Teaching Religion with Seeking Good Debate

This teaching guide is for anyone teaching courses that involve American religion. Such courses might have titles like Religion in America, Religion and Society, Sociology of Religion, Social Scientific Study of Religion, Religion and Media, or Religion in the Public Sphere. Because Seeking Good Debate brings together perspectives from many disciplines, it is relevant for religion courses offered in many different academic departments, including (but not limited to) Religious Studies, Sociology, Political Science, Communication, Theology, American Studies, and Media Studies.

The Pitch

Religion is a huge part of American life, both public and private. Many books have considered what religion ought to be doing in public life. But Seeking Good Debate is the first book to combine a large-scale empirical study of what religious elites say and do in American public debate with in-depth research into what ordinary Americans really want to see happen. Seeking Good Debate is unique in showing how patterns in public debate influence individual perceptions and opinions about religion in America. If you want to understand how religion in public actually works, you need to read Seeking Good Debate.

Before We Begin

First, thanks for considering Seeking Good Debate for your course!

Second, an administrative note. If you’re interested in an examination copy of Seeking Good Debate, or you’ve already adopted the book for your course and would like a desk copy, here’s where you go to get those: UC Press Exam & Desk Copy Request for Seeking Good Debate.

Third, a personal note. There are as many ways to teach Seeking Good Debate as there are teachers. As a teacher myself, I thought a lot about learning objectives, reading assignments, class exercises, related readings, media resources, and discussion questions while writing the book. I’ve created these teaching guides to give you some ideas about how to use Seeking Good Debate in your courses. But these guides aren’t meant to be definitive. I hope that you do whatever works best for you and your students!

How Should I Use This Guide?

I wrote this guide to be consistent with “backward design” principles. So if you scroll down the page, you’ll first see a list of sample learning objectives. Maybe start by selecting a few that fit your course best. Then with those in mind, review the reading assignment suggestions and corresponding discussion questions to see what material is most appropriate to support your course and learning objectives. After doing that you’ll probably have a good sense of which parts of Seeking Good Debate are right for you. For more ideas on activities and supplemental material, you can keep scrolling down to the sample in-class exercise, the sample group project, some media resource suggestions, and suggestions for related reading on various topics. Mix and match as appropriate!

Or you can just jump right to the part that interests you:

Sample Learning Objectives

Please feel free to pick and choose from these sample learning objectives, or create your own! The numbers are solely for reference throughout this teaching guide.

Students will be able to:

  1. explain how and why public debate is important in democratic societies
  2. provide appropriate examples of representatives taking different approaches to public debate
  3. define and explain significance of “credibility” for religious groups
  4. describe differences in public strategies between American conservative and moderate/liberal religious groups
  5. explain historical shifts in public representation by American religious elites
  6. demonstrate how religious differences in seeking public credibility generate different perceptions of religion among ordinary Americans
  7. propose alternative public strategies that are consistent with empirical evidence

Which Chapters Should I Assign, and Why?

What you assign depends a lot on the level and focus of the course. If you’re teaching a graduate seminar in religion or sociology, for example, I recommend assigning the whole book and working through its key arguments from start to finish. But for undergraduate courses, I suggest shorter reading assignments that clearly support learning objectives. Here are some suggestions:

First, set the stage for the rest of the readings with Chapter 1: Rethinking Religion and Science. Chapter 1 shows how to think about problems in religion and science debates as part of larger problems with public debate rather than problems between religion and science, focusing in particular on the constitutive power that public representatives have to shape public understanding of institutions and issues. Chapter 1 supports learning objectives 1, 2, and 3 directly, and lays the groundwork for other learning objectives.

Author’s Tip: Figure 1 shows how all the parts of the book fit together, which can be helpful for learners (and teachers!) who want to see the big picture right away.

Discussion questions for Chapter 1:

Next, read Chapter 4: Representatives and Good Debate to see what representatives in public life actually say and do. Chapter 4 shows that for the most visible representatives in these debates, good debate means advancing an agenda. While a few representatives attempt to engage in more deliberative public talk, the highest visibility representatives of religion and science (and other social institutions) consistently pursue advocacy rather than deliberative debate. Chapter 4 supports learning objectives 2 and 5 directly, and lays the groundwork for learning objectives 3, 4, and 6.

Discussion questions for Chapter 4:

Now it’s time to dive deep on the religion-specific material! Read both Chapter 6: Owning the Space: Religious Credibility in the Public Sphere and Chapter 7: Religion and Bad Debate. Chapter 6 shows that religion representatives participate in the public sphere differently in order to pursue public credibility. But the historical domination of public debate by theologically and politically conservative religion representatives gives the Religious Right a structural advantage as they continue to “own the space” of religion in public life. Chapter 7 shows that these religious differences shape the possibilities for good debate in the future. The Religious Right has poisoned the well of religion in the public sphere. Ordinary respondents, whatever their personal religious commitments, see all religion talk as inimical to good deliberative debate, no matter what its source. Chapters 6 and 7 directly support learning objectives 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.

Discussion questions for Chapters 6 and 7:

Finally, read Chapter 10: The Future of Religion and Science in American Public Life. Chapter 10 considers the root causes of problems for religion and science in American public life, and identifies several possible future strategies for religion and science in future debate. Chapter 10 directly supports learning objective 7.

Discussion questions for Chapter 10:

And you’re done! Of course you can change this up however you like. To expand on these readings, add chapter 5 alongside Chapter 4. To shorten the readings further, teach the important points from Chapter 4 but skip that reading assignment. Or just pick the chapters that support your chosen learning objectives.

Finally, while I of course recommend reading as much as possible, I recognize that not everyone will be able to commit to teaching the main argument of Seeking Good Debate. So if you just want one selection for your course involving American religion, I suggest assigning Chapters 6 and 7 to cover recent developments and consequences in American religion and public life.

Sample In-Class Exercise

Chapter 7 contains the results of an interview exercise in which I presented anonymized quotes from public religious figures on 3×5 cards, and respondents told me what they thought about them. This is easy to reproduce in a classroom setting in a few minutes with a bit of preparation. It’s a good active learning exercise, and gets students thinking about how their assessments of religious talk compare to those of the respondents in the study.

Prep: Find a few quotes from public religious figures with different backgrounds (e.g. Rick Warren, Pope Francis, Jim Wallis, etc). Print each quote onto 3×5 cards, but do not indicate the source. Make enough 3×5 cards so that each student will get one quote on a card.

In-class: Distribute 3×5 cards to students. (I recommend counting off 1,2,3 and distributing cards so no two adjacent students get same quote). Then do a Think-Pair-Share exercise:

Sample Group Project

A good way for students to learn from each other while demonstrating their understanding of Seeking Good Debate is to have them work in groups outside of class to create and present a strategy for achieving public credibility. (I highly recommend keeping groups small, preferably no more than 4 to a group.) Here is one way to structure that project, though you will need to add your own appropriate grading rubric:

Summary: Seeking Good Debate shows that public credibility is important for American religion. But Seeking Good Debate also demonstrates that the structure of public debate limits future possibilities for religion in American public life. Drawing on your understanding of the reading, and on your own creative abilities, work with a group of your classmates to create a strategy for a religious group that will help them achieve or maintain public credibility.


What Media Resources Do You Suggest?

There are so many! But I’ll suggest two that have been particularly useful in my own teaching. If you find others that are useful, please let me know!

First, I’ve found that students benefit from hearing religious elites describe their own strategies in their own words. It helps show what religious elites think that they’re doing, not just what you (or I, or Seeking Good Debate) say that they’re doing. So in my own religion courses I usually show clips from this interview with Jerry Falwell, in which he explains how and why he founded Moral Majority:

Second, the concept of “credibility” is sometimes difficult to convey without concrete examples, so I also often show videos promoting religious organizations or ideas or events, and ask students to note how specific elements of the video such as setting, location, word choice, spokesperson, and credentials attempt to build credibility for whatever is being promoted. Watch and ask: what do people do and say to seem more credible? This video from Ravi Zacharias International Ministries has been a productive example in classes I’ve taught:

What Related Readings Do You Suggest?

If you want to connect Seeking Good Debate to broader trends in American religion:

If you want to connect Seeking Good Debate to arguments about religion, politics, democracy and deliberation:

If you want to connect Seeking Good Debate to developments in American religious media: