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President Heafner's Message: "How Might NCSS Lead in Achieving the Aims of the National Summit on Religion and Education?"

In early 2020, the Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum Institute in Washington, DC, and National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) released a white paper from the September 27, 2019 convening of a National Summit on Religion and Education. NCSS was a co-sponsor and co-convener of the Summit, which brought together experts and leaders in the fields of education, religious studies, social studies, and English language arts. As NCSS President, I had the opportunity to offer opening remarks and to lead small group discussions examining the past, present and future of K-12 religious studies education in the United States. In this issue of TSSP, I share with you some of my remarks and takeaways from the discussion. I also highlight the outcomes of the National Summit on Religion and Education and the implications for NCSS. 

The Summit sought not only to understand the state of religious studies in education but also to explore how educators are teaching about religion and what stakeholders might do to elevate religious studies in American public schools. The convening of the Summit aligns with NCSS’s longstanding commitment to teaching about religion in PK-12 schools. NCSS contends that religion is an essential part of the social studies curriculum in ways that are constitutionally and academically sound. For NCSS, “The study of religion from an academic, non-devotional perspective in primary, middle, and secondary school is critical for decreasing religious illiteracy and the bigotry and prejudice it fuels.” Deep-seated ignorance and fear can lead to unfair, disrespectful decisions of public life in a democracy; moreover, ignorance and fear lead to hate and violence. Thus, teaching about religion and religious literacy matters because both are essential to understanding humanity and essential knowledge for peaceful co-existence in a pluralistic society. As Associate Justice Tom Clark argued in Abington v. Schempp (1963), “[I]t might well be said that one's education is not complete without a study of comparative religions or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization.”1

I began my remarks at the National Summit on Religion and Education by centering the day’s conversations with a brief response to questions:

  1. Why is teaching about religion important to NCSS? 
  2. Why have we made minimal progress in changing the role of religious studies in PK-12 public schools? 
  3. Why is teaching about religion important?

Why is teaching about religion important to NCSS? 

Since the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision, NCSS has taken up the mantle of guiding educators in understanding the role of religion in social studies. In 1988, NCSS affirmed that the study of religion is essential to understanding the nation and the world.  

Because religion plays a significant role in history and society, study about religion is essential to understanding both the nation and the world. The omission of facts about religion can give students the false impression that the religious life of humankind is insignificant or unimportant. Failure to understand even the basic symbols, practices, and concepts of the various religions makes much of history, literature, art, and contemporary life unintelligible.2

Between the 1980s to 2000s, NCSS and its affiliates contributed to the development of state standards, which included the study of religion. NCSS formalized the role of religion in the K-12 social studies curriculum in 1994 with the publication of the first national curriculum standards, The Ten Thematic Strands of the Social Studies. These standards defined the aim of social studies as the promotion of civic competence and called upon the disciplinary knowledge and reasoning from various subjects, including religion. 

In 2000, NCSS was part of a national initiative with the U.S. Department of Education to disseminate the guidelines for teaching about religion. These included expectations for American schools to: 

  • approach teaching about religion as academic, not devotional.
  • strive for student awareness of religions, but do not press for student acceptance of any religion.
  • study about religion, not the practice of religion.
  • expose students to a diversity of religious views without imposing any particular view.
  • educate about all religions; do not promote or denigrate any religion.
  • inform students about religious beliefs, but do not seek to conform students to any particular belief.3

In 2014 NCSS issued a position statement on the Study About Religions in the Social Studies Curriculum, “affirming that study about religions should be an essential part of the social studies curriculum,” and that knowledge about religions “is necessary for effective and engaged citizenship in a diverse nation and world.” NCSS emphasized that schools have a civic and educational responsibility to include robust study about religions in the social studies curriculum. NCSS endorses religious literacy to dispel stereotypes, promote cross-cultural understanding, and encourage respect for the rights of others to religious liberty. NCSS strongly supports the inclusion of study about religions as a critical knowledge for informed civic action.

In 2017, NCSS published the Religious Studies Companion Document for the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework. In reaffirming its longstanding position, NCSS states that religion is essential and foundational to the social studies curriculum in ways that are constitutionally and academically sound. For NCSS, “the study of religion from an academic, non-devotional perspective in primary, middle, and secondary school is critical for decreasing religious illiteracy and the bigotry and prejudice it fuels.” At the end of the same year, NCSS released the National Standards for the Preparation of Social Studies Teachers (2018). Although religious studies were not named as one of the content domains or disciplines in Standard 1. Candidates demonstrate knowledge of social studies disciplines4, religion was referenced with regard to individual and diverse identities of learners (see Standard 4. Social Studies Learners and Learning).  

In 2019, NCSS published the bulletin edited by Charles Haynes, Teaching about Religion in the Social Studies Classroom. In the introduction, Haynes notes that “ignorance and fear breed hate and violence. Religious literacy matters because peaceful co-existence and religious freedom matter.” He continues, “the historic failure to get religion right in public education…” resulted in “de-facto established religious studies in America—dominated by the ethos and practices of schools.” Yet, despite educational efforts by NCSS and others to promote teaching about religion, policymakers, administrators, and teachers, continue to avoid religion. Religion in schools largely remains a surface-level topic without deep understanding, critical dialogue or inquiry.  

Why have we made minimal progress in changing the role of religious studies in PK-12 schools?

Before I attempt to answer this, let me share a story. A few weeks ago, I was sitting in a service station getting my brakes replaced. Knowing I would be waiting for several hours, I found the only seat near an electrical outlet. While I hoped this would be productive work time, the man who sat next to me, who was also getting his brakes replaced, was seeking an opportunity to talk. After learning about the man’s job (he’s an accountant) and why he moved to North Carolina (he was a government contractor), he shared his story of how he decided to send his son to a Christian school. He explained that when he moved to North Carolina, school districts were integrating schools from segregated communities through busing. Rather than attending the affluent White school in their neighborhood, his son was to be bused to an adjacent city to attend an intercity Black school. The man, confessing his prejudice and naivete in his younger years, also commented that this was the best decision he had made for his son. He went on to explain that his son is a highly successful pediatrician and attributed his son’s success to his faith-based schooling. Ironically, his son is a doctor in the same practice where I take my children. Having established this personal connection, he leaned in and said, “Did you know they [referring to both teachers and students] can’t have a Bible in schools? And, they can’t even pray in schools? That’s a problem. Just look at our coins. These say ‘in God we trust’ and even our Pledge [of Allegiance] acknowledges we are ‘one Nation Under God.’ It’s [referring to Protestant religion] part of our country’s foundation from the beginning of this nation. Even our Founding Fathers were believers.”  

For most people in the Bible Belt, this is an invitation to have a conversation about faith; however, I chose to have a conversation about history and religion. I responded, “did you know that the phrase ‘Under God’ wasn’t added to the Pledge of Allegiance until June 14, 1954? President Dwight D. Eisenhower, having been inspired by a sermon titled, A New Birth of Freedom in February 1954, embraced Reverend and Dr. George MacPherson Docherty’s message that “there was something missing in this Pledge…. The characteristic and definitive factor in the ‘American Way of Life”. Docherty eloquently argued that the missing words were “Under God” based on the threat of tyranny of Russia and that one should distinguish one nation’s oath of loyalty from another. Docherty drew a distinction between the USSR and the USA, claiming the godlessness of Communism and the American belief in a deity. In just four months after hearing Docherty’s sermon, the House and Senate (by unanimous vote) approved the law adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. Questions about church-state separation or religious freedom were not voiced on either the House or the Senate floors. Eisenhower’s presidency also established the National Prayer Breakfast and replaced “E Pluribus Unum” with “In God We Trust” as our national motto. Religion in 1950’s America suddenly became fashionable and more socially respective, if less spiritually intense. In an era of heightening tensions, Americans were seeking spiritual, not just patriotic, guidance from the government, marking this era as a time of American civil religion. We discussed the civic consequences of religion and misperceptions that emerge from a lack of knowledge. Cognitive scientists draw the distinction between factual knowledge and process knowledge and argue that one cannot engage in the process of critical thinking without having something to think critically about. When educational professionals avoid teaching about religion, they do a disservice to students and their civic life development. 

In 2013, I and colleagues published in Social Education on the history of the Pledge of Allegiance. I’m sure, at this point, my new friend may have thought he should have sat elsewhere. Yet, this is not the end of the story. I went on to explain that this period in American history was also marked by Supreme Court decisions, such as McCollum v. BOE (1948), Zorach v. Clauson (1952), Engle v. Vitale (1962), and Abington Township School District v. Schempp (1963) which affirmed that schools many not endorse or teach religion but this did not preclude academic pursuit of religion. The Court’s decisions consistently upheld the importance of students’ religious free exercise while prohibiting the “establishment” of religion in the classroom. I talked about the Constitution and the First Freedom—religious liberty. I explained the distinction between teaching about religion and teaching religion. Clarifying that teaching religious studies is a critical part of understanding the human experience and religions are intricately woven into the fabric of identity, society, and culture, I stated that the study about religion is a fundamental education and is a critical component of social studies curriculum. Given that I work with preservice and in-service teachers, who do teach about religion, I clarified their rights and the rights of public-school children. I went on to discuss the complexity of religions and religious practices. Our conversation continued for the duration of our shared service station time. As we said our goodbyes, l handed him my NCSS business card.  

  • I share this story first because stories are cognitively privileged and second because it reveals many of the perpetuated myths about religion and education, particularly PK-12 public education, as well as myths held by those inside and outside educational systems. As a teacher educator, I find far too frequently that I am in the business of myth-busting, just like I did in the conversation I described. In my work, I consistently encounter the following myths and misrepresentations:  
  • Myth 1. U.S. Supreme Court banished all religion from public schools.
  • Myth 2. Neutrality of religion and education—Avoid the former to ensure the latter.
  • Myth 3. Oversimplification of religion at the expense of diversity within religions
  • Myth 4. Religion is practiced in a vacuum 
  • Myth 5. Culture and religion are mutually exclusive 
  • Myth 6. Religions are static and compartmentalized—the worksheet syndrome in which all religions fit into comparative boxes (e.g. —World religions Foldables with sacred text, founders, beliefs, practices, holidays, and etc.) 

Why do these myths persist? Why do many educators, administrators, school boards, and others continue to avoid teaching religious studies or diminish teaching about religion in the social studies curriculum? What is the relation of these myths to society?  

Perhaps the issue resides in how we communicate importance. In the September 2019 issue of Social Education, Justine Ellis and Ben Marcus argue that much dialogue has occurred around the what and the how of religious studies, but little attention has been given to the why. From the field of cognitive psychologists, understanding the why behind instructional decision-making is an essential part of learning praxis and transference. As Ellis and Marcus contend, we need to not only address the what and how of teaching about religion in social studies, but we must also articulate why teaching about religion matters.  

Why is teaching about religion important? Let me respond first with how NCSS would respond based on a recent statement.

On August 16, 2019, NCSS issued A Response to Mass Shootings from NCSS. “Mass shootings constitute new incarnations of systemic issues that plague the United States. The severity and prevalence of the crisis in the United States is beyond compare…. We must confront the ideologies with which the mass shooters identify, including White supremacy and xenophobia,” among others. NCSS notes that “social media platforms have contributed to the radicalization and amplification of extremist views.” Many of our national problems originate with misinformation or the lack thereof. Knowledge is power, but what we do with that knowledge matters more. We must safeguard the rights of all, including religious minorities. 

This is but one example of the need to promote religious studies as essential for critical civic literacy in U.S. public schools. The American Civil Liberties Union concedes that proper education is virtually impossible without understanding the role of religion and society. World religions are taught in social studies curriculum, but too often, the contradictions of beliefs inherent in religion are usually avoided. Neutrality conveys misrepresentations of history and false messages that religions are irrelevant to human existence. Religion can be uncomfortable, but discomfort does not justify avoidance or oversimplification. If we remove religion, it is not possible to understand the complex interplay of forces that shape our lives. Universal, absolute, ahistorical claims and truths– rests on assumptions and situated knowledge (e.g., all forms of inquiry are interpretations filtered through particular lenses). Greater political and social conflict exists because of unfamiliarity with fellow citizens of different religious backgrounds to confront and resolve disagreements about public issues. 

Why is teaching about religion important? I contend we have yet to formalize the answer as a field. I also wonder if a reason we struggle with why resides in the fact that we have focused far more on the how with limited attention to the what

I was discussing the Summit on religion and education with a colleague, Keith Barton at Indiana University, who recently gave a talk on how religions in Southeast Asia complicate U.S. teaching about religion, particularly the way educators typically try to fit all religions into comparable boxes (“holy book,” “founder,” “beliefs,” etc.) with clear boundaries. Keith explained, “These compartmentalized approaches don’t fit with Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Chinese Folk Religion, for a variety of reasons—boundaries aren’t always clear, people draw eclectically from different religions, there are not always sacred texts (or they aren’t as important as in the Abrahamic religions), belief may not be as important as practice, and there may be no “central” beliefs or practices that we can easily convey to students in a worksheet.” He suggested that “perhaps even more fundamental is that many religions, such as Chinese folk religion, the religion of over a billion people worldwide, is never included in texts or other materials in the U.S.” Thus, the challenge of teaching about religion, and in particular religions that American teachers are less familiar with, is that educators invariably distort them to fit their preconceptions. A cognitive scientist might argue that this is a natural human act to explain phenomena, and even misname things, based on our need to make connections to prior knowledge. However, if prior knowledge is limited to only lived experiences, how can we begin to understand differences in religions or move toward respect for the diversity of religious practices of others?  

What was the purpose of the Summit on Religion and Education? This Summit brought together various stakeholders and educational powerbrokers to lead with foresight, to seek to address the why of religion and education and to conceptualize what we should be doing. 

What are the outcomes of the National Summit on Religion and Education? The National Summit on Religion and Education’s discussion yielded eight action items. 

  1. Establish field cohesion among those who work at the intersection of religion and education in order to work more effectively and efficiently. 
  2. Conduct research, collect data and publish findings about current practices and impacts of religious studies education and professional development for K-12 educators. 
  3. Create and implement an outreach strategy for the field and existing resources in order to increase the number of educators and institutions committed to the study of religion. 
  4. Institutionalize policies that encourage and guide religious studies education and religious literacy for all educators. 
  5. Expand and strengthen preservice teacher education to increase attention to religious diversity and add religious studies for teachers in all content areas. 
  6. Expand and strengthen in-service teacher education about religious studies and religious diversity. 
  7. Organize a resource clearinghouse to collect existing and future high- quality curriculum and professional support/development opportunities.
  8. Engage face-to-face and online communities to nurture broad support for religious studies education within and beyond the traditional school day. 5 

As a key stakeholder in religious studies education, NCSS can play a critical role in responding to this call to action and in leading efforts to improve the state of religious studies in K-12 education. NCSS’s publications, standards and position statements are and continue to be a cornerstone for establishing pedagogical and curricular understanding of religion and education in American schools. For each call to action, I offer specific strategies and direction for NCSS.

NCSS successfully hosted a co-located conference with other professional organizations for the first time in 2019. The presence of specialized professional associations within the social studies, such as the National Council for Geographic Education (NCGE), increased the number and quality of content-focused sessions (e.g., geography, GIS, geographic thinking, GoogleEarth, etc.) This co-location model is a viable platform for addressing the call to Establish field cohesion and the priority task to merge the annual NCSS conference with the American Academy of Religion’s (AAR) annual conference. The NCSS Board of Directors is considering a proposal at the winter board meeting that would enable the association to proactively seek partners, like AAR, American Bar Association (ABA), and NCGE, to co-locate with NCSS for future annual conferences. The move toward a mega social studies conference could have significant implications for expanding dialogic and professional spaces for exploring the intersectionality of various disciplines, such as religious studies, law-related education, geography, civics, economics, history, and etc. The expanded conference offerings of the co-location model would also attend to the third call to action: Create and implement an outreach strategywhich prioritized the need to increase the number of religious studies presentations and panels at conferences to draw the attention of more and diverse audiences.

The exchange of ideas at professional conferences can continue into a 360 model whereby NCSS is a founding partner in creating an online coalition to disseminating guidelines for teaching about religion and why teaching about religion matters, to centralize access to trusted and reliable resources about religions, and to expand professional learning opportunities for preservice and in-service educators. This Religion and Education Coalition is a priority noted in the first call to action to Establish field cohesion and could also be the centralizing force for creating a resource clearinghouse for trusted materials for the academic study of religion—the seventh and eighth calls for action: Organize a resource clearinghouse, and Engage face-to-face and online communities.

Furthermore, the 360 professional learning model is already an approach that NCSS is leading in its mission to build capacity for high-quality social studies by providing leadership, services, and support to educators. NCSS offers webinars, podcasts, and journal article and book publications on teaching about religion, in addition to annual summer religious studies institutes. Here are recent, relevant professional learning opportunities provided by NCSS: “Teaching about Religion in a Polarized Age: Guidelines and Resources,” “Religious Freedom in Public Schools—Clarifying Controversies & Finding Common Ground,” and Teaching about Religion in the Social Studies Classroom. NCSS can continue its leadership by Expand[ing] and strengthen[ing] in-service teacher education as is recommended in the Summit’s sixth call to action. The inclusion of chapters on how to teach about religion with primary sources should be included in the forthcoming social studies methods textbooks for elementary and secondary social studies preservice educators to be published as an outcome of the NCSS Library of Congress grant.  

The second call to action to Conduct research, collect data and publish findings is an area that NCSS can contribute significantly. NCSS is not only the largest professional association of K-12 social studies educators, but it also has a sizable representation of scholars and researchers in the field of social studies education. The second call to action seeks the expertise of higher education faculty to respond to the need to develop an empirical understanding of teachers’ knowledge about religion and how they enact this knowledge in instructional practice in K-12 schools. Before any curricular or pedagogical changes can be recommended, baseline research needs to be established. The NCSS College and University Faculty Assembly can be an important partner in creating broad and deep awareness of the state of religion and education in American schools. Moreover, research examining the preparation of preservice educators in both religious studies coursework and pedagogy for teaching about religion is needed. Developing interdisciplinary research teams with scholars in religious studies and education would enhance findings from this work. Multidisciplinary research could also inform efforts for stakeholders to coalesce around a common understanding of the field of religious studies, a priority in the first call to action.

NCSS’s publication of the Religious Studies Companion Document to the C3 Framework (2017) occurred shortly before the release of the NCSS Standards for the Preparation of Teachers, which was published on January 1, 2018. The standards were written for the content domains of civics, economics, geography, history, and the social/behavioral sciences, which at the time of standards development were the only content areas included in the C3 Framework. Even though NCSS has had a longstanding commitment to religious studies in social studies, the teacher preparation standards did not include religious studies as one of the content disciplines recognized in preservice education coursework or content preparation. The addition of the Religious Studies Companion Document to the C3 Framework needs to be formally recognized in the teacher preparation standards, which is a priority identified in the Summit’s fourth and fifth calls for action: Institutionalize policies and Expand and strengthen in-service teacher education. The NCSS Board is working closely with the NCSS CAEP SPA Coordinator and writers of the standards to create a strategy to revise the NCSS Standards for the Preparation of Teachers. 

In summary, the aim of the National Summit on Religion and Education was to draw upon the expertise and knowledge of interdisciplinary stakeholders to strategize directions for the future of religious studies in K-12 education. NCSS can take a prominent role in leading efforts to achieve the eight recommendations that emerged and to uphold its commitment to religion as an essential part of the social studies curriculum.

In closing, I offer more questions as fodder for conversation and a call to action for all social studies professionals and for NCSS: 

  • What have we learned from efforts to educate the community and educational professionals about religion and religious studies?  
  • How do we come together to not only talk about religion but to also talk about the intersectionality of religion and public life (and taking account of international variation)? How do we have difficult conversations with people who are different? How do we teach about devotion? How does devotion unfold in a particular religion? 
  • What might teaching about religion and education look like in schools and our communities if we focused on the civic consequences of religion? What barriers or obstacles would need to be removed for teaching religious literacy?
  • How might stakeholders provide educators with a conceptual foundation without giving them all the answers but instead inspiring them to do really engaged inquiry? How might educators begin to recognize the tensions among assumptions – are these examples of diversity that are sanctioned within the religion? How are particular dynamics playing out? How might we ultimately lead students to ask where is religion, and how do we ferret it out?
  • How might we teach about the elements of religion that show up in civic life, and that (importantly) vary by both topic and religion? How might we message the civic and life importance of religion and education in a manner that changes the culture of schooling to embrace rather than avoid teaching about religion? 
  • As a society that privileges divisiveness and disagreement over consensus and tolerance, how might we empower educators—working, living, and educating in a pluralistic society—with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to promote civil and critical dialogue, civility and inclusion, religious freedom, and religious liberty in the classroom and beyond? 



  1. Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963).
  2. "Religion in the Public School Curriculum: Questions and Answers" was first published in 1988 and disseminated widely by NCSS and other sponsoring organizations. The full document may be found at
  3. Based on guidelines originally published by the Public Education Religion Studies Center at Wright State University. The complete text of "A Teacher's Guide to Religion in the Public Schools" may be found at For all consensus guidelines on religion in public schools, see: Charles C. Haynes and Oliver Thomas, Finding Common Ground: A First Amendment Guide to Religion and Public Schools (Nashville, Tenn.: First Amendment Center, 2007).  
  4. Disciplines named in Standard 1 are civics, economics, geography, history, and the social/behavioral sciences. See