Religion in History and Social Studies

Keith C. Barton and Jennifer Hauver James, May 2010

Teacher education programs often overlook the importance of preparing K–12 teachers to address religious ideas in history and social studies. As a result of this omission, teachers often have an inadequate understanding of the legal basis for teaching about religion, of the importance of religion in the curriculum, and of ethical considerations and controversies that may arise when curricular content conflicts with the religious beliefs of students, their parents, or the wider community.

Including Religion in the Curriculum

Many teachers are uncertain about the constitutionality of teaching about religion. The difference between promoting religion and teaching about religion may not be obvious to someone who has not thought carefully about this distinction. Some well-meaning teachers, for example, in an effort to promote understanding of religions “from the inside,” may think it is appropriate to have students engage in practices—such as reciting prayers or taking part in religious rituals—that are not part of students’ own faiths.

Not surprisingly, such efforts often lead to an outcry from offended parents, who see this as an attempt to promote religious beliefs, and therefore inappropriate in a public school. Some parents, moreover, will be opposed to the very inclusion of content about religions other than their own, regardless of how such material is presented; they may believe that even the most academic study of other religions is an explicit attempt to change their children’s beliefs, and thus they will object to any mention of the topic, or ask that their children be excused from learning about it. As a result, teachers sometimes omit serious attention to religion because they mistakenly conclude that any discussion of the topic either is impermissible or is too controversial to tackle in a public school.

Teacher preparation programs therefore clearly need to provide teachers with information about what is and is not constitutionally permissible, but given the potential for controversy, this may not be enough.1 Considering the limited time available to teach history and social studies, the inclusion of any particular content requires a strong rationale for its significance; without such a rationale, teachers may omit content that they perceive as difficult to teach. Teacher educators, then, need to help prospective and practicing teachers think through why religion is such a crucial component of making sense of the social world.

In particular, teachers need to consider such issues as why and how religion has structured the worldviews of societies in different times in places, how and why religions have changed over time, and how religious differences have caused (or been used to justify) social, political, and military conflicts. They also need to consider why an understanding of religious faith and practice is crucial to contemporary life in a pluralist democracy, and to think about the variety of ways in which religious differences are—or could be—dealt with in modern societies. When teachers recognize and accept religion as an integral part of the history and social studies curriculum, they are likely to brave the controversies that may arise.

Balanced and Comprehensive Treatment

It is possible for teachers to unwittingly promote the beliefs of a single religion or fail to treat all religions with objectivity and neutrality. Although few teachers will show outright bias toward religions other than their own, they may find themselves unconsciously positioning their students to identify with one religion by limiting their attention to a single tradition or by leading students to think about adherents of some faiths as “the other” when learning about historical or contemporary topics (such as the Crusades or the intifada). Although it may not be illegal to present the Judeo-Christian tradition as “we,” it is hardly appropriate in a religiously diverse society. Teacher education programs need to help teachers think about the ethical implications of such practices.

This kind of reflection, however, can provoke resistance among some teachers, as well as among members of the community. Traditional practices (like holiday traditions) may be closely tied to a sense of identity and ideas about the very purpose of education—which often involve assumptions about the transmission of a shared culture. Asking teachers to reconsider such viewpoints can be particularly difficult when they work in relatively homogeneous communities, and especially when they share the very cultural assumptions that they are being asked to analyze.

Unexpected Controversies

Even when teachers are committed to a balanced and comprehensive treatment of religion in history and social studies, they often are surprised by the ways in which students’ religious backgrounds may influence the classroom. Any teacher will recognize that topics such as gay rights, abortion, or Islam may provoke strong reactions in some communities, and that some students—or their parents—may resist learning about these topics in an evenhanded way. But in addition, some students may have such strongly intolerant feelings toward other religions that they refuse (at least initially) to try to understand other beliefs, either in history or in the contemporary world. More disturbingly, teachers sometimes find that students are indifferent to the persecution of members of other faiths, and in some instances may actually express their support for such practices. Teachers can be taken aback by such responses.

Furthermore, students’ religious backgrounds may provide such a strong narrative template for understanding history that they have trouble making sense of episodes that do not conform to their theology. Some Christian students, for example, so strongly believe in hope and redemption that they have difficulty understanding historical tragedies such as the Holocaust; they may, in fact, literally “misread” much of the content they learn about such topics.2 Other times, students may interpret history as a manifestation of “God’s will;” as a result, they are unmotivated to consider others kinds of explanations for historical events or to take seriously the agency of the people involved.

Finally, some students and parents resist a central task of history and social studies education: helping students understand how accounts and explanations are grounded in the interpretation of evidence. This is not just because they are opposed to particular topics or interpretations, but because they are opposed to the very idea of interpretation. For some people, religious faith teaches that knowledge is not socially constructed by humans but is handed down from authority (such as sacred texts). As a result, they believe that the task of learning in school is to accept the word of authoritative sources, not to reach one’s own conclusions. That, they fear, is the kind of “secular humanism” that teaches students that people can solve their own problems without divine intervention.

Addressing Religion in Teacher Education

Although some of these reactions are relatively uncommon, teachers may recoil at their enormity and seeming intractability. They may feel that their own understanding of religious issues is inadequate to deal with such controversy, or they may simply prefer to avoid controversy altogether. How, then, do we prepare teachers to meet these challenges? A first step in helping teachers overcome feelings of insecurity is to deepen their understanding of religion (and religious diversity), either through specific coursework or expanded attention within existing courses. In-depth study of several topics can serve as powerful learning experiences to this end: of religions with which teachers are less familiar; of the role of religion in groups and societies; as well as of various religious perspectives on historical and contemporary events.

Teachers’ potential resistance to reflecting on the role of religion in the curriculum, meanwhile, can be addressed by putting the topic squarely on the table for inquiry and discussion. Engaging teachers in readings that reflect varying perspectives on the inclusion of religion in the curriculum, debates over the role of the teacher in facilitating ethical dialogue about religion in the classroom, ongoing reflective writing about dilemmas encountered in one’s teaching, and even role-playing scenarios that may arise in the classroom are valuable strategies for opening up reflection and discussion.3

The ensuing dialogue can push teachers to consider new ideas as they think about the consequences of their pedagogical choices for others. Such methods can also help teachers wrestle with their insecurities about what and how to teach about religion, build confidence with various teaching strategies, and deepen their understanding of the ethical implications of their work. In addition, engaging in such collaborative dialogue can help teachers develop a willingness and ability to listen thoughtfully to opposing viewpoints and engage constructively with those who disagree.

Keith C. Barton is professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Indiana University. His research focuses on students’ historical understanding, and he is co-author, with Linda S. Levstik, of Teaching History for the Common Good (Routledge, 2004).

Jennifer Hauver James is assistant professor in the Department of Teaching, Learning, and Curriculum Studies at Kent State University. Her work examines socialization and citizenship in schools, gender in social studies and teacher education, and the relationship between teachers’ biographies and careers.


1. For a useful guide to constitutional issues involved in religion and education, see Charles C. Haynes and Oliver Thomas, Finding Common Ground: A First Amendment Guide to Religion and Public Schools (Nashville, Tenn.: First Amendment Center, 2007).

2. Karen Spector, “God on the Gallows: Reading the Holocaust through Narratives of Redemption,” Research in the Teaching of English 42:1 (August 2007), 7–55; Simone Schweber and Rebekah Irwin, “‘Especially Special’: Learning about Jews in a Fundamentalist Christian School,” Teachers College Record 105:9 (December 2003), 1693–1719.

3. Ronald D. Anderson, Religion and Teaching (New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2008).