Religious Tolerance in America

From Knocking collection, lesson plan 3 of 4

(90-120 minutes + assignments)

Grade Level: 9-12, College

Subject areas: Social Studies, Language Arts, Debate, Sociology, Ethics, Psychology, Religious Studies, Current Events

Purpose of the lesson: America is known as a “melting pot” with our population made up of people of many nationalities, races, and religions. This lesson explores what religious tolerance looks like in America and compares and contrasts it with policies and social norms in other countries. It also takes students through a process designed to promote religious tolerance in and out of the school community.


Students will:

  • learn to define religious tolerance and its characteristics and to identify examples of behaviors that are tolerant and intolerant
  • learn about how religious groups, particularly Jehovah’s Witnesses, have historically suffered religious persecution in the U.S.
  • formulate opinions and support them with reasons, facts or examples
  • share opinions as part of class discussion activities
  • utilize critical viewing and note taking skills
  • utilize brainstorming skills
  • conduct a survey and tabulate the results accurately
  • use persuasive writing techniques to communicate opinions to a specified audience
  • utilize project planning skills
  • complete an oral presentation showcasing an original project


Stating and supporting opinions in class discussion, critical viewing, note-taking, brainstorming, data collection and compilation, persuasive writing, project planning, oral presentation


  • Board/overhead
  • Student and teacher handouts (provided with educator guide)
  • Knocking Film Module 1 “Understanding the Religion and Politics of Jehovah’s Witnesses”
  • Assorted art supplies, desktop publishing software (optional)

National teaching standards addressed:

Grades 9-12

National standards from the following organizations were used in developing this lesson plan. See recommended national standards available in the educator guide for full descriptions of standards employed.

  • National Council for the Social Studies
  • National Council of Teachers of English/International Reading Association

Curricula writer: Lisa Prososki Lisa Prososki is an independent educational consultant who taught middle school and high school English, social studies, reading and technology courses for 12 years. Prososki has worked extensively with PBS, authoring and editing many lesson plans for various PBS programs and TeacherSource.

  1. Introduce students to the topic of the lesson by using questions such as:

    • Do you think people make assumptions about others based on their religious preference? Why? Can you give any examples?
    • What is religious tolerance?
    • What does religious tolerance look like? Sound like? Feel like?
    • Is religious tolerance important? Why?
    • Do you think people in America exemplify religious tolerance in general? Why or why not?
  2. Ask students to think about a time when they or someone they know made an assumption about an individual or group of people based upon their religion. Direct student to write 3-4 sentences that describe this situation. Provide 3-4 minutes for this activity. Direct students to put this piece of writing aside for use later in the lesson.

  3. Distribute or share a copy of the film summary. Explain to students that Jehovah’s Witnesses are one of the religious groups that many people have made assumptions about in the past. Explain to students that they will be seeing a video clip from the film Knocking as a means for learning more about religious tolerance as well as finding out about the facts surrounding the religion.

  4. On a sheet of paper have students draw a line down the middle and label one column “tolerant” and the other “intolerant.” Explain that the film is about Jehovah’s Witnesses, and that students should use the note sheet to record specific things they see in the film that could be considered examples of religious tolerance or intolerance. Direct students to pay special attention to the closing remarks made by Dr. Michael Berenbaum.

  5. View Knocking Film Module 1 and give students 1-2 minutes after viewing to finish recording their examples.

  6. As a class, discuss the examples of religious tolerance and intolerance recorded from the film. Next, distribute or share information from the “Myths and Realities” content about Jehovah’s Witnesses. Discuss why many not familiar with Jehovah’s Witnesses might display attitudes that are less than tolerant because of the myths associated with the religion.

  7. Using the quotes below from the film, expand the discussion about religious tolerance using questions such as:

    • In what ways does one’s increased knowledge change the presumptions we make?
    • Seth’s grandmother, Delores Rasmussen, and his mother, Audrey Thomas, even seem to have a divide between them stemming from differences of opinion related to religion. If families can’t even agree about religion, how can we expect society in general to exhibit religious tolerance? Discuss your ideas.

    Dolores Rasmussen says: “God, I hate to use the word ‘cult.’ I don’t like the word ‘cult’, but that’s kind of the way it is. It’s not just a religion; it’s a way of life. The Jehovah’s Witnesses cut out the family. They-- It- it’s like a carving. They carve a niche that they fit in but, unless you become part of the niche, you’re out.”

    Audrey Thomas says: “I wish my mother would embrace the fact that we are doing something that works for us. Not that we’re doing it against her.”

    NOTE: The Knocking film quotes are referenced in this step and could be distributed to students for use during discussion.

  8. Using the quote below from Dr. Michael Barenbaum as a basis, talk about how religious conflicts have impacted world history. Consider the meanings and connotations of the term “fundamentalism” and how the word is used in public discourse. Ask students to cite examples of current conflicts caused by disputes related to religion. A list of current conflicts can be found here. Discuss how people’s inability to be tolerant of varied religious beliefs has impacted the world.

    Dr. Michael Barenbaum states: “Jehovah’s Witnesses are fundamentalists who have an uncompromising faith. The largest question in our world today is whether people of uncompromising faith are going to destroy the other or embrace the other, whether people of uncompromising faith are going to see it is imperative to act out with violence toward the other or to act out with decency and dignity toward the other. So the question of our world may not be whether we’re going to have fundamentalism or whether fundamentalism is bad, but what type of fundamentalist we’re going to have.”

    NOTE: The Knocking film quotes are referenced in this step and could be distributed to students for use during discussion.

  9. Close the discussion by asking students to think about how U.S. policies and social norms support or discourage religious tolerance. Compare and contrast U.S. policies with those in other countries.

    OPTION: Invite a panel of guest speakers representing various religious groups into the classroom for a panel discussion. Use the informal student survey questions, as well as the ideas discussed in steps 7 and 8 above. Encourage students to interact with panel members to learn more about how religious intolerance impacts people in your community, in the U.S. and globally. Invite panelists’ opinions about whether or not the U.S. sets a good example for religious tolerance, and have panel members discuss with students what they can do to be more tolerant of people who have religious beliefs that differ from their own.

    NOTE: See Teacher Handout B: Guidelines for Convening a Community Forum for ideas about possible forum participants.

  10. Distribute the Student Handout C: Promoting Religious Tolerance Project Guide and review the guidelines as a class. When all students have completed the Finding the Facts: Class Activity, collect the survey results and tabulate them. Provide students with an overall report about the survey results before they begin the Finding Your Focus portion of the project.

    NOTE: See Teacher Handout A: Supplemental Materials Activity Three References for ideas about possible survey questions that could be included.

  11. When projects have been completed, provide all students 3-5 minutes to present their projects to the class. Encourage students to promote religious tolerance using the ideas generated in their project. Perhaps offer extra credit to those students who execute their plan and follow up with a report about its effectiveness, or if time permits, vote on the best idea for promoting religious tolerance and use class time to complete the project as a group.

    Extension activities:

    1. Using the content of the film clips, the companion website content, and the quotes that accompany the film, collect WWII survivor stories and/or stories that illustrate examples of religious tolerance and intolerance. Create displays that illustrate these events and post them in a public area for others to see as a means for promoting religious tolerance within the school and community. Additional information for this activity can be found in the Lecture Series “Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Holocaust” and “Jehovah’s Witnesses in Nazi Germany” available on the Knocking DVD.

    2. Using the examples of the Thomas and Kempler families provided in the film, use Film Modules 1 and 2 and the companion website content to learn more about the family conflicts involving religious differences/intolerance. Use these examples to examine your own belief systems about religion. Write a short story, diary entry, poem, song or other creative piece that illustrates how a family can be torn apart by religious intolerance or brought together by learning about religious differences and being accepting of them. Share these pieces by posting them on a website, or as a blog or podcast.

There is no extension activity with this lesson plan.

  • Film module:
    Knocking: Understanding the Religion and Politics of Jehovah’s Witnesses
Download lesson materials