Publication Date

October 1, 1992

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

Teaching & Learning



There can be little doubt that religion has been a significant influence in human history. Because the history of religion and the impact of religious issues on freedom, rights, and responsibilities have, over time, helped to shape the modern world and its institutions, the academic study of religion is essential to a complete education. The legitimacy and relevance of religion and religious history as matters of academic inquiry may be confirmed by a brief glance at the programs for recent professional conventions and the columns of our most respected scholarly journals, including the regularly published book reviews. In short, the historical profession has included the history of religion in that body of knowledge that constitutes the basic content material in the discipline.

Despite this scholarly consensus, however, teachers at both secondary and postsecondary levels have been slow to incorporate the expanding knowledge base into the history curriculum. It is true that instructors have always made hard choices with regard to the inclusion or exclusion of topical material into the corpus that forms the core of the survey courses. Confronted by competing pressures from community groups, organizations, and interested individuals, however, teachers have tended to exclude much religion and religious history from the basic curriculum, despite the scholarly acknowledgement of its central place in human affairs.

The Marathon County (Wisconsin) History Teaching Alliance, a collaborative composed of university and secondary teachers, regularly examines the recent scholarship in our discipline. We have become acutely aware of the contradiction between our professed agreement on the validity of religious topics as matters of academic inquiry and the paucity of religious issues in the curriculum. In an attempt to account for this “educational lag,” the Marathon County Alliance determined to devote a year’s study to the place of religion in history, as well as to opportunities for the integration of religious topics into the history curriculum. In so doing its members were conscious of the teacher’s responsibility to maintain both balance and intellectual integrity.

As many national studies, such as A Nation at Risk and American Memory, have argued, American students appear to lack depth of knowledge of the Western cultural and historical tradition. Central to that heritage is the role of religion, religious concepts, and ethical issues in the sweep of human development. Increasingly, the place of religion, religious convictions, and religious history in the curriculum has become a much debated topic. Since 1962, conservative religious groups have denounced the removal of prayer from the public schools. A growing concern for critics across the political spectrum has been an absence of religious issues from classroom instruction. Conversely, other pressure groups have urged the preservation of strictly nonsectarian education. Given the heightened interest, the subject of religious history seemed a natural choice for the Alliance’s attention.

Not surprisingly, secondary school, community college, and university teachers have not always had time to develop their knowledge of religion as a factor in historical development. Feedback from Alliance participants revealed a significant interest in a topic of acknowledged importance, but a recognition that they were not acquainted with the relevant literature. Consistent with the Alliance’s guiding principle, we proceeded to develop a reading list and a year-long program of study designed to fill this void.

A quick review of the indexes in numerous United States history textbooks guided us in our efforts. For example, entries under the topic of religion are far more frequent for pre-Civil War history than for the postwar period, while entries for the twentieth century are almost nonexistent. Even in cases where teachers and students have access to a variety of texts, the availability of written material on the history of religion in the United States, especially for the past one hundred years, is very limited.

Furthermore, it is clear that religious topics are covered more frequently in the first semester than in the second semester of the United States survey course. For example, students are more likely to encounter Puritan theology than the religious component of the African-American civil rights movement. Similarly, religious arguments regarding slavery are frequently taught, whereas religion in the antiwar struggles of the Vietnam War era are often ignored. And while the Great Awakening is a fixture in the curriculum, it is the rare course that deals with the conservative religious revival of recent times. Although the Scopes case is often dealt with in the typical survey, discussion of religious topics usually disappears from subsequent coursework dealing with twentieth-century history.

Another weakness in current practice is the characteristic of limiting the study of religion to Eurocentric developments. A recurrent theme in the first semester is the origin and growth of indigenous churches such as the Latter Day Saints and Seventh Day Adventists. These developments contributed to the increasing cultural diversity in the United States but are, in fact, religious developments related to traditions brought from Europe. Continuing in the second semester of the survey course, students frequently learn about the growing diversity of religion in America resulting from the arrival of teeming masses from Eastern Europe, but little or nothing is learned about religions from elsewhere in the world. Like the textbooks, the survey course limits study of religion to things long ago and to the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Various explanations for this de-emphasis on religion as a factor in history have been advanced. Some critics have contended that religious topics have been deleted from the history curriculum due to a secular humanist conspiracy. However, it is more plausible to argue that as teachers and scholars we have tended to overreact to demands for church/state separation and to exercise legitimate but exaggerated caution over discussion of religion as an important element in the human experience. Aware of great controversy over religion in the schools, we have been extremely careful in our efforts to treat religious issues as matters of academic inquiry. Perhaps the most important problem for instructors has been the valid demand on classroom time resulting from the historian’s increased awareness of long-neglected groups whose history must be understood. As women and minority groups have successfully begun to stake their claims to a place in the curriculum, some teachers have no doubt chosen to de-emphasize many traditional topics, and religion has been conveniently sacrificed.

It is clear that part of our difficulties as teachers stems from the historian’s traditional assumptions, including reliance upon the presidential paradigm. Because presidential administrations have provided a convenient structure, many teachers have tended to stress politics to the exclusion of social and cultural life. While employing this organizing principle, textbook writers have tended toward the assumption of gradual secularization, an idea which has considerable validity. Nonetheless, it is equally arguable that there have been cyclical resurgences of religious activity in United States history and that they, too, should be better acknowledged in teaching and textbook writing. Since historians emphasize change over time, they have often noticed certain realms of dynamic social experience; and those areas are less likely to involve religion, which was a strand of historical continuity. In short, our bias was not a reflection of the feared secular humanism but rather a result of historians’ preference for topical material dealing with changing institutions.

The benign neglect toward religion in our history has been present at all levels of the profession. A case in point involves Charting a Course: Social Studies in the 21st Century, published in 1989 by the National Commission on the Social Studies. This potentially influential report missed a golden opportunity to argue in favor of the integration of the history of religion into the recommended curriculum for American secondary schools. In fact, it is virtually silent on the place of religion in the teaching of history. An examination of the course description for the recommended three-year high school history sequence reveals that only in the first-year course (pre–1750) is there any reference to religion. The study also contains an essay by Thomas C. Holt titled, “American History,” in which the only comment on religion pertains to the colonial era. And religion fares no better in William H. McNeill’s essay, “World History,” which contains only two references to religion, both relating to developments before 630 A.D. It appears, therefore, that this important effort to shape the future of history instruction was somewhat unimaginative, at least with regard to the role of religion, in sketching a comprehensive curriculum.

In contrast, Building a History Curriculum: Guidelines for Teaching History in Schools, a report prepared by the Bradley Commission on History in Schools in 1988, devoted somewhat more attention to religion in its recommendations for curriculum revision. Among its proposals for building a history curriculum for the future are six “vital themes and narratives.” Three of them—cultural diffusion, values, and social interaction—incorporate religion as a component for courses in world history, Western civilization, and the history of the United States.

When textbooks are considered, the record is not impressive. In a comprehensive National Institute of Education, Department of Education study, Equity in Values Education: Do the Values Education Aspects of Public School Curricula Deal Fairly with Diverse Belief Systems? (1985), Paul Vitz found that public school textbooks presented a “biased representation” of religion. He concluded that none of eight sampled secondary school textbooks included “serious coverage” of conservative Protestantism over the past one hundred years and that there was literally no discussion of American evangelical movements since the colonial period. Moreover, although prejudice against Catholics drew attention, the “positive contributions” of both Catholics and Jews received little attention. While the Vitz analysis reflects a conservative political agenda, its conclusions should not be dismissed as irrelevant.

Finally, teachers themselves do not appear to regard the teaching of religion in history as an important concern. In the recently published Voices of Teachers: Report of a Survey on Social Studies (1991), the National Commission on the Social Studies found little concern among teachers regarding the teaching of religion. It simply was not an issue. The only relevant finding was that among elective courses 5 percent dealt with “comparative religions.” Offerings of subjects on religion “are so infrequent that their presence in the curriculum probably indicates the interest of particular teachers.”

What, then, can be done to redress this imbalance in the new curriculum? History teachers have constantly made choices concerning the inclusion or exclusion of topics in survey courses, whether political, economic, or social. Topics in religious history must certainly be among those considered. We contend that teachers should select several critical issues for discussion rather than attempt an encyclopedic coverage of all religious subjects.

While individual instructors must resolve the question of religion’s place in the drama of American historical development, there are numerous opportunities to establish the profound impact religious forces have had on the course of history. Puritanism, the Great Awakening, nineteenth-century evangelical reform, and the religious debate over slavery are all topics that enable teachers to explore the clear secular implications of religious experience. Yet these are the interpretive problems that appear most frequently as elements in the existing survey course.

We propose a greater emphasis on the significance of religious questions in United States history since the Civil War, thereby correcting the most obvious imbalance in contemporary history instruction. For example, the urban experience of the late nineteenth century is rendered more comprehensible by a detailed examination of the great religious diversity of the ethnic ghetto. The gradual development of religious toleration is rendered more comprehensible if studied in the context of pressures exerted by new immigrations against the tradition of church-state separation. Students may be sensitized to the origins of cultural pluralism through exposure to the findings of modern immigration historians, whose work has revealed the variegated customs and practices of the “new” immigration. Equally productive would be an examination of religious discrimination against Mormons, Roman Catholics, Jews, and non-Europeans.

No less important to a grasp of urban history is an understanding of the social gospel movement that sought to reinvigorate mainstream Protestantism with a new commitment to living religion at the dawn of the Progressive era. Moreover, the student should be encouraged to see linkages among immigration, religion, and the evolution of a creative worker culture in industrial America, thus relating the private lives of workers to the emergence of a self-conscious labor movement by the early twentieth century. The findings of the new urban, social, and labor historians offer an opportunity for teachers to help students rethink the development of a pluralistic society in light of a new appreciation for working-class culture.

Equally valuable in developing the student’s grasp of multiculturalism in the United States is an awareness of Hispanic and Asian contributions to the development of a diverse American culture. The exploration of these topics offers an opportunity to enrich the religious history component of the last one hundred years in the survey course. Perhaps the most useful topic in this regard would be the study of the origins and growth of a Latin Catholic religious tradition in the American Southwest. Beginning with an examination of the rich mission culture of the early nineteenth century, the place of the church in Hispanic life may become a useful tool in understanding modern Hispanic culture. For example, the importance of the church in Hispanic family life and its role in defining female roles in the social and economic spheres deserve attention. Equally suggestive would be analysis of the religious dimension of la huelga and the organization of Hispanic farm workers since the 1960s. The inclusion of teaching units such as these would inevitably lead to student recognition that the church has functioned as more than a narrowly religious institution, that it has provided the cement of ethnic unity and worker solidarity.

The role of religion in social and economic mobilization illustrates the important connections between religion and politics in the twentieth century. From the residual anti-Catholicism of the 1920s to the important, but underemphasized, role of religion in the modern civil rights movement, the overt interjection of religious argumentation in the political struggles of recent years has been obvious. More subtle but nonetheless significant was the role played by religious forces in the rise of militant anticommunism during the domestic Cold War. Teachers should find the time to subject these political initiatives to sharp analysis in order to help students to better comprehend the sources of voter behavior in the modern era. And precisely because of its controversial side, the rise of religious conservatism in the postwar era is too vital to be ignored. Important comparisons may be drawn between the fundamentalist-modernist debates of the 1920s and the struggle over creationism in recent years. Finally, can any one of us afford to ignore the modern significance of Islam? Any discussion of the civil rights movement should incorporate discussion of the challenge raised by the Black Muslims in the 1960s. And the study of recent American foreign policy must not overlook the religious dynamic in modern Middle Eastern politics. These topics surely should promote active student engagement.

There are many avenues that might lead toward such a student-centered learning experience based upon religious history topics. For illustrative purposes, we might use the social gospel movement of the late nineteenth century. Paul S. Boyer, et al., The Enduring Vision, places great emphasis on religious solutions to the great “social question” raised by rapid urbanization, as does Thomas V. DiBacco, et al., History of the United States. One tried technique for raising the religious issue involves the use of excerpts from the abundant primary texts available for the analysis of Christian moralism as a force for social change. Students might be asked to read sections of Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives (1890), Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907), Charles Sheldon, In His Steps (1898), Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull House (1910), or other important documents that address the relationship between religion and social issues. Assigned discussion groups (or individuals) could be asked to assess the interplay between religion and class, faith and social reform, ethnicity and religious pluralism, or the social settlements and religious commitment. The results of group sessions can then be shared in a wide-ranging classroom discussion focusing on applied religion in Gilded Age-Progressive America. Students would work with written evidence to gain a better appreciation of the relationship between Christian moralism, social amelioration, and the political and economic issues that troubled the national conscience in an age of transition (see James J. Lorence, Enduring Voices: Documents Sets to Accompany the ‘Enduring Vision’ [1990]).

As this example indicates, a focus on religious history opens the door to myriad important historical and analytical issues. Whether examining the settlement house movement or the impact of religion on Hispanic culture, teachers and students are drawn into a confrontation with racial, gender, and class issues that reflect broad questions of interpretation. Women were actors and acted upon; class tensions lurked beneath the social concern of middle Americans; and there can be no doubt that the church was sometimes a refuge and sometimes a prod in the drive for racial equality, a factor in the politics of civil rights.

By drawing students into discussion and debate of such meaningful issues, history instructors can help students see a more direct connection between issues of historical significance and their own lives. As Warren Susman once argued, “relevance is vulgar,” and it is absolutely essential as we deal with historical novices. Religion as a force in recent United States history is a topic that can provide students with an awareness of the relationship between the academic enterprise and everyday life. If polling results can be believed, religion is important in the lives of the majority of Americans. Hence, serious analyses of religion in history can be relevant instruction.

In short, we call for nothing less than a rethinking of religious history as a legitimate element in the history curriculum. Exposure to new materials has already influenced our own work in the university survey and in a broad range of high school classes. Renewed emphasis has been placed on selected topics with religious implications. These changes do not come without problems. Teachers must contend with special interests who would prefer that the teaching of religion degenerate into the advocacy of particular value systems. All the more reason for historians and teachers to insist that the academic study of religion remain an objective and nonsectarian enterprise that will foster pluralism and multiculturalism in American life.

External pressures need not make history instruction an exercise in evasion of issues. Teachers of history should recognize that their classroom decisions are not much different from those confronted by their colleagues in art, music, literature, or even library work, all of which deal with topical material laden with religious implications. Where interest group criticism has become a problem, it has been possible to respond to criticism by bringing the critics into the process of curricular revision through informational meetings and discussions that focus on the reasons why particular topics are considered an essential element in history instruction. A useful analogy in these discussions would be the comparison between religious and political topics. It is not difficult to explain how history teachers constantly deal with political history without advocating the position of one ideology or another. Discussion of controversial historical issues is, after all, a stimulus to the development of critical thinking, and the history of religion is only one of many often-debated subjects.

While external forces must occasionally be dealt with, student classroom responses are our ongoing concern. Hence, we must be prepared to deal creatively and sensitively with questions from students whose religious values may be challenged by the introduction and discussion of religious history in an objective manner. One useful technique is to begin a course or unit with a sweeping discussion of the content and meaning of history itself. By asking students themselves to identify and define the topics that merit scholarly investigation, it is possible to help them see religious history as an area of legitimate academic inquiry. Another avenue toward minimizing resistance would be to introduce the broad question of human motivation in a historical context. It is difficult, after all, for students to examine antislavery sentiment, westward expansion, imperialism, and many other historical developments without confronting religion as a motivating force. Finally, student role-playing or classroom debates may disarm student critics by placing religious zealots and skeptics in the shoes of persons professing conflicting beliefs. Understanding the position and argument of the adversary can be the first short step in the development of toleration.

As educators and scholars, we bear heavy responsibility for communicating to students the roots of religion in the human experience and the importance of religious history as a subject of legitimate intellectual and academic discourse. By locating religion at the center of change over time, we can encourage students to observe and understand the trend toward secularism and the prevalence of religious pluralism in twentieth-century America. A logical extension of this new awareness of secularism as a historical trend will be a deeper comprehension of the religious tendencies of our own time. Once students grasp the meaning of the shifting value system and the social crisis perceived by the religious right since the 1960s, the modern resurgence of religious conservatism will be better understood. The social divisions and moral ambiguities of life in a diverse modern society can have greater meaning for citizens educated to recognize the sense of loss felt by Americans who revere the religious commitment, real or imagined, of men and women of previous generations.

Because we have grappled together with the problem of isolating religion and religious history as an academic pursuit, members of the Alliance are prepared to guide students toward an understanding of religion as a historical phenomenon and an informal awareness of the separation of church and state that is central to the American constitutional heritage. Though the separation is clear and necessary, it need not mean ignorance of religion as historical context. Religion has been at the center of much of American culture since its beginnings, as has the effort to promote toleration, and our teaching should reflect that piece of history accurately.

James J. Lorence is professor of history at the University of Wisconsin Center–Marathon County, where he teaches the United States history survey and courses in twentieth-century United States. James G. Grinsel chairs the Social Studies Department at Wausau West High School in Wausau, Wisconsin, where he also teaches United States history.