Amandine Barb on Teaching about Religion in the USA

Amandine Barb on Teaching about Religion in the USA

Since the beginning of the corona crisis, my time in home-office has mostly been spent completing two articles that are related to my on-going research project Governing Religious Diversity in a (Post)Secular Age: Teaching about Religion in American Public Schools. The basic question at the center of this project is: why and how religion, which had been neglected for decades as an object of study in American public schools, has come to be reconsidered a legitimate educational requirement since the end of the 1980s, when new courses about religion were gradually introduced across the country, mainly in history and geography curricula? With this topic, my broader goal is to understand how the diversification and politicization of religious identities, triggered notably by the growing number of non-Christian minorities and the rise of conservative Christians, have impacted and transformed the public governance of religion in the contemporary United States. In terms of methodology, I focus on two states as comparative case studies – California and Texas – and I rely on various primary sources (textbooks, educational standards, official guidelines, reports) as well as on interviews with the key actors involved in the debates over teaching about religion (members of State Boards of Education, professional educational associations, scholars, church/state separation advocacy organizations, religious interest groups).

The first article I have recently been working on is titled “A ‘Postsecular’ Religious Education? The Case of the United States”, and will hopefully be published early next year as partof a journal special issue on the impact of religious politics on educational discourses and policies in comparative perspective. The paper is kind of an overview of the thesis I develop in the first part of my project. I explain how, over the past three decades in the United States, religious literacy has become an important civic “skill”, fostered by various actors – public officials, scholars, educators, civil liberties activists – as integral to the making of “global citizens”. I try to argue that this development was in part the result of what Jürgen Habermas described as the advent of a “postsecular consciousness” – i.e. the growing public awareness of the contemporary resilience of religion as a crucial resource for identities, cultures, and politics. I am still not completely sure, however, that the (much-discussed and confusing) concept of “postsecular” is the right one to make sense of these developments in the United States, or if I am perhaps just extrapolating – exaggerating the political and social significance of the changes that took place in public schools?

The second article I would like to submit in the coming weeks is titled “Crafting ‘Public Religions’ in an Age of ‘Competitive Multiculturalism’: School Textbooks and Religious Identity Politics in the United States”. This paper relates to the second part of my project, and it explores how immigrant, non-Christian minority faiths – Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs – actively try to influence the content of courses about religion in public schools. Accordingly, these religious minorities have made the introduction of courses dedicated to their respective faith a crucial part of their identity strategies in recent years. In California and Texas, for example, Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh interest groups are involved at all stages of the adoption process of both educational standards and textbooks: they petition the State Boards of Education, send hundreds of comments to publishers, and sometimes even sue the latter two over what they consider to be an improper presentation of their faith. In my text, I explain how school courses provide these minorities with a unique opportunity to control and shapethe public narrative on their religion. These courses allow them to promote a “positive” image of their beliefs and traditions – one that is compatible with the dominant social and civic values – as a way to counter the negative stereotypes often conveyed through media and popular culture. I had the occasion to present a draft of this text in a meeting of our research group on Human Rights at the Kolleg. I received very stimulating feedbacks, which greatly helped with the revision process, and I hope to finally be able to send it soon for review.

In any case, I am looking forward to more discussions about our research and everything else, virtually on Zoom, or in “real life” at the Kolleg. These, I´ve come to realize since October, are essential to brainstorm, but they also help us take some necessary distance from our own object of study.

With best wishes to all,