Blog: Teaching about our first freedom

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

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At this critical moment in our history, educating students about the principles of religious liberty is a matter of great urgency. The United States is now the most religiously diverse society in the world and, among developed nations, one of the most religious. At issue is a simple, but profound question that runs through the modern experience: How do we live with our deepest differences?

The answer lies first and foremost in religious liberty, or freedom of conscience, which is a fundamental and inalienable right for people of all faiths or none. The first 16 words of the First Amendment provide the guiding principles by which people with deep religious and ideological differences can live together as citizens of one nation.

The 10 lessons on religious liberty in American history included in Living With Our Deepest Differences are designed to be integrated into the social studies curriculum on the middle school and high school levels. Everything that the teacher will need — lesson plans, source documents, and bibliographic materials — is included.

These lessons follow the broad outlines of the Williamsburg Charter, a national reaffirmation of the religion clauses of the First Amendment signed by nearly 200 national leaders in 1988. The lessons are literature-based throughout. Historical documents, speeches, essays, poetry, songs and transcriptions form this body of literature. A variety of activities form the guiding methodology in working with these documents.

The goals of the curriculum are threefold:

  • To explain the history and significance of the First Amendment religion clauses and their decisive contribution to individual and communal freedom and to American democracy.

  • To examine the advantages and responsibilities of living in a modern pluralistic society, and to demonstrate how practical dilemmas can be answered in terms of tolerance and mutual respect rather than bigotry and violence.

  • To deepen each student’s appreciation of the principles of religious liberty for people of all faiths or none, and to establish a strong civic commitment to the group rules by which all citizens can contend robustly but civilly over religious differences in public life.

    These are challenging lessons because they are document-based and address controversial issues. A guiding belief on the part of the authors is that students — all students — can and will rise to the levels expected of them especially when the integrated activities of listening, speaking, reading, writing and thinking characterize the approach to every lesson.

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