Freedom Forum Group’s Benjamin Marcus lays out need for religious literacy education in American landscape


With an Italian Roman Catholic mother and a humanist Jewish father, the sometimes-heated religious conversations Benjamin Marcus witnessed between his parents provided “productive tension” that helped him to form his own understanding of his religious identity.

His high school education on religion? Not so much.

“My high school did not prepare me to understand the complexity of religion in American public life, much less the complexity of religion that I was experiencing at home,” Marcus said.

Marcus, a former Presidential Scholar at the Harvard Divinity School and a graduate of the University of Cambridge and Brown University, is a specialist at the Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum Group. He presented his lecture “Religious Literacy in Public Schools: Embracing Complexity and Tension” at 2 p.m. EDT on Tuesday, Aug. 4, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform.

The lecture aligned with the Week Six theme “Lessons in the School House” for the Interfaith Lecture Series. Maureen Rovegno, Chautauqua Institution’s director of religion, led the subsequent Q-and-A with audience questions submitted through the portal and on Twitter with #CHQ2020.

In his role at the Religious Freedom Center, Marcus has helped to develop religious literacy programs for public schools and universities, as well as institutions including businesses, U.S. government organizations and private foundations.

Marcus said a factor that illustrates the need for religious literacy is the gradual change in the composition of religious people and in what it means to be religious. Following a trend that Chautauquans have discussed for years, a Public Religion Research Institute study reported a growing number of people who don’t identify with a religion.

“Young Americans are living in the most diverse generation in American history,” Marcus said.

Religious beliefs also change over time in social and political values with productive tension. Between 2013 and 2019, both white Evangelicals and Black Protestants experienced a historic dip in opposition to same-sex marriage.

Marcus has seen religious shifts in public opinion affect his own life. Pope Francis’ words, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” convinced Marcus’ Roman Catholic grandfather that he could accept Marcus and his brother as respectively queer and gay without conflict with his beliefs.

But Marcus said that destructive tension has also defined this moment of religious complexity. Hate crime data from organizations including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Southern Poverty Law Center have reported a rise in hate crimes against Jewish and Muslim people since 2013.

The American Academy of Religion hypothesizes that religious illiteracy is what fuels prejudice resulting in violence, and that teaching about religion can help students understand values in civic life and reduce this threat.

Evidence is found in a study by scholars Emile Lester and Patrick Roberts, who surveyed Modesto, California, students in the only district in the nation at the time that offered a religious studies course. They found that while students did not become more or less religious as a result of the course, they did recognize more the rights of others — including those they disagreed with.

Marcus said that there is also a disconnect in Americans’ understanding of what is legally allowed to be taught in schools. The U.S. Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark wrote in a majority decision that while state-sponsored devotional Bible reading and prayer recitation is not constitutional, the First Amendment supports a secular study about religion in schools for its literary and historical significance.

“It might well be said 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,” Clark wrote.

Marcus said that Harvard’s Religious Literacy Project, which Judy Beals gave a lecture on a day prior, is an example of an institution working toward expanding a model of teaching that encourages critical thinking through a religious lens. Not only does the model present to students that religions are not only internally diverse and are embedded in culture, but also change over time.

“It’s a comment on how those interpretations or expressions in those traditions are changing over time,” Marcus said.

For example, in the first half of the 19th century, white Christians in the United States were relatively divided about whether the institution of slavery fit into the morality of Christian teachings. They were similarly divided about segregation in the 1960s and now, they have split opinions on mass incarceration.

And the experience of religion does not exist separately from a person’s experience of the world. Marcus defined religious complexity in a model “3B” framework with Diane Moore, who founded Harvard’s Literacy Project. The framework connects how religious and secular beliefs, behavior according to those beliefs and belonging to a religion and other identities connects to the rest of a person’s experience in the world. 

Marcus said sociological research findings commonly report that people are more likely to come across people who are different from them at work or while shopping than at their house of worship. He said the conclusions echo a quote by Martin Luther King, Jr. in a 1960 NBC interview.

“I think it is one of the tragedies of our nation, one of the shameful tragedies, that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours, if not the most segregated hours, in Christian America,” King said.

The framework doesn’t just identify identity differences, but also maps out how each aspect informs the others in a person’s understanding of their religion. Growing up partially Roman Catholic, Marcus has observed priests commonly tell people looking to ground themselves in the Church to participate in church life through communion and confession. While Catholics center their religion through belonging to a community, Zen Buddhists seek understanding of life truths through seated meditation.

On the other hand, Marcus said that while a culture with customs of bowing to elders informs a person’s relationship to others and with God, external identities outside religion can mold it as well. According to the Rev. James Cone, the greatest source of Black theology is the Black experience, which he said was a life of humiliation and suffering defined by white supremacy.

“In a world awash with religious influence,” Marcus said, religious literacy curriculum done right also provides critical metacognitive thinking skills in reflecting on a student’s own religious identity and place in public life.

But public schools are not yet teaching religious literacy at this desired level. In a Pew Research Center study, Americans on average answered 16 out of 32 factual questions about religions correctly. In comparison, atheists, agnostics, Jewish people and Mormons answered about 20 questions correctly on average.

While basic knowledge of religion is not the only indication of religious education quality, “it is one data point that shows that education about religion falls short in this country,” Marcus said.

Americans also misunderstand what is allowed to be taught in schools. Another Pew study found that while 89% of Americans know that prayer cannot occur in schools, only 36% know that schools are permitted to offer a comparative religion course and 23% know that students can read from the Bible as literature in class.

Teachers also are not widely trained to teach religion in academic and constitutional ways. According to a PDK International Poll, Marcus said a majority of teachers and parents want schools to offer courses on religion and the Bible as literature should be offered as an elective.

“There is no meaningful ideological or political gap in support for such courses,” Marcus said.

However, Marcus did note that Bible-as-literature courses do privilege a set of Judeo-Christian texts that exclude other religions, atheists and agnostics.

Last year, Marcus organized a National Religions Center summit on religious literacy. From the summit’s discussions — between teachers, administrators, district and state coordinators, scholars, professional development providers, religious community members and textbook publishers — a white paper summarized eight action items. It called to expand and strengthen teacher education, while also creating and implementing an outreach strategy to increase the number of educators, institutions and community members who support the study of religion.

“Ultimately, religious literacy education will not thrive unless teachers feel trained and equipped on religion academically and constitutionally,” Marcus said.

Students can also organize and train teachers. Six Maryland students formed SikhKid2Kid, an organization that provides professional development training for teachers on Sikhism. Teachers receive a certificate from their district after going through the program.

But Marcus said religious literacy needs to be embedded at all levels, in public schools, universities and communities, for the sake of understanding one another.

“We have the power to decide whether the complexity of the American religious landscape will be productive and mediated by a loving commitment to one another — as it was for my family — or destructive.”

Tags : Benjamin Marcusinterfaith lecture seriesreligionReligious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum GroupReligious Literacy in Public Schools: Embracing Complexity and TensionWeek six

The author Chloe Murdock

This is Chloe Murdock’s first season reporting for The Chautauquan Daily. She hopes to visit Chautauqua in the future, but in the meantime she covers news on Chautauqua’s Interfaith Lecture Series. Chloe is a rising senior at Miami University studying journalism and international studies. When she isn’t leading The Miami Student magazine or writing for The Miami Student newspaper, Chloe enjoys practicing martial arts.