If Modesto’s Public Schools Can Teach World Religions, It Can Happen Anywhere

I like to give my friends a pop quiz: what is the only public high school district in the country with a mandatory course in world religions? First they wonder aloud whether or not it is even legal to teach about religion in public schools. (It is.) And then they guess Berkeley, San Francisco, New York. They are always astonished when I name Modesto, California.

I spent much of my childhood and early adult life in Modesto, a city in the Central Valley, aka the “Bible Belt” of California. So Joseph Laycock’s recent article in Religion Dispatches profiling that course and interviewing Sherry McIntyre, one of its teachers, hit me on a more personal level. I took Sherry’s world religions and world geography course as a freshman in high school a decade ago.

What Laycock’s piece didn’t capture is just how conservative a city Modesto is, and how much hope there is in the fact that they implemented this course so successfully.

Modesto is no Berkeley, no San Francisco, no New York. Modesto is known for its low literacy, high crime, and conservative religious and political temperament. The Modesto I grew up in was not a city of open-minded religious pluralism. Modesto is the city where, as a teen, I was invited by a friend to a service at his church. It turned out to be a performance of “Heaven’s Gates, Hell’s Flames,” a dramatization of the final moments of peoples’ deaths.

The play vividly promised eternal hellfire for those who had not given their heart to Christ. My fourteen-year-old self wanted to know: what about the Dalai Lama? Was he destined for Satan’s eternal presence?

Modesto is also the city where Fr. Joseph Illo, the former head priest of the most popular parish in the city, made headlines in 2008 when he admonished all Catholics who voted for Obama to go to confession. It is the city where one friend’s high school biology teacher frankly told the class he did not believe in evolution.

To be fair, Modesto is also the city where, several years later as an adult, I sat in meditation at Empty Nest Zendo, learned Hebrew at Congregation Beth Shalom, and worshipped at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. From Diana Eck’s A New Religious America, I also learned that Modesto (and the Central Valley in general) is home to one of the oldest Sikh communities in America. But that small Episcopal community I prayed with was a small but joyful remnant of its former size. Eighty percent of the congregation had left to form Wellspring Anglican Church, protesting the ECUSA’s openness to issues such as homosexuality and womens’ ordination. The schism was not just in my parish, but throughout the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin.

I came from a family where religion was seldom practiced and rarely discussed. My interest in studying (and eventually practicing) religion came from outside the home. I went on to major in religious studies in college, and am now a graduate student studying interreligious dialogue and biblical studies. I don’t think McIntyre’s class is responsible for all of that. But looking back, I can’t help but wonder if this class ignited a spark that would eventually become a flame.

So Modesto is also the city that implemented a mandatory course in world religions in public high schools. The city designed that course in consultation with local religious leaders to ensure that every group is represented fairly in the classroom, and then taught the course for over a dozen years with no complaints and few abstaining students..

I understand the caution many would have that such a course might turn into covert Christian evangelism. Or, as Linda Wertheimer recently noted, “the biggest fear about world religion courses is how teachers are teaching about Islam and whether they are sugar-coating radical Islam.”

But there is a difference between proceeding with caution and not proceeding at all. In a country where, according to the Pew Forum, religious literacy is dangerously low, we need courses like Modesto’s more than ever. We need to understand the cultural backgrounds, sacred texts, and moral compasses of our neighbors.

If a city like Modesto can implement this course so successfully, than I have hope for the rest of the nation.