Schools that ignore society’s religious roots are off base

Sunday, November 16, 1997

At Thanksgiving time 12 years ago, an editorial cartoon depicted a little boy giving a class presentation in a public school.

The caption read: “The Pilgrims came here seeking freedom of you-know-what. When they landed, they gave thanks to you-know-who. Because of them, we can worship each Sunday you-know-where.”

About the same time, several studies by scholars concluded that religion was virtually ignored in public school textbooks.

One elementary-school text described the Pilgrims as “people who make long trips.”

A lot has changed in 12 years. Today most public school officials know that students may speak religiously in a class discussion and that teachers may teach about religion wherever appropriate in the curriculum. Words such as “religion,” “God,” and “church” aren't banned from the classroom.

But just when it looks like we've come a long way, something strange happens to remind us of how far we still have to go.

Last November, a parent called to say that his school had refused to read the president's annual Thanksgiving proclamation because it contained too many references to God. Even though we tried to assure the school that there is nothing unconstitutional about reading government documents with religious references, school officials refused to budge.

What's next? Banning the Gettysburg Address? If schools exclude presidential statements that mention religion, they exclude many of the great speeches in American history.

Every American president—with the exception of Thomas Jefferson—has issued Thanksgiving Day proclamations. And they all mention God. (Jefferson was convinced that the First Amendment prohibited the president from “prescribing even occasional performances of devotion.”)

Not all of these proclamations are worthy of deep study, but they shouldn't be excluded from the schools because they mention religion.

Americans disagree about whether or not the president should call the nation to thanksgiving and prayer. But most of us agree that public schools should teach about the religious roots of our traditions, including Thanksgiving.

Students need to learn about the religious motives of the famous Pilgrims who saw themselves as founders of the New Israel. These people came looking for freedom to carry out their covenant with God, but they ruled out religious freedom for any dissenters in their midst.

Students should also learn about the impact of Plymouth colony—both positive and negative—on the native peoples who were already here. That early day of thanksgiving was much more complex (and interesting) than we generally teach in school.

The “firmly knit” community of Plymouth did not endure. Disagreements arose within the community, and outsiders arrived bringing religious diversity and more dissent.

Americans eventually were to decide that unity can't be maintained at the expense of diversity.

In the next century, we would forge a civil “covenant”—the Constitution—in order to establish a unity—”We the People”—that would also protect our religious diversity.

Nevertheless, the legacy of the Pilgrims and other New England Puritans is found everywhere in our culture.

Our commitment to education, our love for independence, our strong sense of community and our vision of America as a special place can all be traced back to those courageous settlers.

Thanksgiving is a good time to remember that, in many ways, we are all Pilgrims in the “land of the Pilgrims' pride.”