Martin E. Marty: Textbooks and Religion ... The Problem

Roundup: Talking About History

Historians, to whose company I belong, are often taught to feel irrelevant. Survey after survey shows that most citizens know appallingly little about the past, including "their" past, the past on the basis of which they make decisions. Whether the fault is with us historians for doing our job badly or with publics for failing to pay attention is hard to discern. One point ought to be clear, however, in these days when our sub-cultures fight our sub-cultures and our "multi-" groups fight other "multi-" groups: Much of that fighting is about religion. In such encounters, historical accounts are often misrepresented, becoming inflaming sources of issues.

This week, a Wall Street Journal story by Daniel Golden showed just how tense debates are over how religious history is taught in public school textbooks (January 25). He described Hindu, Islamic, and Jewish groups complaining about and fighting over the way these texts treat their pasts. It is obvious that textbook writers, school boards, administrators, and teachers are "damned if they do and damned if they don't" touch religion, and are pretty much damned however they do do religion. (For good background on the complexity of all this, read Kent Greenawalt's Does God Belong in Public Schools? Greenawalt shows how hard it is to make judicial and judicious decisions on this subject).

A reminder: Those who criticize the United States Supreme Court for having been secular and a secularizer fail to note that the famed "school prayer decisions" of 1962-1963 -- which ruled against using classrooms and school instrumentalities for devotional exercises, prayer, and the like -- strongly urged that religion as such should be taught. Without knowledge of the religious past and religious peoples' ways of doing things, how can we understand the present? we were asked. There are agencies that try to supply texts, but their books have not been adopted as widely as one might expect. Here's one reason for this: In the end, most agitators for religion in the schools want their religion to be favored, privileged, and taught.

Golden points to interest groups in the various faiths, each of which has a point, and most of which overstate their cases. Hindus do not like reference to polytheism, the caste system, the inferior status of Indian women, and "sati" (the burning of widows on their husbands' pyres). Some of the self-appointed agitators play rough, attacking scholars of Hinduism who do not satisfy them. We do not have space here to detail what Jews and Muslims have not liked, but it takes little imagination. And while Golden does not concentrate on them, some Christians have tried hardest to dictate how Christians get covered. Golden also portrays fair-minded scholars who do their best to tell the truth, but are caught in crossfires.

All this is fateful, since the decisions of boards in giant California and Texas markets come under every kind of pressure. If California and/or Texas votes "no" on a book, it stands little chance. A "yes" assures a market -- but not a free ride, because someone will protest something in each book, and there'll soon be another expensive revision. We are learning from this that you can't satisfy everyone and that religion is not a "private affair" but always a hot topic in a republic where we cannot settle things, but have to live with messiness.

Occasional Reference Note:
We do regular sightings of religious events from Wall Street Journal news coverage. Readers who see quite accurately that paper's editorial page as being conservative sometimes confuse the distinction between news and editorial bias there. This week I learned that Tim Groseclose, a political scientist, and Jeffrey Milyo, an economist, along with twenty-one research assistants, combed through ten years of U.S. media coverage and found "a systematic liberal bias" (see But hold on: Using their scales and measurements, they announced that "one surprise is that the Wall Street Journal ... we find as the most liberal of all twenty news outlets," and cited a 2002 survey which found it the second most liberal. So we cannot gain points with conservatives when we quote the Journal, just as we should not lose points with liberals who are suspicious of it. So there ....

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