Who’s Responsible for Religious Literacy Education?

Who’s Responsible for Religious Literacy Education? September 27, 2016

By Skyler Oberst and Benjamin Marcus.




Skyler Oberst and Benjamin Marcus recently completed the 2015-2016 Germanacos Fellowship. Skyler created a “Meet the Neighbor” video series in Spokane, WA to teach members of his community how to visit local houses of worship and create a safe space to have a meaningful interfaith encounter. Ben collaborated with public school teachers in the suburbs of Chicago, IL to create lesson plans about religion for teachers in history, social studies, and literature classrooms. Skyler and Ben will partner in the coming year to create educational, constitutionally appropriate videos about religion for public school teachers.


BM: Skyler, you and I have both watched the 2016 election cycle with a great deal of trepidation, especially as we’ve seen a rise in hate crimes against minority religious communities in the United States. I’m incredibly impressed by your proactive response to this religious bigotry at the local level through your Meet the Neighbors (MTN) video series in Spokane. Can you tell me a bit more about your original vision for the video series?

SO: Hey Ben! Thanks so much! It’s been amazing to see the community come together and get excited about being a part of MTN. When we first started this project, I was driven by a desire to be a part of a community where our Muslim neighbors do not feel the need to protect their mosque with barbed wire, and where our Jewish neighbors do not find it necessary to establish a police presence at their synagogue during every service. This past election cycle has deeply affected my local community in very tangible ways. Just this year we’ve seen people desecrate a local church because of its advocacy for refugees, vandalize a local gurdwara, and threaten an armed protest of our local mosque. I think this is why your work is so important: religious literacy is something we as a country need to take seriously.

BM: That’s right, but it’s our work. While you cultivate religious literacy in Spokane through adult outreach, I’ve been working with teachers in the Chicagoland area to create lessons about religion for high school students. We’re guided by the premise that religious literacy is a civic competency. The United States is a highly religiously diverse nation, and if we are to productively engage with one another — and cast votes that affect the quality of religious freedom in this country — we need to understand religion’s influence in society and in the lives of our neighbors, whether we ourselves are religious or not. This is a tall order, though, given the lack of religious literacy education in American public schools. I’m curious, did you learn about religion in school?

SO: Not too much, actually. I recall a homework assignment in the sixth grade that was meant to introduce me to Islam. While we were learning about sub-Saharan Africa, our teacher gave us a drawing of a Muslim woman saying “Salaam!” — and that was it. I think many people have had similar experiences in public school classrooms. It wasn’t until college that I really began to have more opportunities to encounter religion in the classroom in an accurate and respectful way, and not tied to what was seen on CNN. Having the option to be in a college class focused on learning about religions in a more complex way — what people believe, how they practice, how they form community — was very different from how I first encountered Islam. It’s funny, when I run into people who have seen our videos and attended one of our events, they say that they wish schools provided more opportunities to learn about religions in real depth. I wonder, though, if religious literacy education in school, no matter how rich and nuanced, is sufficient?

BM: I don’t think it is, and I say that as a big advocate for religious literacy education. And here’s why: constitutionally appropriate religious literacy education in public schools is an analytic exercise that should focus on helping students understand how individuals and communities construct their own religious identities and enact those in the world. Public school teachers should not guide students to evaluate specific religious expressions as good or bad, except perhaps when religious groups advocate explicitly for violence against civilians. In a public school, we can follow Dr. Charles Haynes’s advice to teach students to affirm the civic responsibility to respect and safeguard the rights of religious minorities, but we should leave it to our communities — not the long arm of the state — to articulate and inculcate a strong ethic of inter-religious cooperation. And that’s why I think MTN is so important. It is a community-led project that picks up where public school religious literacy education ends: as a private citizen, you are able to work with communities to practice defining inter-religious cooperation from the depths of specific religious traditions.

SO: Yes, but this isn’t without its challenges. I know it can be difficult not only to provide a seat at the table for people unwilling or unable to have an inter-religious encounter, but also to ensure that those who are already seated don’t leave. It’s really tough sometimes.

I know we definitely hit speed bumps along the way working with our local religious communities in producing the MTN videos. Some communities eyed the project with suspicion, thinking that the project would only tokenize their community or exacerbate stereotypes, and others took issue with filming sacred rituals and services. It was really tough, and I found myself sticking my foot in my mouth a lot! Once I showed my neighbors that I genuinely wanted to learn and make new friends through this project, everything fell into place. I learned along the way that checking my white male privilege at the door and not advocating a specific agenda put many at ease.

MTN is successful because it provides religious communities a platform to share what’s important to them — not the story I want, or expect them to share — but their story. This has made our community stronger because we are able to have healthy disagreements in a safe space and yet still find common ground in the simple fact that we need to learn how to live together here in Spokane. And I think that’s what people are looking for: to be themselves while being part of something greater. Our stories make up a collective snapshot of who we are here and now.

BM: That’s critical isn’t it, not pushing a pre-written narrative of inter-religious cooperation or religious literacy education. I’ve learned how critical it is to make room for students especially to play an active role in generating the questions about religion that they will then use to guide classroom learning. Professor Diane Moore at Harvard Divinity School argues convincingly for this student-led approach in her book Overcoming Religious Illiteracy, though of course teachers will need to facilitate discussion properly and provide vetted reading materials — just as you play a facilitative role in the MTN videos. On the education end, I encourage teachers to take advantage of professional development opportunities provided by the Religious Freedom Center, Tanenbaum, or Generation Global so that they can improve their facilitative skills and content knowledge about religion and religious liberty. How can community members strengthen inter-religious engagement at the local level, outside of schools?

SO:  There aren’t too many formal resources out there, but the Religious Freedom Center’s programs are a great place to start. There’s also some great resources like free classes offered online through HarvardX and a really neat mapping project with great tools and case studies that can be found at the Pluralism Project. I also found it very helpful to take a trip to my local museum and local city archives to learn more about how religious communities played a role in the formation of my city. While these are great places to get started, nothing beats a visit to your local religious communities. Be honest about your interest in learning more. Your neighbors at local mosque, synagogue, churches, temples, gurdwaras and more will have great ideas about where to find more information about their religious traditions, and many of them will be happy to brainstorm ways to build bridges between communities.


MarcusBenjamin P. Marcus is a Research Fellow with the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute, where he examines the intersection of religious literacy and identity formation and perception in the United States. He has developed religious literacy training programs for public schools, universities, the U.S. State Department, and private foundations. Marcus is a contributing author in the forthcoming Oxford Handbook on Religion and American Education, where he writes about the importance of religious literacy education. Marcus earned an MTS with a concentration in Religion, Ethics, and Politics as a Presidential Scholar at Harvard Divinity School. He studied religion at the University of Cambridge and Brown University, where he graduated magna cum laude.


OberstSkyler Oberst began working with civic leaders to create a more pluralistic community in the greater Spokane area after witnessing a religiously motivated act of hate. He has spoken internationally, as well as at the White House on the power of Interfaith Work on College Campuses, contributed to the Millennial Values project at the Berkeley Center at Georgetown University, and has been a research associate mapping out religious landscape of the Inland Northwest at the Pluralism Project at Harvard University. He currently serves as an Ambassador to the Parliament of World’s Religions, a Human Rights Commissioner for the City of Spokane, the vice president of the Board of Trustees for Spokane Faith & Values, and is president of the Spokane Interfaith Council.

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