: Religion, Democracy, and the American Public School

Have a Little Faith: Religion, Democracy, and the American Public School Benjamin Justice and Colin Macleod's slim Have a Little Faith is not a work of academic history but rather an exploration of how “a conception of democratic legitimacy can inform civic education in a way that acknowledges and respects religious diversity” (p. 3). For the authors, public schools have too often been sites of curricular battles oscillating between the extremes of total secularism, on the one hand, to, on the other, sectarian majorities attempting to impose their particular religious vision on religious minorities. They assert that if “public schools are to fulfill their mission of creating engaged, smart, capable democratic citizens, they must find new ways to engage America's religious diversity” (p. 145). To frame their advocacy, Justice and Macleod explore, in rapid fashion, the history of debates over the place of religion in American public schools from the founding period to recent times. The examples they highlight will be familiar to any student of this topic: the Founding Fathers' desire to limit sectarianism in public institutions, violent clashes between Protestants and Catholics over religious curriculum in nineteenth-century schools, the fundamentalist backlash to the teaching of evolution in schools in the early twentieth century, and the debates in the late twentieth century over school prayer and secular humanist curriculum. In terms of the topics covered and the primary sources explored, Justice and Macleod do not make any particular historiographical contribution, particularly for readers familiar with the scholarship of Jonathan Zimmerman, Sarah Barringer Gordon, and Joan DelFattore. But that is not their intent. Rather, they seek to understand how past Americans have grappled with the place of religion in public schools, and what, if any, lessons might be drawn to inform current discussions on the topic. They convincingly demonstrate that throughout American history the various stakeholders in public education (school officials, parents, students, lawmakers) have generally aspired “to create fair procedures and outcomes for the place of religion in public education,” but that “secular and religious leaders have often engaged in undemocratic procedural and substantive behaviors” to advance their own narrow interests (pp. 7–8). The authors ultimately want schools to “become sites of education for mutual and self-understanding,” concluding that “such a move requires religious groups and public schools alike to encourage open, intelligent, and respectful discourse” (p. 146). Have a Little Faith is well written and thought provoking. Given its advocacy and lack of historiographical contribution, the book is best suited to education classes or courses on political philosophy. That said, those seeking a compact introduction to the history of debates over the role of religion in public education could do a lot worse than Have a Little Faith. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com. http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png The Journal of American History Oxford University Press

Have a Little Faith: Religion, Democracy, and the American Public School

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Publisher
Oxford University Press
Copyright
© The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.
ISSN
0021-8723
eISSN
1945-2314
D.O.I.
10.1093/jahist/jax490
Publisher site
See Article on Publisher Site

Abstract

Benjamin Justice and Colin Macleod's slim Have a Little Faith is not a work of academic history but rather an exploration of how “a conception of democratic legitimacy can inform civic education in a way that acknowledges and respects religious diversity” (p. 3). For the authors, public schools have too often been sites of curricular battles oscillating between the extremes of total secularism, on the one hand, to, on the other, sectarian majorities attempting to impose their particular religious vision on religious minorities. They assert that if “public schools are to fulfill their mission of creating engaged, smart, capable democratic citizens, they must find new ways to engage America's religious diversity” (p. 145). To frame their advocacy, Justice and Macleod explore, in rapid fashion, the history of debates over the place of religion in American public schools from the founding period to recent times. The examples they highlight will be familiar to any student of this topic: the Founding Fathers' desire to limit sectarianism in public institutions, violent clashes between Protestants and Catholics over religious curriculum in nineteenth-century schools, the fundamentalist backlash to the teaching of evolution in schools in the early twentieth century, and the debates in the late twentieth century over school prayer and secular humanist curriculum. In terms of the topics covered and the primary sources explored, Justice and Macleod do not make any particular historiographical contribution, particularly for readers familiar with the scholarship of Jonathan Zimmerman, Sarah Barringer Gordon, and Joan DelFattore. But that is not their intent. Rather, they seek to understand how past Americans have grappled with the place of religion in public schools, and what, if any, lessons might be drawn to inform current discussions on the topic. They convincingly demonstrate that throughout American history the various stakeholders in public education (school officials, parents, students, lawmakers) have generally aspired “to create fair procedures and outcomes for the place of religion in public education,” but that “secular and religious leaders have often engaged in undemocratic procedural and substantive behaviors” to advance their own narrow interests (pp. 7–8). The authors ultimately want schools to “become sites of education for mutual and self-understanding,” concluding that “such a move requires religious groups and public schools alike to encourage open, intelligent, and respectful discourse” (p. 146). Have a Little Faith is well written and thought provoking. Given its advocacy and lack of historiographical contribution, the book is best suited to education classes or courses on political philosophy. That said, those seeking a compact introduction to the history of debates over the role of religion in public education could do a lot worse than Have a Little Faith. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.

Journal

The Journal of American HistoryOxford University Press

Published: Mar 1, 2018

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