How a Mormon* ended up taking a Protestant religion class

*Yeah, I know.

Anyway. Back-to-school night yesterday was a two-hour marathon of filling out forms and learning about the new government policies that enter into force this year (a highlight: 4 unexcused absences over the 9 years of compulsory education carries a minimum fine of $125). In addition to the filling out the emergency contact form, signing the permission slip for administering potassium iodide in the event of a radiological emergency (Chernobyl has cast a long shadow over Central Europe) and reviewing the paperwork related to a study of children’s media and food consumption, we also had to sign up or exempt our children from religious education. And this at a public school!

See, in Austria, the legal recognition of churches and religious communities entails “the right to […] provide religious instruction in state schools” (source). Twenty organizations enjoy legal recognition, though in practice only the largest—the Catholic, Protestant and Greek Orthodox churches as well as the Islamic Religious Community in Austria—offer religious instruction at public schools, with the state picking up the tab for the personnel costs.

When a student is registered for school, parents can choose to indicate their child’s confession. If it is a legally recognized religion, and provides religious instruction at the school in question, the child is automatically signed up for the respective religion class. During the first week of school parents can exempt their child from attending this class. However, if they indicated a confession upon registration, the exempted child cannot attend a class of another confession but has to go hang out with the atheists and practice reading or whatever alternative is provided by the school.

As a Mormon member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I decided to sign my daughter up for the Protestant class. What?! Why? How? Let’s start with “how.” If you don’t indicate a confession on the school registration form, your child can do whatever she or he wants—attend any of the religion classes or hang out with the atheists. As for “why,” I have three reasons.

First, the teacher is of good repute. Second, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Austria are spread so thin that there are no teachers and no classes teaching the beliefs of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at public schools. (Kind of a missed opportunity for a proselytizing church on the one hand, but on the other the numbers make a pretty slam-dunk case against such an effort.) With no LDS (I’m just going to let this one stand) religion class, a child registered with the school as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would have to deregister from religious education (recall that a child whose confession has been registered with the school may not attend the religious instruction of another church) and go hang out with the atheists anyway.

It wasn’t always like this. School-aged members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have traditionally been able to receive school credit for attending Sunday school and/or seminary on the basis of a declaration signed by the bishop that they have attended regularly. The bishop would also give each pupil a grade. In practice, every member of school age would receive full credit and best marks, even those who didn’t attend at all. Ever. Not even once. A few years ago, however, the Vienna school authorities tired of the charade and informed The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Austria that it (the Vienna school district) would no longer accept these bogus declarations; if they wanted to provide religious education, they’d have to do it in a manner that deserved the name. (Frankly, I’m glad the state took the church to task on this issue; as executive secretary it did not sit well with me to be complicit in the degree mill business.)

At any rate, the church has yet to get its act together and provide meaningful religious instruction that the state will accept as such. Consequently, if I had registered my child with the school as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints she would have missed out on any chance for religious instruction at school.

We didn’t want that, so we left the confession field blank, which gave us the flexibility to sign her up for any religion class offered at the school— Catholic, Protestant, Greek Orthodox and Islamic. We figured we already have the Catholic and Mormon angles covered at home, so why not broaden horizons, starting with Protestantism? We’ll see how things go and maybe switch things up later; we’ve got 9 years to explore several world religions and I’m hoping it will be a good experience for all involved.

I realize that all of this will be foreign to our readers in the United States, but I’m still curious if religious education—outside of the home and church, that is—is something on your radar. What experiences have you had with your children exploring other religions in a more or less systematic manner?

Comments

  1. When people ask me why the Establishment Clause is important, this European system of steady co-establishment of major faiths ranks pretty high.

    But if this were me, I would totally sign up for the Islam courses. To befriend my neighbors, defend against islamophobia, and learn about one of my favorite faiths? Sounds amazing.

  2. I also was registered Evangelisch when I lived in Germany. The religion class was really good, but I don’t know if that was because of a great curriculum or just a really beloved teacher. I spent a huge fraction of the class explaining Mormonism to them–they were very curious about my exotic American religion.

  3. When people ask me why the Establishment Clause is important, this European system of steady co-establishment of major faiths ranks pretty high.

    Yeah, picking winners and losers is a strange way to maintain “religious neutrality”; also, the fact that a tiny minority religion like The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has legal status points to some backroom shenanigans following World War II—there’s absolutely no way that happened without intervention from on high (and by that I mean “levels of the US government”).

  4. We live in California but my son went to private schools. For the first half of elementary he went to a “christian” school run by a local Baptist church. They had teachers and staff from many different christian faiths and a pretty general christian religious curriculum. He loved it and I wondered why their songs and lessons were so darn engaging and our primary is largely such a slog for most children.

    Then we moved and he was in a non-religious school for two years.

    Then Catholic schools for middle and high school. He also enjoyed those. For middle school he got lots of questions from his teachers about what the Mormons believe on the subject they were studying. High School was just ok. Mostly it was more about service and less the particular religious study. I do remember they had a unit on the popes and my son was surprised that so few could name any but the current when we spend quite a bit of time learning about latter day prophets. They did have to track service hours and church service counted. I was quite irritated that his YM leader would sign off on three hours each week. I felt he should get credit for helping with the Sacrament not sitting around in Sunday School or YM. Kind of like every LDS kid getting best marks in your area. Things like that give us a bad name with others.

    I’m glad he had the chance to study another faith more and see our commonalities and have to think about the differences and why they might be important.

  5. Our kids attend Anglican and Catholic schools here in the UK, both of which have great religious education programmes, including achieving recognised qualifications in religious studies and participate in regular Mass and Eucharist services during school. Our kids describe themselves as Christians, which goes down just fine with both groups, who also welcome plenty of students who are agnostic/atheist/humanist/lapsed/other religions.

    If we wanted, we could send them to non-religious schools and exempt them from any religious studies (because 3hrs of church a week could be considered more than enough…), but, I’ll be honest, the opportunities offered to participate in these school led worship activities have been a significant blessing in our lives. Some of the best gospel centered discussions that happen in our house have come from what they have studied in RE at school, where they are encouraged to challenge, examine and question and not just parrot stock phrases (I’m looking at you, Primary).

  6. I’m curious enough to follow. For ‘me and my house’ (extended family) formal and informal education about other religions and religious history is the norm. Not required but common enough that I wouldn’t have thought it something to comment on.

  7. Our children all of whom attended public school took the survey course, AP World History, which also studied major world religions, including the LDS church. Because of the diversity in our metro DC area, the high school students who belonged to the religions were asked to share about their beliefs. It was a great experience because it revealed differences within Christian and Muslim beliefs systems too. Students actually learned from each other and the teacher.

    They were also in early morning seminary.

  8. My kids go/went to public school, and there is/was no public religious education in Salt Lake City. There is LDS seminary once they get to high school, and while it’s not very rigorous, I think its a little more rigorous than what you described about LDS instruction in your area. The kids are at least expected to attend and do some reading if they want to graduate from seminary. There is no school credit for it, though. As for the question of sending my kids to study other people’s religions, on the one hand, I think it could help them develop a broader sense of divine truth and (maybe) even a greater capacity for independent thought. But on the other hand, I would worry about having my kids indoctrinated into a literal belief in one of them. (I even worry about that with Mormonism, though. I’m a non-literal believer, which is a rare bird, I know.)

  9. In our Bavarian school, we had the option of sending our kids to either the Lutheran or Catholic elementary school religion course and I would have been fine with either one, but the principal thought that would be a waste of time, as both courses were mostly focused on preparing kids for first communion/confirmation. So our kids took the third option, the “ethics course,” which is where the children of atheists, Muslims, and other sectarians ended up. Our kids seemed to enjoy it.

    Oddly enough, I came away from the experience less sure that the Establishment Clause matters as much as we think it does.

  10. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    Adding my cosign to Carolyn.

    Jonathan Green: there is no surer way to create popular contempt for something than for the state to mandate it. This is especially true in the historically Catholic countries.

  11. DeAnn Spencer says:

    I live in Rochester, MN. For a number years a High School teacher in Owatonna, MN (pop. 25,000) has brought his World Religion Classes to Rochester to study three religions: Greek Orthodox, Islam, and Mormons (not going to apologize for the “M” word). Rochester has a Greek Orthodox church with a beautiful building, a thriving Muslim community, and two Mormon chapels! We have an hour to present our religion to High School students who mostly have never met a Mormon. (There are no members living in Owatonna and the nearest church building is 16 miles away.) I love answering their questions! Learning from and about others is the best way to reduce fear, misunderstanding and hate.

  12. Military family here. In Japan, we sent our children to a local Buddhist school which was fantastic. In Italy, we sent them to an Italian Catholic school. My children learned so much about respect, love and religion through these experiences. I loved the experience because it allowed us to access aspects of the local culture that would have been closed to us otherwise. I am a huge fan of allowing our kids to see how others worship.

  13. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    I am a huge fan of allowing our kids to see how others worship.

    No arguments here. I’m a huge proponent of educating everyone about many modes of religious thought. I think most Latter-day Saints are; that big Pew survey from a few years back found that, within a US context, Mormons are behind only Jews in their knowledge both of their own religion (hey, maybe Seminary is good for something!) and of the beliefs of other faiths. Not coincidentally, evangelicals (both white and black) were at the bottom.

    What bothers me is the use of public funds to provide children with education in their own religion’s doctrines. The secular Franco-American model seems superior in this regard: you wanna learn about this stuff, do it on your own dime.

  14. “What bothers me is the use of public funds to provide children with education in their own religion’s doctrines. ”

    There are a lot of doctrines about life and it’s purposes and how people should behave, and what is considered moral and immoral that are funded with public funds. Doctrines which are pursued with religious enthusiasm. These publicly funded doctrines may not be part of the “old world religions” but they surely belong to the new world religions — to use the term broadly.

    As Elder Maxwell said 30 years ago, “We are now entering a period of incredible ironies. Let us cite but one of these ironies which is yet in its subtle stages: we shall see in our time a maximum if indirect effort made to establish irreligion as the state religion. It is actually a new form of paganism that uses the carefully preserved and cultivated freedoms of Western civilization to shrink freedom even as it rejects the value essence of our rich Judeo-Christian heritage.”

  15. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    Oh Lord, we’ve got one of those “environmentalism is a religion” folks here now, don’t we?

  16. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    Also, I’ll put good money down that nobody who ever uses the term “our rich Judeo-Christian heritage” knows anything about Jewish thought post-Masada.

  17. Other Bridget says:

    Here in northern Europe, we chose to send our kids to the Lutheran religion class at school. Some Mormons here opt for the generic ethics class and some go for the Lutheran class. It just depends. Since we are foreigners here, we decided it would be beneficial for our kids to learn about the majority religion of this country. When we lived in a Muslim-majority country, on the other hand, our kids were defaulted into the non-Muslim “ethics” (PCSE or something) class at school. It is still so strange for me, as an American, to think of learning a religion at school!