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Can Education Help End America’s Culture War?


April 4, 2019

As Americans tire of toxic political rhetoric and a decades long culture war, have state and national leaders tapped into education’s full potential? A new paper from think tank Cardus suggests leaders need to take a broader view of schooling in order to take full advantage of what education can offer.

“Non-government, and especially religious, schools are often considered damaging to social cohesion,” write authors Marisa Casagrande and Ray Pennings in Religious Schools: Seedbeds of Civic Virtue in the Culture War? “This report challenges that assumption. Relying on outcome-based data from several surveys of adults who graduated from religious schools … we argue that the value of religious schools for creating civic virtue has been underappreciated.”

The paper references the Cardus Education Survey of 2014, a representative sample of 1,500 American high school graduates between the ages of 24 and 39. Among its findings, it shows that attending an independent or religious school is associated with a long-term positive influence on civic measures and outcomes. 

Graduates of religious schools especially stand out in terms of giving and volunteering – two pro-social behaviours standing in contrast to today’s often bitter public discourse. Graduates from Protestant schools are much more likely to go on a social service trip and to donate money or goods to an important cause or organization. Catholic school grads are the most consistently positive on giving and volunteering, showing a higher likelihood of volunteering outside their congregation and donating to charity. 

In other pro-social behaviours, such as political interest, trust in organizations, and an obligation to participate in civic affairs, religious independent school graduates largely match the levels of engagement of public school graduates. In brief, state and national leaders could find allies for pluralism and civility by taking a more welcoming view toward independent religious schools.

“At their best, religious schools and other religious spaces can offer valuable communities of practice where particular dispositions of tolerance, humility, and patience can be formed,” write Casagrande and Pennings.

Recent Barna Research data collected in partnership with Cardus show that American church leaders, parents, and schools also aren’t speaking to one another enough on these matters either. More than half of non-mainline Protestant (56%) and four in 10 Catholic clergy say they haven’t addressed the topic of school choice even once in the last year. In both cases, fewer than half of church leaders say parents even asked about it.

“Church leaders, parents, and educators are missing the opportunity to bring religious schools into the conversation about building a unified, pluralistic American society,” says Pennings. “If political leaders also recognized the value of these schools, it would help tame America’s culture war.”

Download Religious Schools: Seedbeds of Civic Virtue in the Culture War? from the Cardus website.


Daniel Proussalidis
Cardus – Director of Communications
613-241-4500 x508