Such is the sorry state of religious literacy in the United States today. Stephen Prothero, professor and chair of the religion department at Boston University and author of the acclaimed American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, argues in his remarkable new book, Religious Literacy, that Americans are woefully ignorant about the very matters of faith, religion, and theology that they purport to hold so dear. Americans are both deeply religious and profoundly ignorant about religion, he writes.
And then there was the hapless Howard Dean. When asked during the course of the 2004 presidential primaries to name his favorite book in the New Testament, the former governor of Vermont stammered and finally blurted out Job, a book located for centuries squarely in middle of the Hebrew scriptures.
All of this folly could be passed off as harmless ignorance, but Prothero argues otherwise. Scarcely a day passes when a story related to religion doesnt grace (pun intended) the front page of the daily newspaper, be it the Sunni-Shiite violence of Iraqs civil war, the sophomoric pro-life versus pro-choice bumper-sticker war, the persistent tensions between Muslims and Hindus in South Asia, the endless cycle of violence in Palestine, or even the debate over global warming.
Prothero is not the first to point out Americans religious illiteracy, but his book is an especially deft examination of the reasons for it. (His focus is on biblical illiteracy, but he touches on ignorance in other faiths as well.) Prothero lays much of the blame on publishers of school textbooks and public education generally. Ever since the school-prayer rulings in the early 1960s, which effectively banned communal prayer in public schools, both publishers and school officials have been chary about dealing with religion in the classroom. School officials fail to make the fundamental distinction between the teaching of religion and the teaching about religion. The former, as Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg pointed out at the time, is unconstitutional, while the latter is not. Those who would strip religious considerations out of, say, the founding of Massachusetts or the doctrine of Manifest Destiny or American foreign policy in the Middle East leave us with an impoverished understanding of American history and culture.
But the roots of Americas religious illiteracy go deeper than that. Common schools (as nineteenth-century public schools were known) gradually assumed the task of training in literacy that Sunday schools had performed earlier. With the advent of public education, Sunday schools shifted back to religious instruction, and the bifurcation between the two eventually bracketed religion from the curricula of public schools. The New England Primer, a basic educational text for the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, gave way to William Holmes McGuffeys Eclectic Readers of the nineteenth century. If the point of the New England Primer was to teach children that they were sinners and that Jesus died to save them from their sins, Prothero notes, the point of the later McGuffey readers was to teach children that God wanted them to work hard, save their money, tell the truth, and avoid alcohol.
In other words, we had already taken one giant step toward the contemporary era in which morality is the essence of religion and the term Christian connotes opposition to abortion and gay marriage rather than faith in the incarnation and the redemptionan era in which having a relationship with Jesus is more important than knowing what he actually did, in which believing in the Bible matters more than knowing what the Bible has to say.
Protheros second historical explanation for Americas religious illiteracy, however, is somewhat less persuasive. He argues that the emphasis on religious piety caused some evangelicals to view the intellectual understanding of religion with suspicionindeed, by the end of the nineteenth century, a lack of elementary knowledge of Christianity would constitute evidence of authentic faith. The holiness movement of the nineteenth century, which attempted to restore spiritual ardor to Methodism and other Protestant denominations, was in fact inordinately suspicious of educated clergy, the supposition being that education crowds out piety (an axiom that anyone associated with divinity schools might be hard pressed to refute).
But such an indictment ignores the fact that evangelicalsfundamentalists especiallycare deeply about matters of faith and theology; they embrace a kind of doctrinal precisionism. Some of the most bitter intellectual and theological disputes of the twentieth century, in fact, stem from the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the 1920s, which divided Protestant denominations along liberal-conservative lines. Conservatives claimed, with some justification, that they demonstrated more fidelity to the scriptures and had a firmer grasp on the historic doctrines of the faith. Liberals, they charged (again, not entirely without foundation), had discarded the rudiments of orthodoxy in favor of an intellectually flaccid religion that owed more to the currents of popular culture than to theological understanding or insight.
The persistent evangelical allegiance to doctrine manifests itself in numberless ways, not least a mechanistic approach to the Bible that often yields an arid scholasticism. But evangelicals take the Bible and the task of theology very seriously indeed. The tussle over intelligent design, for instance, which amounts to an effort to baptize creationism as science, or the evangelical insistence on the inerrancy of the Bible, suggest that evangelicals are trying to refight the intellectual and theological battles they lost in the nineteenth century. If Prothero means to suggest, or even to infer, that the average mainline Protestant has a firmer grasp on theology and religious literacy than a pietistic evangelical, he fails to make his case.
Still, the overall point about religious illiteracy and the shift from theology to morality is a sound one. The remedy? Prothero insists that the proper venue for catechetical religious instruction is the home or a place of worship. But he says there is no reason whatsoever, misguided readings of the First Amendment notwithstanding, that religion or even the Bible cannot be taught in public schools. Its also essential for responsible citizenship, he argues, especially in a pluralistic society and in the midst of a shrinking world.
Prothero proposes, in short, to add a fourth R, religion, to the traditional three Rs, reading, writing, and rithmetic. My goal, he writes, is civic rather than theological … My brief for religious literacy proceeds on secular grounds, on the theory that Americans are not equipped for citizenship (or, for that matter, cocktail party conversation) without a basic understanding of Christianity and the worlds religions.
Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest, is professor of American religious history at Barnard College, and a visiting professor at Yale University Divinity School. His most recent book is Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America.