Education Religion in Elementary and Secondary Education in the United States
Diane L. Moore, Lauren R. Kerby
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 February 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0198


The history of religion and education in what constitutes the modern United States is largely a story of Protestant Christian hegemony. From the influence of Puritans, Baptists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Moravians, Lutherans, and Quakers in the colonial era, to the establishment of the common school movement in the 19th century, to the so-called culture wars of the past fifty years, the cultural and political influence of Protestant Christianity has informed and shaped trends in education for over four centuries. The religion clauses of the First Amendment (1791) are likewise pivotal to understanding the unfolding history of religion and education in the United States: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” At the time, this was a compromise that allowed individual states to maintain an established religion without the imposition of the federal government, while also protecting the rights of individuals to practice their religions freely; these clauses only began to apply to the states after the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868. The interpretation of the religion clauses has varied over the course of the nation’s history, both in public policy and in practice in differing social and cultural contexts. In the middle of the 19th century, the diversity of religious expressions among Protestants and the rise of Roman Catholicism among immigrant populations inspired Horace Mann of Massachusetts to advocate for “common schools,” the precursor to the contemporary public school system. Like public schools today, common schools were tax-supported and intended to promote common American public ideals among immigrants and US-born citizens, but they displayed a Protestant ecumenism that Roman Catholics found especially problematic. In spite of these and related tensions, Protestant hegemony in schools was legally sanctioned for over a century until two pivotal Supreme Court cases in the 1960s (Engel v. Vitale and Abington v. Schempp, both cited under Law and Religion in Education) declared that daily practices of educator-led Bible readings and the recitation of ecumenical (Protestant) Christian prayer were unconstitutional. These rulings sparked a backlash that helped shape what has become known as the “culture wars” that remain active today. The legacy of Protestant hegemony still lingers, however, in both what is taught about religion in public schools and how it is taught. The history of religion and education in the United States is thus a history of challenges regarding what constitutes “American values” and how the religion clauses of the First Amendment should be interpreted. The cultural and political hegemony of Protestant Christianity is a critical narrative thread in understanding this history and its contemporary manifestations.

Historical Overviews

Recent histories of religion and education in the United States serve as genealogies of today’s debates about the proper relationship of religion and government. Earlier works like Nord 1995 emphasized the need for schools to “take religion seriously” because it matters in the world. Following the terror attacks of 11 September 2001, arguments for the value of education about religion shifted to focus more on how it can mediate conflict, as seen in Feldman 2005 and Fraser 2016. Prothero 2007 provides a historical account of how Americans came to be largely ignorant of religion, despite the close relationship of religion and education, and argues that citizenship requires religious literacy. Justice and Macleod 2016 looks at the history of religion and education in order to make recommendations for how to resolve contemporary legal debates. The recommended essays in Dinham and Francis 2015 offer the most concise introduction to the history of religion and education in the United States, and to how religion can be taught nondevotionally.

  • Dinham, Adam, and Matthew Francis, eds. 2015. Religious literacy in policy and practice. Bristol, UK: Policy.

    While this volume primarily focuses on the United Kingdom, two essays discuss religious literacy education in the United States. Diane Moore’s essay presents her methodological assumptions and analytical frameworks for religious literacy, crystallizing key principles from her other work. Stephen Prothero and Lauren Kerby’s essay provides a brief history of religion and education in the United States, followed by a survey of current American efforts to promote religious literacy.

  • Feldman, Noah. 2005. Divided by God: America’s church-state problemand what we should do about it. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

    Feldman argues that most Americans misunderstand the principle of “separation of church and state” and offers a corrective reading of its history. His goal is to bridge the sharp divide between “values evangelicals” and “legal secularists” about what role religion should play in government by showing the fluidity of that role over time.

  • Fraser, James W. 2016. Between church and state: Religion and public education in a multicultural America. 2d ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.

    Fraser appeals to history to mediate the polarized 21st-century debate over the place of religion in American public schools. He chronicles how the function of public schools has changed as the religious demographics of the nation have changed. Additionally, he devotes chapters to African American slave and free communities and to Native American communities, looking at how religion and education worked together to enable or resist oppression. This is the best introductory text for undergraduates.

  • Justice, Benjamin, and Colin M. Macleod. 2016. Have a little faith: Religion, democracy, and the American public school. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Justice and Macleod survey the history of American religion and education from the Founding Fathers to the 21st century, using the lens of contemporary democratic theory to discuss how religion has been implicated in controversies in public schools. They argue that schools must teach students “public reason” and find a middle course between ignoring religion and promoting exclusive religious claims, so as to train students for citizenship in a religiously diverse society.

  • Nord, Warren A. 1995. Religion and American education: Rethinking a national dilemma. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press.

    In one of the earliest works to identify the problem that religion was (and is) often omitted from American students’ education, Nord argues that schools must “take religion seriously.” He argues that secularization has created the illusion that religion is a thing of the past, and proposes that religious and secular ways of thinking be taught together so that students can hear all voices in American public discourse.

  • Prothero, Stephen. 2007. Religious literacy: What every American needs to knowand doesn’t. San Francisco: HarperCollins.

    Prothero argues that Americans need to be religiously literate in order to be good citizens of a society in which religion matters. He traces Americans’ descent into religious illiteracy from the colonial period to the 21st century, then proposes a solution: two required high school courses, one on world religions and one on the Bible. Prothero also includes a “Dictionary of Religious Literacy” that defines key terms and a religious literacy quiz and answer key.

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