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Training Social Studies Teachers, but Ignoring Religion?: An Occasion to Rethink Civic Competence

by Brett Bertucio & Benjamin Marcus - November 08, 2018

The authors of this commentary argue that religious literacy should be considered an essential part of social studies curricula, enabling students to better understand many issues in contemporary culture.

If you have followed the news in the last year, you’ve probably read about some controversy related to the role of religion in public life. Two of the most contentious United States Supreme Court decisions of 2018 (Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission and Trump v. Hawaii) hinged on different interpretations of the religious liberty clauses of the First Amendment. Or, for another example, there was the high-profile confirmation hearing of Judge Amy Coney Barrett for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, which made national headlines because of questions regarding the nominee’s religious identity.1 Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ defense of the Trump Administration’s border policies sparked a firestorm as progressive and conservative religious leaders debated the legitimacy of Sessions’ appeal to scripture.2

Educators have a civic duty to prepare young people to navigate such matters, which are indelibly shaped by the encounter of commitments between people of all religions and none. Thankfully the National Council for the Social Studies’ new Religious Studies Companion Document—an official addendum to the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework—reiterates the organization’s position that “knowledge about religions is not only a characteristic of an educated person but is necessary for effective and engaged citizenship in an interconnected and diverse nation and world.” 3

Yet religious studies is noticeably absent from one recent key document: the NCSS National Standards for the Preparation of Social Studies Teachers. Published in January 2018, less than a year after the release of the Religious Studies Companion Document, the standards are intended to serve as the “benchmark” for social studies teacher preparation programs nationwide.4 The primary motivator for social studies education, according to the document, is “civic competence.” And in defining civic competence, the document references Jonathan Miller-Lane and his colleagues, who define “civic multicultural competence” as a disposition which takes into account “marginalized” considerations, including religious identity.5 Nevertheless, Standard 1 of the NCSS report does not require educators to demonstrate content knowledge of religious studies. Instead, it focuses on “civics, economics, geography, history, and the social/behavioral sciences.”6

We argue that a responsible interpretation of Standard 1 will include religious studies as a key component of “social studies disciplines.” If educators are to cultivate the civic competence of the next generation, then teachers must equip students with the skills of religious literacy, defined by the American Academy of Religion as “the ability to discern and analyze the fundamental intersections of religion with social, political, and cultural life.”7 Religious literacy is necessary to make sense of history and contemporary life. Civics courses that address the news items mentioned at the beginning of this article will need to cover the First Amendment and Article VI of the United States Constitution. Students in U.S. history courses cannot adequately analyze the forces that have shaped America without attending to the role of religious and secular communities during the nation’s founding, the Civil War, the Civil Rights movement, early 20th-century nativism, and more. Human geography courses would be incomplete without attention to the seismic shifts in the global and national religious landscape, including the fact that white Christians now make up less than fifty percent of the U.S. population.8

Given the unavoidable importance of religion for social studies, teacher preparation programs should proactively integrate modules or courses related to the concepts and tools of religious studies as well as the laws and norms that affect religion in public schools. Asking educators to teach about religion without formal training would be a recipe for disaster. As one of our colleagues, David Callaway, is fond of saying: you have to teach about chemistry very poorly for a very long time to rouse the ire of parents, but saying just one wrong thing about religion once can invite chaos. Religion is both too important to ignore and too sensitive to get wrong.

The struggle to equip teachers to introduce religious subjects in constitutionally appropriate ways is nothing new. Following the Supreme Court’s decision in Abington v. Schempp (1963), which struck down devotional Bible reading, many educators assumed the Court’s ruling to mean religion was “off limits” in public schools. Decades of popular misunderstanding has created an environment that Charles Haynes has termed “naked public school.”9 Yet Justice Tom Clark’s Schempp opinion maintained that “one's education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization” (374 U.S. 203, 226). If students lack a basic understanding of the diversity of religious traditions and their role in the formation of American government and society, their civic education will remain woefully incomplete.

Efforts to introduce the academic study of religion into social studies curricula gained little traction in the two decades following Schempp. In the late 1980s and 1990s, educators began to find success by drafting consensus statements regarding the place of religious topics in public schools.10 Today, a growing sense of the importance of religious literacy for civic competence has produced several resources to help social studies teachers more confidently include the academic study of religion in their classrooms. Scholars such as Diane Moore and Stephen Prothero have developed conceptual models for religious literacy education in secondary schools.11 The C3 Religious Studies Companion Document provides both a description of the concepts and tools central to religious studies as well as concrete learning objectives for high school graduates that conform to academic and constitutional principles. The authors’ own organization, the Religious Freedom Center, offers free online professional development modules to teachers.12

As scholars working in the field of religious literacy education, we are convinced that young people will be ill-prepared to face the controversies of contemporary American life without a critical understanding of the intersection of diverse religious commitments and political controversies. We hope that events of the past year might convince social studies educators of the urgent need to include religious studies training in teacher education programs.


1. Aaron Blake, “Did Dianne Feinstein Accuse a Judicial Nominee of Being Too Christian?,” The Washington Post (September 7, 2017).

2. Julia Jacobs, “Sessions’s Use of Bible Passage to Defend Immigration Policy Draws Fire,” New York Times (June 15, 2018).

3. The College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards: Guidance for Enhancing the Rigor of K–12 Civics, Economics, Geography, and History (Washington, D.C.: National Council for the Social Studies, 2017), 92. Available at https://www.socialstudies.org/c3.

4. Alexander Cuenca, et al., National Standards for the Preparation of Social Studies Teachers (Washington, D.C.: National Council for the Social Studies, 2018), 9. Available at https://www.socialstudies.org/standards/teacherstandards.  

5. Jonathan Miller-Lane, Tyrone C. Howard, and Patricia Espiritu Halagao, “Civic Multicultural Competence: Searching for Common Ground in Democratic Education,” Theory and Research in Social Education 35, no. 4 (2007): 551–573, 559.

6. Cuenca, et al., National Standards for the Preparation of Social Studies Teachers, 13.

7. AAR Religion in the Schools Task Force, Guidelines for Teaching About Religion in K–12 Public Schools in the United States (Atlanta: American Academy of Religion, 2010), 4. Available at https://www.aarweb.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/Publications/epublications/AARK-12CurriculumGuidelines.pdf.

8. Daniel Cox and Robert P. Jones, America's Changing Religious Identity (Washington, D.C.: Public Religion Research Project, 2017). An executive summary of the report is available at https://www.prri.org/research/american-religious-landscape-christian-religiously-unaffiliated/.

9. Charles C. Haynes and Oliver Thomas, Finding Common Ground: A First Amendment Guide to Religion and Public Schools (Nashville, TN: First Amendment Center, 2007), 5.

10. The 1988 Williamsburg Charter on the First Amendment included Presidents Ford and Carter as signatories. The Charter is available at https://www.religiousfreedomcenter.org/about/charter/. The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development organized the 1995 signing of Religious Liberty, Public Education, and the Future of American Democracy: A Statement of Principles. The document was published in Educational Leadership 52, no. 8 (May, 1995): 92–93.

11. Diane Moore, Overcoming Religious Illiteracy: A Cultural Studies Approach to the Study of Religion in Secondary Education (New York; Palgrave MacMillan, 2007); Stephen Prothero, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn’t (New York: Harper, 2007).

12. See https://www.constitution2classroom.org.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 08, 2018
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22556, Date Accessed: 1/23/2022 10:51:22 AM

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About the Author
  • Brett Bertucio
    University of Wisconsin-Madison
    E-mail Author
    BRETT BERTUCIO is a doctoral student in the Educational Policy Studies and Curriculum and Instruction departments at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research examines how American judges, curriculum developers, and educators understand church-state relations.
  • Benjamin Marcus
    Religious Freedom Center
    E-mail Author
    BENJAMIN MARCUS is the Religious Literacy Specialist with the Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum Institute, where he examines the intersection of education, religious literacy, and identity formation in the United States.
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