There are flashbulb memories in every teacher’s career that stand out, moments in the classroom that cannot and will not ever be forgotten. One such moment for me happened in the fall of 1997. I remember it like it was yesterday. Class had ended and the bell had just rung and students were up and out of their desks heading for the door. But one student slowly and hesitantly moved her way to my desk. Her name was Angel.
Angel was a seventeen year old junior with brown eyes and dark brown hair. Academically she was an average student. She was not in special education, nor was she was on an IEP (Individual Education Plan), and she had no case worker and no learning disability – she was a “typical” student.
As she approached my desk I could sense there was an issue about to unfold. She looked a little apprehensive and nervous. At the time I did not know her name, but I would soon never forget it.
Upon reaching the front of my desk she put her books down and sheepishly said, “Mr. Morrison, I have a question.” “Let’s hear,” I replied warmly. She glanced behind her and scanned the room as if wanting to make sure no other students were in earshot, and then turned to me and said, “I don’t know anything about religion and I’m a little embarrassed to ask this.” I smiled and assured her that I welcomed all questions. An uneasy smile spread across her face and I’m pretty sure she was blushing when she asked me a question I will never forget: “Is Jesus Dead?”
The question caught me off guard. It was apparent that she was not asking a metaphorical question pertaining to resurrection theology. She literally wanted to know if Jesus was dead or alive in the literal sense. I paused briefly to process her question. “Wow!” I thought to myself. “Here is a young lady living in a small Minnesota town who does not know if Jesus is dead. How can this be?”
“He’s dead.” I answered calmly and objectively, trying to not act overly surprised. “He died nearly two thousand years ago.” “Okay,” she replied. “I was not sure. I don’t know anything about religion,” she explained. “I have never been to church, my parents have never been to church, and none of my friends go to church, so I really don’t know anything about all this stuff.”
“Well then,” I said with a warm smile, “you’re in the right class.”
“I know!” she exclaimed laughing. “I’m really looking forward to it!”
As she headed for the door and out into the hallway I remember feeling dumbstruck by how odd it was that a kid her age, living in Minnesota, would not know if Jesus was alive. Or was it odd? I remember my daughter once asked me if Easter was when Santa Clause was nailed to the cross. I remember laughing. The image of a crucified Santa with elves and reindeer at the foot of the cross weeping uncontrollably was so outrageous I had to laugh! My daughter was clearly ignorant and did not understand Jesus’ connection to Easter and Christmas. However, she was only four years-old at the time. Her naive question was understandable, especially given the fact that images of Santa and magical bunnies outnumber images of Jesus a gazillion-to-one in the media and marketing frenzy of the holiday seasons. As a culture we can easily forgive a four year-old for not knowing the facts about Jesus, Christmas, and Easter. But as a culture can we forgive ourselves when a born-and-raised-in-America high school student does not know if Jesus is a living human being? Obviously we should not fault Angel for being ignorant; her parents, friends, and elementary school teachers taught her nothing about religion. The fault lies with the American educational system and its almost total reluctance to teach about religion.
In 2010 Pew Forum conducted a major survey showing that Americans, for the most part, are the most religiously illiterate people among the industrialized nations. It is a well-known fact that in Europe – and every foreign exchange student I have had in class will attest to this – religion is a standard part of elementary and high school education, and for good reason. Historically and politically, religion has proven itself to be a life-shaping force that influences personal choices and public policy around the world, as well as international relationships. “Those who say religion has nothing to do with politics,” said Gandhi, “do not know what religion is.”
If 9-11 and the mass suicide by the followers of Reverend Jim Jones have taught us anything it has taught us that religion can miscarriage in a deadly and horrific way. To not teach our children about the good, the bad, and the potentially dangerous aspects of religion is to ensure the growth of ignorance and all the dangers that ignorance can breed. Obviously a student like Angel leaving high school with no knowledge of religion does not pose an immediate or automatic threat to civility or to her personal safety; children can be raised to be community-minded and moralistic in the absence of any kind of traditional religious doctrine. However, if public schools do not educate children about religion others may try. The harsh reality of life tells us that religious cults and extremist groups seek out the young and ignorant to exploit, recruit, and indoctrinate with their dogma. Fanatical extremist groups are not limited to just the Mideast. They are here in America as well. And if public schools do not teach about religion and explain the inherent pros and cons, who will? The churches, mosques, temples, and synagogues can only do so much with those who voluntarily come through their doors, and even then there is no guarantee that they will not preach and teach extremist views that turn children into suicide bombers and gay-bashing hate mongers.
American public schools have a moral obligation to protect children and arm them with knowledge that will help them survive and thrive in the real world. Knowledge about religion should be a top priority, but it is not (for reasons I will address in later posts). If, as a nation, we are willing to spends millions and millions of dollars in teacher salaries to ensure that children know how to play badminton and keep score in bowling (as is done in physical education), we should be able to find the money, resources, and resolve to ensure that our children leave high school knowing what religion is and what it is not. Can we really afford to become a country of “Angels”?