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Does God Make a Difference? Taking Religion Seriously in Our Schools and Universities

Warren Nord
Published by Oxford University Press in 2010

Does God Make a Difference? is a worthy book to which readers will react differently depending upon the extent to which they have been exposed to Warren Nord’s general arguments. In the foreword Charles Haynes reminds the reader that this is Nord’s final book. Nord in his opening remarks also seems to be aware that this will be his final book. Haynes and Nord, as readers may know, worked very closely on the issue of religion and education and their careers are almost inextricably connected on this issue. Because they were close colleagues, their remarks toward each other are very sentimental and filled with mutual praise. It is very touching to read. Admittedly, because the research of these two scholars is so intertwined, at times the praises will also sound like they are patting their own backs, but if one can get beyond this, the introductions communicate a genuine love that two academics clearly had toward one another.

There are three central observations to note about Nord’s book. First, Nord makes a very plausible set of arguments that religion does indeed make a major difference in history, literature, and so forth, as well as in people’s everyday lives. Therefore, he argues, it deserves a place in the school curriculum proportional to its influence. His arguments are not new and in fact have been propounded for centuries, but they are nevertheless impressive and convincing.

Second, throughout his life Nord has been very candid about the fact that he is a liberal. This reviewer believes that Nord deserves respect for this degree of transparency. Admittedly, this orientation sometimes translates into statements that are biased and even offensive. Consequently, conservatives and even moderates might be understandably bothered and at times offended. However, one should remember that the very fact that Nord is liberal is also what makes him important. Nord’s words open many minds that would not be receptive to centrists or conservatives. In a real sense then one could argue that Does God Make a Difference? is even more important, because it was written by a liberal than because of its actual contents, which are assertions that have been extant for centuries.

Third, Nord’s writing is strong when he stays within the scope of his primary assertions, but weakens considerably when he ventures into disciplines, outside of his area of expertise. For example, Nord associates reaching out to the poor with liberal Christianity, even though the overwhelming number of homeless shelters and drug rehabilitation homes (such as Teen Challenge) are operated by Evangelical Christians. In addition, recent research indicates that Evangelical Christians give the highest percentage of their income to charity and are the group most likely to volunteer their time.1 Nord is also not a theologian and therefore defines certain terms such as “fundamentalism” in a way that those with religious training will find disconcerting.

Does God Make a Difference consists of twelve chapters in three parts of four chapters each. Nearly all of the chapters are well written and it is unfortunate indeed that the weakest sections are the introduction and the first chapter. A large part of the reason for this is that Nord tries to make as general an argument as he possibly can regarding religion’s relevance, and he ventures into a purview of topics that includes economics, military history, environmentalism, biology, mathematics, philosophy, and literature. Nord is clearly more well versed in certain disciplines than others and this produces considerable variation in the quality of each chapter. Nord also tends to generalize with wide strokes of the brush in the introduction and first chapter. For example, he categorizes Christians as either liberal or conservative, with hardly even an acknowledgement that there are many Christian moderates. Although there are many weaknesses in the introduction and first chapter, the reviewer encourages the reader to overlook many of them because of the importance of the subject matter.

Nord hits his stride in chapter 2, as he deals with material related to his expertise. He states early in the chapter that his primary concern is “that both the standards and the texts fall well short of the ideal when it comes to religion” (41). He spends the remainder of the chapter elucidating why this is the case. He methodically addresses each individual subject and then examines various individuals and topics that most any objective individual would claim are almost “unforgivable” to exclude. Nord notes the exclusion of Karl Barth, who he understandably asserts is the “most influential theologian of the twentieth century” (45), G. W. Bush’s faith-based initiatives, discussions of morality, weaknesses in evolutionary theory, and so forth. Nord’s assertions are logical and fair.

Nord also describes the process of the secularization of education in chapter 3. The first two pages give an excellent summary of the period from 1636 to 1836. Nord’s portrayal of Horace Mann and the common schools is problematic, because Nord once again has an aversion for the word “moderate.” Nord too easily simplifies the common school movement as a liberal one, which as a historian I find highly oversimplified and inaccurate. In reality, the common school movement was a confluence of many mostly-religious people working together from a variety of Christian perspectives. Horace Mann, Henry Barnard, Samuel Seelye, Calvin Stowe, Johann Pestalozzi, and William McGuffey were all highly influential in the common school movement. A number of these men were Evangelicals and others were not, but they were all religious. Moreover, Mann, Barnard, and Lyman Beecher were very close friends and co-laborers in the movement even though they varied some in their Christian convictions. The common school movement was also almost purely a Whig Party initiative, the more conservative major political party of the time. Therefore, Nord’s portrayal of the movement is inadequate. In addition, Nord’s description of the secularization process is also hampered by his insistence again of referring to an oversimplified dichotomy of liberal and conservative. Nord’s aversion toward the term “moderate” is especially patent in this chapter, because moderates contributed greatly to the gradual nature of the change. In spite of these historical oversimplifications, Nord’s assertion that there was a movement toward secularization in higher education is important to establish as a prelude to the chapters that follow.

In chapter 4 Nord is once again on familiar ground and thrives. Nord is at his best in this chapter as he adroitly addresses issues of neutrality, worldviews (not just faiths), and religious ignorance. Nord’s background is that of a philosopher rather than a historian and so once again, unlike the somewhat weak chapter 3, Nord is addressing issues that are his strong points and he thrives. The reader will be hard pressed to find more puissant philosophical arguments on these issues, as they relate to religion and education.

In chapters 5-8 Nord begins to offer solutions to the issues he has raised. In chapter 5 Nord argues “that public schools and universities must take religion seriously for a number of reasons” (101). Nord eloquently argues that issues such as religious literacy, religious un-derstanding, and the development of a comparative perspective are very important. Nord’s reasoning is somewhat similar to that found in Stephen Prothero’s Religious Literacy,2 but it is less quantitatively based. Nord has a somewhat more subtle approach than Prothero to tackling this issue, but the reader, nevertheless, will likely arrive at the same conclusion: that it is difficult to consider oneself educated unless he or she has a certain level of reli-gious knowledge. In chapter 6 Nord examines the importance of moral education and civic education. Nord’s declarations are similar to my own.3 But Nord chooses a more subtle argument which probably reflects his desire to reach those who are definitively left of center.

In chapter 7 Nord deals with issues related to religion and the Constitution. Nord ad-dresses this issue reasonably and somewhat adequately, in the twenty or so pages that are typical of nearly all of the first eight chapters. Nord’s overview of the relevant court cases is informative, but because constitutional issues are a major concern of so many Americans, one can easily see that a valid argument could be made for making this chapter longer.

In chapter 8 Nord extends constitutional issues to apply to practical issues facing the schools. Once again, Nord’s aversion to using the term “moderate” is problematic, because he inadvertently appears to create religious stereotypes by insisting on a false dichotomy between religious conservatives and liberals that describes a relatively small segment of people of faith. Nord’s tendency to paint religious groups with a broad brush is apparent again in this chapter and will likely bother some. In chapters 9-12 Nord discusses the implications of his assertions. Nord is very reasonable in his view that religion and related issues should have a place in both the public school and college curriculum. He believes that the percentage of the curriculum that should be dedicated to these issues should be about 10% but “in the spirit of compromise” 5% would be sufficient. The reader may find some of the assertions of chapter 9 to be repetitive, but I believe Nord structured the chapter this way for emphasis. Chapter 10 is one of the most important and persuasive chapters of the book. In an impressive logical fashion Nord argues for a constitutional, logical, and appropriate place for courses on the Bible, religion, and subject courses with religious components to be taught in the public schools. It is in chapter 10 that Nord’s liberal credentials work to his benefit. By the time the reader reaches chapter 10, Nord has unequivocally established himself as a liberal. By this chapter, the Evangelical may feel misunderstood by Nord, the Catholic may feel somewhat ignored, and the liberal in general harmony with Nord. But Nord attempts to bring all these groups to the common conclusion that there needs to be a curriculum on religion in chapter 10.

Chapter 11 is most notable for Nord’s intriguing discussion about the teaching of evolution and intelligent design in the public schools. The final chapter (12) and conclusion are Nord’s attempt to draw everyone on board to accept his proposals. His last chapter is reasonable, but rather vague and, to be sure, this will leave some disappointed. Nevertheless, I believe that it is an accomplishment simply to bring these ideas to the table.

Nord has played an important role in bringing the issues of religious literacy and moral education to the table once again. His book, Does God Make a Difference?, can best be appreciated if one understands what it is and what it is not. It is a valuable treatise to communicate especially to those who are left of center on the value of religion and religious literacy. The reality is that conservatives have had a hard time communicating these same truths to liberals and secularists. Admittedly, many Evangelicals might cringe regarding how Nord might view them. But Nord has helped open some minds that were not open a decade ago. Does God Make a Difference? contains some chapters that are stronger than others. As long as Nord writes in his areas of specialty, the chapters are strong, but his ventures into theology and history sometimes unnecessarily weaken the book. Perhaps the greatest drawback to Nord’s approach is his tendency to view differences too simplistically. It is revealing that he uses “liberal” and “conservative” countless times, but the word “moderate” does not even appear in the index. What results are somewhat exaggerated and oversimplified portrayals of history, theology, and Evangelicals. In this reviewer’s mind, this oversimplification limits Nord’s appeal. Nord’s life and book raises one’s hope, however, that various academics will reach conservatives, moderates, and liberals with the message that God does make a difference.

Cite this article
William Jeynes, “Does God Make a Difference? Taking Religion Seriously in Our Schools and Universities”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 41:3 , 343-346


  1. See Arthur C. Brooks, Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth about Compassionate Conservatism (New York: Basic Books, 2006).
  2. Stephen Prothero, Religious Literacy (New York: HarperOne, 2007).
  3. William Jeynes, A Call to Character Education and Prayer in the Schools (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2009)

William Jeynes

William Jeynes, Education, California State University