WASHINGTON (RNS) — Miguel Cardona smiles as he recalls waiting backstage in December 2020 on the day then-President Elect Joe Biden was planning to announce Cardona as his nominee for secretary of education. Cardona remembers huddling with the president-in-waiting, of course, but says he has a particularly vivid memory of meeting Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.
After a brief exchange, he said, Harris pointed to a small pin affixed to his lapel and asked, “What’s that?”
“I said, ‘This is a mustard seed,’” Cardona says, still grinning as he referenced the biblical call to have faith like a mustard seed. “Right away she knew, and I think really connected in a way that says, ‘Look, we recognize the importance of our faith in God, in our ability to do what we do.’ It was just a nice way to connect.”
Indeed, references to faith are frequent with Cardona, who has been public about his Catholicism while serving as head of the Department of Education. But his tenure has coincided with renewed tensions between public school administrators and some religious Americans, including a resurgence of activists who have called for bolstering Christianity’s influence in classrooms.
Religion News Service sat down virtually this week with Cardona to discuss his faith, the work of his department and how he navigates debates over religion and politics. The following has been edited for clarity and length.
Can you talk a little about how your faith animates your work as secretary of education?
I grew up attending St. Rose, a Catholic church in my hometown of Meriden, Connecticut. That’s where my parents went when they came from Puerto Rico in the late ’50s, early ’60s — that was the anchor for them and many others from the island. I grew up every Sunday going to church and to this day we visit St. Rose and have a relationship with the folks there. It’s a big part of who I am, and the job is an extension of who I am.
This role that I’m humbled to serve in is really an extension of the person who was shaped in large part with his faith and the religious discipline I grew up in.
Your department has a faith office. What does your work with that group look like?
As a secretary of education, it’s really important for me — as it was when I was a teacher or school principal or a district leader — to make sure we protect all students and help them feel comfortable in their learning environment. And that means protecting their religious freedoms. As secretary, and working with (the faith office), it’s to ensure we’re protecting the religious freedom of our students. I grew up Catholic. I’m a Christian, but I need to make sure our schools are welcoming places for all students, including students who are not Christian.
It doesn’t mean you have to be agnostic in your own faith. It just means you have to preserve what public education is and make sure all students (are protected) — especially those who are underrepresented, or those who maybe feel threatened if they celebrate or share their faith and what they believe
Over the past year, there’s obviously been division between some religious actors and public education — I’m thinking about the debate surrounding the Kennedy v. Bremerton School District decision, or especially the fraught public school board meetings. How do you approach those kinds of debates while trying to balance both people’s religious freedom and respect for a secular education?
I respect different opinions. There has to be a space for people to openly share their beliefs, their thoughts. I think that’s how this country was built, and that’s what makes us the best country — the most unique experiment in our world.
With that said, I struggle when some folks’ religious stance is imposed on others, or it’s expected that one religious belief guides public policy with no regard or little regard to those who may not have the same belief system. And I say that as a Christian.
Relatedly, there’s been debate on how the topic of religion is discussed in public education, be it the way we teach American history to just how we teach about religion in general. Do you have any thoughts about that ongoing debate?
Truth and perspectives have to be shared. It’s really important that we’re arming our students with the ability to think critically and be consumers of truth. It’s not our role in our public schools to guide them toward a specific belief or faith. So, much like we expect history to be taught from the different perspectives, religion cannot be solely taught from the lens of one perspective. The goal here is helping our students understand perspectives, critical thinking and different perspectives which lead to a better understanding of how things work and how things have shaped history.
You’re talking about supporting the instruction of religion as a topic in schools.
To say we’re going to totally exclude that is to be blind to what has shaped history. But it’s really important that teaching about religion is not the same as teaching religion.
There are some schools that do a really good job teaching religious principles and strengthening students’ faith. We have in the Catholic faith parochial schools — my father attended parochial school — and that’s an important option for families that choose that, as are religious schools in different faiths.
And for the majority of public schools, they teach about religion and religions, and their impact on the history of our country and our world. I think that’s very appropriate. To skirt that or to negate that as an influence, I think, would be doing a disservice to our students.
I hear you saying there’s a difference between teaching about religion and teaching people to believe a certain religion.
It’s even wrong to teach about religion with a slant toward one over the other.
Earlier this year, your department launched an investigation into Liberty University following claims of numerous mishandled allegations of sexual assault. Does investigating religious schools present additional challenges for your department, or involve different dynamics?
Just because you’re a religious institution doesn’t make you free from following the law. Whether you’re a religious institution or not, the expectations of a safe learning environment where students are protected is a basic very basic requirement. The standards and expectations of safety are just the same. Nor do I think, in the name of a religious belief, students should be discriminated against or pushed aside or made to feel less than because they don’t conform to a religious belief system that might govern the community or be the religion of those in charge.
Is there any update on that investigation or parallel investigations?
I don’t have any updates today for that.
Looking ahead to the new year, do you have any specific goals regarding faith or religious institutions you hope to have an impact on as secretary?
I continue to want to make sure this Department of Education is open to working with our colleagues and our faith-based institutions. I had a wonderful event recently in New York where I met with faith-based leaders from different religions about the importance of ensuring our students recover from the pandemic — because it’s not just religious freedoms they’re asking about. They’re asking, how are we going to recover from the pandemic? How are we going to provide the mental health support our students need?
As a Latino growing up in a community where the Latinos were a small number and then eventually got bigger and bigger, we really relied on our priest. It’s often the faith based centers, churches, mosques, synagogues that provide community development advice or tips to families on how to continue to grow. So they’re partners in the process, and I think it’s really important that we do not allow, in the name of religion or in the name of faith, for discriminatory behavior to persist. Because I think what it does is kind of paint all religions in a bad name.
Some of those who have critiqued the Department of Education have done so by framing your department, other government agencies or public school administrators as the enemy — sometimes while invoking faith or using religious terms. As a person who speaks openly about his own faith, how do you respond to that?
Blessed are those who are persecuted, right?
Look, I’m not hiding who I am, what my faith is or what my upbringing was. I stand up for children who are LGBTQ because of my faith, not in spite of it. Just like I often show my pride in my Latino roots, so students who are Latino see that they, too, can get there, I am proud of my Christian faith. I’m proud about the fact that I rely on that faith and that has gotten me through tough times. I look at this as an extension of God’s plan for me.
And I want to myth bust, if you will, that when we come here, we’re not guided by our faith. One of the things I respect most about the president is that he’s not shy about sharing his faith. I think that’s an important thing. When some try to make it a perception that that doesn’t belong in D.C., or it doesn’t exist in D.C.
If it weren’t for my faith, I wouldn’t be here. It keeps me focused on the things that matter most, which is serving those who have need, providing opportunities for students, taking care of those who need it the most, which is really tightly aligned with my Christian principles and what I was raised with in the church and at home.