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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
(more on the Journal)

Volume 32 Number 1
Spring 2005

Religion, Pluralism, and Public Education in America

Warren A. Nord

While most Americans (about eighty percent) identify themselves as Christian, there are significant Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu minorities. Surveys differ, but there are probably now more Muslims in the United States than Episcopalians or Jews. While many Americans profess no orthodox religious belief, they nonetheless adhere to a somewhat amorphous spirituality (sometimes called "New Age" religion). Among Christians, the differences among Pentecostals, Catholics, Baptists and Episcopalians may be as important as their similarities; indeed, within a denomination, there can be striking differences between liberals and conservatives.

As important as this variety, is the vitality of American religion. The long-anticipated secularization of America hasnít happened. Surveys tell us that more than sixty percent of Americans claim that religion is "very important" in their lives. Not only do the vast majority of Americans believe in God, most pray regularly, and forty percent attend a religious service in any given week. Financial giving to religious institutions vastly exceeds giving to all other institutions. Even if such statistics exaggerate the extent of our religiosity, many (if not most) Americans are strikingly religious people.

It is true, of course, that religion is often privatized and compartmentalized in modern society, but it is not easy to keep God (or the transcendent by whatever name) inside the box. On almost anyoneís account, the implications of Godís existence or non-existence are momentous for how we live our lives and how we think about the nature of reality. If the dominant culture is increasingly secular, and if many religious folk limit their religious practice to Friday evening or Sunday morning, it remains true that within religious subcultures, the implications of religious commitment extend through all of life, from how one understands the origins of the universe to how one spends oneís money, from the rituals of birth to the meaning of death (and what follows).

In his very helpful book, Rethinking Religious Education and Plurality, Professor Robert Jackson of the University of Warwick, draws out some of the implications of religious pluralism for education in England and Wales. (I will use the term pluralism in a purely descriptive sense; for Jackson, "pluralism" is a normative term, while "plurality" is the merely descriptive term.) I will express a reservation about one of Jacksonís central claims, elaborate on another, say something about how the First Amendment makes the situation here in America a little different, and, finally, consider a matter of some importance that Jackson doesnít discuss. First, however, a few general comments.

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