Education, Religion and the Common Good

By Martin E. Marty and Jonathan Moore
Jossey-Bass. 2000. 164 pp. Pb. $23.
ISBN 0-7879-5033-5

Reviewed by Allan E. Strand, Oxford, Miss.

The thrust of Martin Marty's work in this volume is captured most succinctly in this: "In the midst of global, national and local change affecting world views and public action, religion is too widespread and too deep a phenomenon not to be reckoned with in primary, or at least secondary, schools and thereafter, no matter under what aegis or auspices" (p. 139).

Marty brings two distinctive perspectives to his discussion of education, religion and the common welfare. First, in addressing the relationship of religion to education, he insists that we must view education as a seamless whole and think of the application of religion to the educational enterprise throughout, not limiting its application to elementary, secondary, collegiate or graduate study. Marty argues that religion and education are inherently and inextricably connected.

Worthwhile education for the preparation of our citizenry thus occurs best when the study of religion is included as an essential element of the curriculum at every educational level or specialty. Although the various divisions or specialties of education have their own concerns, Marty seeks to unite them around a single focus, i.e., the study of religion — a study which will provide the strongest and most sensible basis for advancing the common welfare of our society and culture.

The second distinctive perspective is Marty’s conviction that conversation not argument is the modality by which progress may be achieved. He asserts that there is clearly need for argument and certainly motivation for it when the topics of religion and education are engaged. Marty touches on the complexities of the subject and the ramifications of it all emanating from the First Amendment language: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” He affirms the utility of argument in the courts, in legislatures and when the interests of various groups conflict. Decisions must be reached and issues resolved for the public good.

However, in this matter of introducing religion into education, in this matter of not denying or demeaning a fundamental dimension of human experience as we educate, argument will not serve. We need to arrange structures so that conversations may occur among those who represent varying religious points of view. Nobody wins conversations. Conversations initiated by questions encourage participants to listen, understand and to seek commonality.

Fifty years ago, this issue of including the religious dimension in the educational process was not nearly so sharp and sensitive as is now the case. The enormous changes in the ethnic and religious backgrounds of our populace have made these questions increasingly contentious. Marty’s point is that nevertheless, and regardless of these differences, the Common Good calls out for our finding the means of reintroducing religion into the educational process. And his belief is that the thoughtful structuring of conversations around this question is the productive direction for the nation to follow.

At the outset of his work, Marty takes note of the abundance of books written connecting religion and education and then observes, “Amid and among the many books on education and religion, this one is to my knowledge the only one that deals with all levels and in general religious terms with the common good.” He has been true to his intent. And though he does not definitely set forth his beliefs as to the tenets of a “public religion” palatable to every interest group and religious persuasion, he does make provocative suggestions thereto. And he clearly identifies the process that carries the promise of sensibly and healthfully including religion in America’s schooling for the common good.