In Russian city of Tver a Catholic cathedral and an old Muslim mosque are standing literally across the street from each other. Christians and Muslims have lived side by side in Russia since the 16th century. (Photo by Yuri Mamchur)
A new Kremlin plan to teach students religion or secular ethics is meant to combat the aimlessness of youth. Perhaps it will--to some extent.
The approach is probably unique--teach what is again the dominant state religion (Russian Orthodoxy) as the one acceptable Christian faith, and also teach--according to student desires--Islam (the religion of a sizable minority, particularly in the South), Buddhism or Judaism, and give the students the alternative of a coarse in secular ethics. It will seem fair to many, maybe most, Russians. It is quite different, obviously, from the "scientific atheism" of Soviet days.
The program will get a lot of criticism, however. First, the most eager evangelists in Russia today are probably the various kinds of Christian pentecostals, and there is a sizable Roman Catholic population in certain ethnic centers. So the government apparently is starting a new struggle with these groups in schools, of all places.
Then arises the question of how smart it is to have Islam taught in state schools. Who is going to teach it? What is going to be taught? Might the government find itself trying to deal with hostile Friday mosque sermons because of the kind of Islam it promulgates in the schools? Where does that lead? How will populations in areas where Islam is a majority faith react to state school classes that offer instruction as well in other faiths?
Regardless, the new Russian model is so jarringly different from what is on offer in the United States that it may be worth careful monitoring by Americans. We no longer provide much at all in schools of the old, slightly Protestant civic religion of yore. The struggle in the U.S. is over whether to allow any expressions of faith in schools, whether in Commencement speeches by students or in after-school religious clubs.
Overall, America has benefited by a general separation of religious instruction and public education, as in other fields. A state religion gets lazy. It becomes synonymous in students' minds with state politics, which cannot be good.
On the other hand, there is something to be said for students learning more about the religious heritage of their country. If the Russians are erring on one side of that objective, Americans may be erring on the other. If nothing else, comparisons of results should be interesting.
One place where the outcomes may be studied closely is....China.