The Oxford Handbook of Religion and American Education

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Michael D. Waggoner, Nathan C. Walker
Oxford Handbooks
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , August
     512 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


To write about religion in America is to write about plurality. The same is true of American education. Thus, Michael D. Waggoner and Nathan C. Walker, editors of The Oxford Handbook of Religion and American Education, have accomplished an impressive feat by bringing order to this topic without sacrificing scope. Even more impressive is the interdisciplinary nature of the book. In addition to the fields of religion and education, the Handbook is also of interest to the fields of history, sociology, and law—and to both academics and practitioners. Education concerns the transmission not only of knowledge but also of values, and religion is a source of both for many Americans. Therefore, this book is useful to almost all scholars of the humanities, social sciences, or legal studies—regardless of their specific areas of interest. These fields concern themselves with the articulation and transmission of norms for personal and social conduct, and would find that this study of the role of religion in both formal and informal education clarifies our understanding of how this transmission occurs in American life. 

This volume can be thought of as a map or guidebook to the places where religion and American education intersect: It examines the legal issues and best practices for teaching about and creating space for religious practice in public education settings. It raises philosophical debates over how to educate a religiously diverse population for citizenship in a religiously diverse world. It explores the nature of private religious instruction. It provides the background context of how American history has created the current landscape and explores what that history might have to teach us. And it covers these topics with works spanning from kindergarten through graduate school.

The Handbook opens with a series of six chapters that explore frameworks for contemplating the interplay between religion and education in America: the private/public divide, secularism, pluralism, religious literacy, religious liberty, and democracy. Jonathon Kahn’s chapter on the concept of secularism is particularly thought-provoking. The balance of the book is divided into four subsections of chapters covering topics to which all of these concepts can be applied. One section examines the role of education in forming faith throughout the span of one’s life. Two additional sections explore religion in K-12 education—one examines faith-based educational approaches, while the other looks at the role of religion in public schools. A final section concerns the role of religion in various types of American higher education and at various locations in the college experience. 

Chapter authors hail from a variety of backgrounds, religious to secular, and from a variety of disciplines. This diversity models the engaged pluralism that is the closest the Handbook comes to a unified thesis. Not all authors agree, but all are in useful conversation. The consensus that emerges from the book is that Americans are best served when teachers don’t avoid the topic of religion, and instead include instruction about a variety of religions in a way that simultaneously respects students’ individual perspectives. A similar consensus emerges that the best education enables students to integrate questions about the ultimate meaning and purpose of their lives with the information they are learning—but in such a way that teachers in a public-school setting do not impose their own personal frameworks. Due to the difficulty in achieving this balance, the authors debate a range of pitfalls and best practices.

Similar to every edited volume, the Handbook is stronger in some areas than others. It contains disproportionate coverage of the varieties of Christianity over other American religions. However, it includes substantial consideration of Jewish and Muslim education in the United States—noteworthy here are Janet Bordelon’s chapter on diverse religious responses to the privatization of education and the multi-authored chapter on private religious schools. The book also features multiple chapters that explore the nature of American religious pluralism. In part due to its concern with the question of public vs. private education, the book excels at the question of how class and access to resources affect the schooling choices Americans make and how these choices intersect with religious education. 

The Handbook is mixed in its treatment of gender and race. Some chapters weave consideration of Americans’ gendered experiences into their topic quite well—standouts include Milton Gaither’s chapter on homeschooling and Alyssa Rockenback and Julie Park’s chapter on the religion and spirituality of college students—while others ignore it. It was difficult to find chapters to highlight that delve extensively into the intersection of race, religion, and education, although many touch on the issue, especially as it relates to immigrant populations and religious pluralism. The volume also lacks substantial comparison with other countries’ approaches to the intersection of religion and education.

Having said that, the breadth of the book remains impressive. To take just the topic of higher education: Want to know what a CCCU (Council for Christian Colleges & Universities) institution is and how it is similar to, and different from, other institutions of higher education? There’s a chapter for that. Do Catholic colleges share a common philosophy of education? What are the range of ways that religion is integrated into the classroom and co-curriculum of state universities? There are chapters for those as well. To expand outward: What exactly are the legal requirements for how public-school teachers speak about religion? Who can use public-school facilities? In what ways can federal funds support private religious education? What is the appeal of homeschooling? How did secular education become an ideal? Is there a potential difference between moral education, spiritual education, and religious education? The Handbook answers all these questions and more, and I recommend it highly.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Andrea L. Turpin is Associate Professor of History at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She is the author of A New Moral Vision: Gender, Religion, and the Changing Purposes of American Higher Education, 1837-1917.

Date of Review: 
February 22, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael D. Waggoner is Professor of Higher Education at the University of Northern Iowa and editor of the journal Religion & Education and the book series Routledge Research in Religion and Education. His recent books include Sacred and Secular Tensions in Higher Education and Religion in the Public Schools. 

Nathan C. Walker is the Executive Director of 1791 Delegates, a consortium of constitutional and human rights experts who address issues of religion and public life. His recent books include Whose God Rules?: Is the United States a Secular Nation or a Theolegal Democracy? and Cultivating Empathy: The Worth and Dignity of Every Person--Without Exception.


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