Teaching about Religious Diversity and Democracy: Using “Give Bigotry No Sanction” in the Classroom
How does a nation or a community respect differences, while at the same time nurturing a common bond? What is at stake if we ignore difference or if we forget our commonalities? On November 7, Facing History and Ourselves hosts two events that will explore these questions and how they relate to issues of religious differences and religious tolerance in the United States today. Held at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, the day begins with a workshop that will introduce teachers and administrators to strategies and resources for exploring issues of difference and democracy in the classroom. The texts and tools presented will include primary source documents, readings that can be used to meet Common Core State Standards, and online resources such as selections from Facing History’s Give Bigotry No Sanction: The George Washington Letter Project, which looks at historic and contemporary case studies focused on religious freedom and democracy. Following the workshop is a free and open community conversation with Eboo Patel, an award-winning author and founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, whose new book Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice and the Promise of America explores the role of religious pluralism in American history.
Why is it important that we discuss issues of religious tolerance? Why do we look to moments of history to discuss the state of our communities today? We checked in with Laura Tavares, senior program associate for Facing History in New England who will co-facilitate the November educator workshop, for her thoughts on why it is more important than ever to explore these moments from our past. Below, Tavares offers concrete suggestions for incorporating the study of religious diversity into literature, history, civics, and religion classes.
Facing History and Ourselves: Why are issues of religious freedom important topics to discuss in the classroom?
Laura Tavares: We want to encourage educators to teach this history and to help them understand that when we do so, it’s not about advocating a particular point of view, but about teaching American history in all of its fullness and preparing students for the diverse world they are a part of.
Facing History: At “Beyond Tolerance: Difference, Depth, and Democracy in the Classroom,” the November educator workshop, what resources will you introduce to teachers and administrators to help them have conversations about religious identity, membership, and difference in schools?
Tavares: One resource that we are so excited to be able to introduce to attendees is the material from our Give Bigotry No Sanction project, and specifically an exchange of letters from 1790 between George Washington and Moses Seixas, a Jew from Newport, Rhode Island. Seixas writes to Washington expressing his uncertainty about the religious freedom of Jews in the new nation. Washington’s response is a landmark in the history of religious freedom in America. It is part of a founding moment in United States history when the country was negotiating how a democracy accommodates differences among its people.
Facing History: How might teachers use this resource in class?
Tavares: Often when we look back on this period of history, it can seem so settled. But at the time, everything about this country was up for grabs – What would it mean to be an American? Who would belong? What would this new democracy really be? We see all of that being negotiated in this exchange of letters. And this letter from Seixas was one of many that Washington received from religious minorities – the Baptists were writing to him, the Quakers were writing to him, the Catholics were writing to him – saying, “Well what about us?” So history teachers may introduce this resource to have students reflect upon the values Washington puts forth in the letter and think about how those values are being lived – or not being lived – in the United States today. I could see this text being used in a literature class that is exploring immigration or early American works. And for teachers who are considering how to meet the Common Core State Standards, the exchange of letters would be a perfect challenging, non-fiction text to use.
Facing History: What resources will be included from other parts of history, or other parts of the world?
Tavares: Our resource Stories of Identity: Religion, Migration, and Belonging in a Changing World examines issues of migration and identity, and is a great tool for use in civics, literature, religion, and history classes. Educators in the workshop will have the chance to hear from Eboo Patel, who has a piece in that resource in which he writes about an antisemitic incident that took place during his high school experience. Though he had a diverse social group, Patel talks about how he and his friends did not know how to respond. He says that they did not have a language for talking about faith or religion with each other and he writes about the dangers lurking within that absence, that silence. To me, that is an idea that I think helps teachers understand the rationale of raising some of these themes in the classroom. For educators that want to consider issues of religion and democracy in another part of the world, I would suggest exploring What Do We Do With a Difference? France and the Debate Over Headscarves in Schools. And for issues of difference as they relate to race, identity, and immigration, I would suggest our book Race and Membership in American History: The Eugenics Movement. There are a number of external resources that educators might find helpful as well, including a PBS film called God in America and a book called Overcoming Religious Illiteracy: A Cultural Studies Approach to the Study of Religion in Secondary Education by Harvard Divinity School Professor Diane Moore.
Facing History: Is there a specific activity that will help teachers discuss these issues with students?
Tavares: One that we’ll be go over in the workshop is an activity we call Big Paper, a discussion strategy that uses writing and silence as tools to help students explore a topic in-depth. So, using the example of the Washington letter, we might begin with talking a bit as a class about what we know about the United States in 1790. After some discussion, teachers can place sheets of “big paper” around the classroom with quotes, or images, or readings that relate to the Washington letter or this specific time in history. Students then travel around the room with a pen or marker and write reflections and reactions on each “big paper.” It is like having a silent conversation and I think this is one of Facing History’s best tools for allowing deep reflection and engagement, for hearing multiple voices and perspectives, and for allowing students to respond to each other. It’s something that we do with educators in our seminars and workshops, and something teachers then go on and do very successfully with their students. Another activity we have done in the past with the letter is to ask students to write a letter back to Washington. “What would you want him to know about how things have worked out in the last 200-plus years?” “What questions would you want to ask him?”
Facing History: Why is there a particular need for this type of education now?
Tavares: When we look at our own national history we can see the ways that attitudes toward certain groups – Baptists, Quakers, Catholics – who were once so vilified and marginalized have changed. There are many reasons for changed attitudes, and members of those groups had to work very hard to overcome many obstacles, but I believe that one important reason these attitudes have shifted has to do with the civic DNA of this country. This exchange of letters reveals how right from the foundation of this nation’s history, our first president aspired to find ways to accommodate religious diversity and at the same time develop a common sense of civic identity and responsibility. You know, we fight a lot about these differences of belief and practice, but our national guiding values and our legal system support pluralism. They support integration. Studying the history of these issues is an opportunity for students to begin to think about the particular moments and choices that go into creating a national identity and to consider what their particular role is in that ongoing story. And so much of this, too, is about prevention. We often talk about prevention in terms of violence, or genocide, or prejudice, and to me there’s something preventative about studying religious tolerance. When we take a very long view of history, we can absolutely say we are moving in the right direction on these issues. But when we look around us, we can see the people and communities that are marginalized and suffering right now. I believe that when we can understand that from the very moment of the founding of our country there’s been a respect for pluralism and a commitment to tolerance, we, in today’s society, will be reinvigorated. This is a history that can equip students with some of the tools and the ideas that will help them respond to what they read about in the newspapers and what they see in their own community. So to me, it feels like these are conversations that are really needed at this moment.
Learn more about Facing History’s Give Bigotry No Sanction project and stay tuned for upcoming Facing History lesson plans on the Washington letter exchange and news about our forthcoming book of scholarly essays on the topic. To view an interactive version of the letters, visit the website of the National Museum for American Jewish History.
Facing History's Julia Rappaport wrote this article. For questions or tips on what Facing History is doing in your community, email her at Julia_Rappaport@facing.org.