"Separation of Church and State" has almost become our national mantra. Must we interpret this phrase, using the language of Thomas Jefferson, as erecting a "wall of separation" that completely closes off any chance for meaningful and mutually beneficial contact between church and state? Can we, following the notion of James Madison, conceive of it as establishing a "line of distinction" that clearly differentiates fields of authority but does not necessarily preclude cooperation for the betterment of all peoples? Is the ideal arrangement one where the two never engage each other? Do we sometimes misinterpret the phrase "Freedom of Religion" to mean "Freedom from religion? Can religion and education work together to promote the common good of American society? Martin E. Marty confronts these and other questions in a book that does indeed offer more questions than answers, but that is, however, the whole point of the study as suggested by the subtitle.
The Introduction proposes a distinctive contribution of the book. It will discuss religion's role across the entire range of the American educational system, from pre-school to post-graduate. This is a daunting task, especially for a book of such modest length. At first, the treatments of various aspects of the general topic may seem rather brief, but therein lies a major strength. The book avoids getting bogged down with complicated technicalities, points and counter-points. Chapter One defines terms and expresses the hope that the book will foster a conversation leading to constructive dialogue rather than arguments that degenerate into shouting matches generating more heat than light. Succeeding chapters build on this foundation. Chapter Two argues for a positive and valuable connection between religion and education. "Whoever cares about this nation's future must care about education" (23), and "...education is often inevitably charged with religious meanings" (33). Chapter Three presents a quick overview of the history of this connection. Chapter Four takes a realistic look at some of the multiple complexities, difficulties, and possible objections to addressing this connection in contemporary American educational settings. Some may argue, for instance, that introducing their children to various religious faiths "may soon slide into a debilitating relativism where all spiritual options are equal" (45). If the public school offers a "cafeteria line of religious options and regards each option equally, children may be less likely to pursue faith with integrity" (51). Would the Ten Commandments get watered down into the "Ten Suggestions" (56)?
The value of studying religion on all levels of education, both public and private (including home schooling) are examined in Chapters Five through Nine. "[S]tudying religion helps achieve the goal of public schooling: students will learn a more accurate picture of the world around them" (64). Studying religion in private (Catholic) schools can "teach students to be critically loyal and loyally critical in the society and nation around them" (79). Religious Studies courses in church-related colleges can "...nurture the idea that there are indeed things worth believing very strongly" and counter the tendency to have tolerance "mean simply mutual indifference" (100). Public universities cannot fully analyze, understand, and educate about the American culture without recourse to the religious influences that have influenced, and continue to influence, that culture. Chapter Ten acts as a conclusion by arguing that the whole discussion makes sense because we can, contrary to some objections, meaningfully speak of an American "public," not just a collection of any number of self-interested "subpublics" (133). If one polls people about religious ideas, "the responses rarely suggest that Americans have nothing in common (and almost all will argue that) spiritual and religious belief are essential in the nation" (138).
The book is clear, straightforward, and eminently readable. Of special interest is the annotated bibliography of available resources, both print and electronic, at the end of the main text. This book would make a valuable addition to the collections of both administrators and faculty, in education as well as religious studies departments, of public and private institutions alike. It could also be useful as a secondary text for graduate level courses, serving in the role of discussion starter.