Category CSE Magazine
Title Citizen Education and the Christian School
Author/s Kevin R. den Dulk
Preview the actual work of fostering democratic citizenship is complex and painstaking, and the returns on investment are often unclear

Political thinkers often point out that democracies are only as good as their citizens. The reasoning is straightforward: Democracy is rule by, for, and of the "people." Healthy democracies, therefore, require that the people be prepared to rule. But while this claim in the abstract is almost a truism, the actual work of fostering democratic citizenship is complex and painstaking, and the returns on investment are often unclear. We observe that especially in countries experiencing transition from authoritarianism to democracy, where ordinary people are confronted for the first time with both the privileges and daunting responsibilities of self-determined rule. The recent struggles to democratize throughout the Middle East, East Asia, and Africa illustrate the point. But even the relatively stable democracies of the North Atlantic face persistent strains and tensions within civic life. Across Europe and North America, many social observers worry that the citizen norms and dispositions that have long supported established democracies are either steadily eroding or already severely diminished.

These trends and movements raise a question: What does it take to produce healthy democratic citizenship? Over the past few decades, scholars and public leaders have given renewed attention to this question. Their answers have varied considerably, partly because what counts as "good" citizenship is highly contestable. But they tend to agree on two things: first, that societies can take some effective actions to foster good citizenship; and second, that taking action is nowhere more important than before the transition from adolescence to adulthood.

It is no surprise that we often look at youth to measure the health of the body politic. We see opportunity—and even hope—for our communities in the energy and wide-eyed commitments of younger people. What's more, social scientists can discern a great deal about how the experience of adolescence shapes citizenship in adulthood. The takeaway from that social scientific work is that we can effectively intervene to connect youth to their communities and encourage their participation. Educators, parents, pastors, peers—all of these leaders can shape young people during their formative years with a real impact on their commitments as citizens in early adulthood and beyond.

Still, young people across the globe face immense obstacles to full membership in public life. Many experience uninspiring, corrupt, or dictatorial public officials, unresponsive or wrecked institutions (schools among them), violence in their neighborhoods, and anemic opportunities for employment. Of course, these problems confront youth to varying degrees in different places. But even societies with relatively few economic and political obstructions to citizenship exhibit troubling signs among their youngest members. In the United States, for example, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has been charting for nearly two decades the civic knowledge and dispositions of children in the fourth, eighth, and twelfth grades (National Center for Education Statistics 2011). The most recent survey reveals that only a quarter of high school seniors-that is, the cohort that soon graduates to the full responsibilities of citizenship-meet NAEP's generous definition of civic "proficiency." Just over a third fail to reach even the most "basic" level. The same pattern holds at younger ages.

Civil Society and Educating the Good Citizen

So how do we meet such challenges? We know that an alienated, disengaged, or socially deviant teenager is likely to have those same attributes as an adult; conversely, a child with rich networks, models of prosocial orientation, and opportunities to participate is likely to mature quickly into productive citizenship. Educating citizens, then, is partly about providing the resources that undergird citizenship.

This leads to a corollary to the adage "Democracy is only as good as its citizens": "Citizens are only as good as their civil society." Civil society—the cluster of voluntary associations and organizations that sit between the individual and the state—acts as a seedbed for the qualities we wish to see in democratic citizens. By volunteering to work with, say, a PTA or a local church, participants garner key knowledge and skills (for example, leadership, communication, financial literacy) that citizens must possess to act well in public life. As citizens work with others, they might also cultivate crucial civic dispositions such as tolerance, interpersonal trust, and respect for rules. And they might come to see that their engagement actually matters, thus encouraging even more volunteering, charitable giving, voting, and other forms of participation in public life. We see democratic citizenship in full view when all of these elements are present. And, as a general rule, the earlier the exposure to these aspects of citizenship, the better the civic outcomes later.

In the relatively open environment of Western democracies, civil society provides many sites for participation, from bowling leagues to labor unions. But there is no more fertile ground than schools and houses of worship. Social scientists have shown, for example, that exposure to volunteering opportunities in secondary school and higher levels of overall education boosts civic engagement in adulthood. Religious institutions can play an even more prominent role. In the United States, for example, religion is associated with a range of democratic dispositions and capacities, and it also accounts for fully half of all volunteer and charitable activity (Putnam and Campbell 2010; Smidt et al. 2008). In places with less developed democratic systems, houses of worship are often a key site for mobilizing citizens to push for reform.

Christian Schools as Seedbeds for Citizenship

These findings undoubtedly prompt a question for Christian school teachers and administrators. What happens when school itself is religious? After all, if both schooling and religion have beneficial effects separately, we might expect those effects will be amplified when they are combined. Until recently, however, social scientists had given little sustained attention to the impact of school type on citizenship. Recent work in the United States and Canada has begun to fill this gap-and with some unexpected results.

To understand these results requires a sense of scale. The sheer size and scope of faith-based schools in both the United States and Canada means these institutions will have a civic impact, for better or worse. In the United States, approximately 10 percent of all elementary and secondary students attend private schools. Most of those schools—over two-thirds by recent Department of Education estimates—have a religious identity. The Catholic Church operates the largest faith-based educational system in the United States, serving at least 2 million students in over 7,100 elementary and secondary schools; evangelical and other Protestant schools enroll 1.7 million children in more than 15,000 smaller schools. The landscape in Canada is less clear, largely because of wide variation across provinces. The best estimate is that 8 percent attend private schools, and perhaps twice that number attend publicly funded "separate" schools that have a denominational linkage (Allison and Van Pelt 2012).

But the scale of Christian and other forms of nonpublic education does not necessarily suggest they are seedbeds for vibrant, healthy citizenship. In fact, some commentators suggest the opposite. A great deal of normative speculation, especially among democratic theorists (Gutmann 1999; MacMullen 2007), suggests that faith-based schools present a special problem to democratic citizenship when religious imperatives clash with the public goals of education. These arguments come in different forms, but they tend to assume that without some kind of strong state control, schools will become either inward-looking enclaves or bastions of reactionary intolerance. In either case, a school would fail to cultivate the skills of democratic deliberation in a pluralistic society. Multiply this concern by the size and scope of religious education in the United States and Canada, and one can quickly imagine why critics worry about the impact of Christian and other schools.

These theorists offer important cautions to Christian educators. Christian schools should avoid self-isolation and a reactionary posture toward culture, both of which send all the wrong signals about engaged citizenship. But how pervasive are these signals in Christian education? In general, recent research suggests the realities of Christian schools do not reflect the critics' concerns. On the one hand, perhaps in contrast to previous eras of Christian education, Christian schools today appear to be pushing their charges to engage culture outside the comfortable environs of church, school, and family. On the other hand, in contrast to the conservative Christian movement of the 1980s and 1990s, Christian schools today are not especially political. Schools can vary a great deal, but the general message is that Catholic and Protestant schools are not centers of antidemocratic thought or practice. Far from it; they often produce citizens who are more committed to and engaged in civic life than their counterparts.

Consider the effects of Christian education on the "social capital" and civic skills that make democracy work. In his review of the literature on school type, for example, Wolf (2007) reports that children educated in American religious schools generally match or surpass graduates from nonreligious settings on a wide range of civic indicators, including tolerance, political knowledge, and other direct measures of civic values and skills. In addition, researchers from the Ontario-based Cardus group conducted surveys in the United States and Canada that reveal, among other things, that graduates of Protestant schools tend to have a strong sense of self-efficacy (the belief that one's participation matters) and commitment to relationships, two dispositions that are important to any type of collective action (Pennings et al. 2011; Pennings et al. 2012). (Graduates of Catholic schools scored similarly in those traits to those adults who attended public schools.) The picture can get murky (for example, the Cardus group finds that graduates from Protestant schools are more deferential to authority than others, which could be interpreted as a problem for citizenship or a virtue), but the larger point is that neither Protestant nor Catholic schools in either country appear to be undermining the key dispositions of democratic citizens. Indeed, those schools often support those dispositions.

We see similar patterns in terms of actual participation. Graduates of Catholic schools in the United States tend to be indistinguishable from public schools in terms of volunteering, though overall students at nongovernment schools in both countries volunteer at greater rates than other students. Moreover, the effect of Christian schools on volunteering appears to stick in later years. In our study of volunteering in early adulthood, my colleague Jonathan Hill and I (2013) found that American students who volunteered while attending Protestant high schools were several times more likely to volunteer than adults educated in any other school type. (Another interesting finding: Adults who had been homeschooled as adolescents were far less likely to volunteer than Protestant-, Catholic-, or public-educated adults.) But in terms of direct political involvement, the evidence is mixed. In the Cardus study of the United States, researchers found that graduates of Protestant schools were less likely than their counterparts to give to political parties or campaigns, volunteer for a party, or participate in various forms of political protest (Pennings 2011, 28). Their conclusion is an intriguing contrast with Dee's finding that Catholic graduates tend to turn out to vote at higher rates than graduates of other school types (2005).

These are just a few examples of a developing literature, and a great deal more research still needs to be conducted. We know enough, however, to conclude that Christian schools generally have a neutral to positive effect on civic outcomes. What is less clear is why Christian schools have these effects. It is not simply that Christian schools attract students who already have solid habits of citizenship, because all the studies cited above include controls for typical sociodemographic and interpersonal characteristics of good citizens apart from school type. We can say with confidence that the schools themselves add value beyond the preexisting qualities of their students. So what is that value?

The answers have been elusive. My work with Jon Hill is illustrative. We posited two plausible theories to explain the effect of school type on volunteering in early adulthood. One theory suggests that school types vary in the nature and scope of opportunities they provide their students. Some schools might be more effective at exposing students to volunteering experiences within school, linking students to volunteer experiences outside of school, or creating rich networks of peers who reinforce a positive view of volunteering. Another theory suggests that school types vary in how well they shape motivations for volunteering. Some schools might be more effective at developing prosocial orientations and a sense of empowerment in their students, or they might provide extrinsic inducements (for example, mandatory "volunteering") to expose students to volunteer experiences. But while these are plausible theories, the empirical data did not lend strong support to either of them as explanations of school-types effects.

Making the Case for Civic Education in Christian Schools

Even without clear explanations, however, I hope we can agree that Christian schools must have a vision for civic education as a vitally important part of their mission in the world. And as I survey the educational landscape, I see some real challenges to that vision.

The first challenge is the most elemental: misplaced priorities about the purposes of education. Much of the public discussion about vital educational needs today assumes that the goal of K-12 education is to prepare students to attend college and to compete in the global marketplace (for example, President Obama's justification for Race to the Top, his signature K-12 education program). That is why leaders generally do not treat civic learning as equal in importance to training in science, math, technology, and reading. Frankly, this kind of prioritizing suggests that being a productive worker is significantly more important than being a good citizen. I would suggest that Christians, who are called to engage the world in all areas of life, should challenge that assumption.

But if we accept that civic education ought to be a high priority, we still need to identify its subject matter. Here we confront a second concern: young people increasingly see the realm of the "civic" in narrow terms. Some interesting research suggests that younger people today are not necessarily less civically engaged than in the past, but differently engaged (Dalton 2009). They actively volunteer, for example, in ways that do some social good without governmental involvement. While this is a heartening trend, the data on voting, party identification, interest group membership, and direct participation in local politics suggests that many of these same young volunteers do not consider government as another viable—even necessary—site for collective action about the public good. And, as noted above, graduates of Protestant schools, particularly in the United States, are the most likely to think this way. Christians who are called to be salt and light everywhere should be concerned about that diminished view of government.

A third reason civic education should matter to Christian schools is the existence of a gap in youth participation. It turns out that some indicators suggest that American youth have higher levels of civic competency than their peers in many other Western democracies (Lopez 2006). But the competency gap among youth within the United States is also much wider than other countries, especially when comparing young people on the basis of family income or parental literacy levels. While civic education cannot solve the problem of poverty or family literacy, it can help address political disaffection among those young people at economic or other disadvantage. Christian schools ought to take the lead in combatting such political inequality.

The civic outcomes of Christian education are better than critics often acknowledge. That is good news for those of us who support both Christian schools and the virtues of democratic citizenship. But Christian schools also have opportunities to improve on their considerable strengths as potential centers for civic witness.


Allison, Derek J., and Deani A. Van Pelt. 2012. Canada. In Charles L. Glenn, Jan De Groof, and Cara Stillings Candal, eds. Balancing freedom, autonomy, and accountability in education, vol. 3. 2nd ed. Nijmegen, Netherlands: Wolf Legal Publishers.

Dalton, Russell J. 2009. The good citizen: How a younger generation is reshaping American politics. Rev. ed. Washington, DC: CQ Press.

Dee, Thomas S. 2005. The effects of Catholic schooling on civic participation. International Tax and Public Finance 12, no. 5 (September): 605-25.

Gutmann, Amy. 1999. Democratic education. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Hill, Jonathan, and Kevin R. den Dulk. 2013. Religion, volunteering, and educational setting: The effect of youth schooling type on civic engagement. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 52, no. 1 (March):179-97.

Lopez, Mark Hugo. 2006. The 2006 civic and political health of the nation: A detailed look at how youth participate in politics and communities. College Park, MD: CIRCLE.

MacMullen, Ian. 2007. Faith in schools? Autonomy, citizenship, and religious education in the liberal state. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

National Center for Education Statistics. 2011. The nation's report card: Civics 2010. Washington, DC: Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

Pennings, Ray, John Seel, Deani A. Van Pelt, David Sikkink, and Kathryn L. Wiens. 2011. Cardus education survey. Hamilton, ON: Cardus.

Pennings, Ray, David Sikkink, Deani A. Van Pelt, Harro Van Brummelen, and Amy von Heyking. 2012. Cardus education survey: A rising tide lifts all boats. Hamilton, ON: Cardus.

Putnam, Robert D., and David E. Campbell. 2010. American grace: How religion divides and unites us. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Smidt, Corwin E., Kevin R. den Dulk, James M. Penning, Stephen V. Monsma, and Douglas L. Koopman. 2008. Pews, prayers, and participation: Religion and civic responsibility in America. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

Wolf, Patrick J. 2007. Civics exam: Schools of choice boost civic values. Education Next 7, no. 3 (Summer):66-72.

Kevin R. den Dulk, PhD, is the Paul B. Henry Chair in Political Science and director of the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is the coauthor of several books, including Religion and Politics in America: Faith, Culture, and Strategic Choices (Westview, 2013) and Pew, Prayers, and Participation: Religion and Civic Responsibility in America (Georgetown, 2008). 

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