Have a Little Faith

Religion, Democracy, and the American Public School

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Benjamin Justice, Colin Macleod
History and Philosophy of Education Series
  • Chicago, IL: 
    University of Chicago Press
    , November
     192 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Last week I ran into a friend dropping his son off for a Travel CYO [Catholic Youth Organization] basketball game at the local public school gym. Curious, I asked, “Doesn’t the school mind that it’s a CYO team?” He shook his head with understanding. “Surprisingly no…and it’s been great. The gym is so much nicer than St. Christopher’s.” This gym sharing, I imagined, had the potential to rankle certain attentive taxpayers. Nevertheless, I could also see how the arrangement benefitted the children and ultimately the community. When these players age out of Travel CYO, they will likely take their talent to the only high school in our community, the public one, where they’d contribute their basketball skills to adoring fans, regardless of religion, for four more years.

After reading Benjamin Justice and Colin Macleod’s astute book, Have A Little Faith: Religion, Democracy, and the American Public School, I have a greater appreciation for the historical contingency of arrangements like shared gym use by a religious group and a public institution. Justice, a professor of history and education, and MacLeod, a professor of law and philosophy, combine their notable expertise to offer a historical and practical treatment of American encounters and conflicts on issues of public education and religion from the Puritans to the modern day. They argue that education in a democratic society should not avoid controversial issues such as religion, rather, schools are the exact place where educators, families, and policy makers should begin the process of developing reasonably minded citizens who can put aside differences of opinion and faith, and respectfully determine acceptable policies for a pluralistic society.

Have a Little Faith includes a detailed introduction and six elucidative chapters on the history and future of religion and public education. In the first chapter, Justice and MacLeod provide an introduction to democratic theory and examine how the fundamentals of public reason provide valuable criteria for evaluating, and ideally resolving, debates on religion and education. The distinct expectations of various stakeholders: parents, children, and society are also considered. The next four chapters turn toward history and trace significant shifts in educational theory and practice in the United States as well as the Supreme Court’s interpretations of religious matters as they relate to schools. Catholic concerns figure prominently in the history along with other cultural minorities—Jehovah’s Witnesses, atheists, and Jews—whose beliefs and objectives often fall outside of majoritarian priorities. The authors consider the legitimacy and justifications of several historical policies to maintain the link between their philosophical and historical approaches. In the final chapter, the authors examine contemporary cases such as cheerleaders using biblical passages to inspire football players, religious students donning provocative and offensive slogans about Muslims on their t-shirts, and choice programs such as vouchers and charter schools, which sometimes use public funds to promote decidedly undemocratic and non-inclusive curriculums. After weighing the options, the authors determine that school choice is fraught with too many problems. The United States would be better off figuring out how to use discussions of religion in public schools as opportunities for civic discourse and the development of public reasoning skills among students than relinquishing schools to the free-market or sectarian interests.

Have a Little Faith is a well-crafted study, which will attract a wide audience from upper-level undergraduates and graduate students to professionals in educational administration. Students will appreciate the broad narrative scope, which includes brief analyses of various educational leaders and practices as well as Supreme Court cases regarding religion and education. Likewise, practitioners will profit from the detailed discussion of political philosophy in evaluating and addressing educational disputes. The historian in me would have been delighted to read more fulsome examinations of cases such as Wisconsin v. Yoder and Lemon v. Kurtzman as well as a few more footnotes. Nevertheless, I appreciate the scholarly efficiency employed by the authors. Interested readers, like myself, will use this succinct book as a stepping off point for further historical and philosophical inquiry and even as a practical guide for approaching issues related to public education and religion in America.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sally Dwyer-McNulty is professor of history at Marist College.

Date of Review: 
February 20, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Benjamin Justice is Associate Professor at the Rutgers Graduate School of Education. He is the editor of The Founding Fathers, Education, and the Great Contest and author of The War That Wasn’t: Religious Conflict and Compromise in the Common Schools of New York State, 1865-1900.

Colin Macleod is associate professor of philosophy and law at the University of Victoria. He is the author, editor, or coeditor of several books, including Liberalism, Justice, and Markets and The Nature of Children’s Well-Being.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.