In the land of megachurches and the Bible Belt, one would think that the faithful would be very knowledgeable
about matters of religion. The books of the Old and New Testaments, the names of key figures and the stories they are in, as well as the basic history and doctrines of the Christian faith, should all be common knowledge to most American church-goers.
Not so much.
In Stephen Prothero’s book “Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know – and Doesn’t,” we get a splash of cold water in the face. It turns out that American Christians, especially Protestants, don’t know as much about their faith as it would seem. Things like the history of the Reformation, or what the basic orthodox Christian creeds say, are not part of the common knowledge background of most Protestant church-goers today. This is dangerous, not only for the churches, but for our nation as well, “putting citizens in the thrall of talking heads and effectively transferring power from the third estate (the people) to the fourth (the press).”
Prothero, chair of the religion department at Boston University, gives the reader a fascinating and whirlwind history of religion in America, from colonial days to the present. Modeled on E.D. Hirsch’s now classic book “Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know,” this volume is loaded with facts and statistics contained in 45 pages of footnotes.
While it was the various Christian groups that drove the desire for wider education in early America, ironically it was people of faith that started the nation on the path to religious illiteracy. Prothero shows us how, as public schools spread across the country, people of faith reduced or eliminated doctrinal teachings about Christianity in order to keep religious instruction in the schools. By doing so, by attempting to make religion generic, they succeeded in collapsing religion into morality and “values.” Because of this, true theology and religious ideas have been lost to the culture and to many of the non-denominational churches.
The author has some good suggestions on how to correct this problem. Most important, from my point of view, is to inform the teachers in our schools that it IS constitutional to teach students about religion in an objective, scholarly manner. Many instructors today are petrified to even mention the subject thanks to confusing court rulings and high-pressure humanist groups anxious to erase any mention of religion from the public arena.
Finally, Prothero includes a thorough “Dictionary of Religious Literacy” at the end of the book, which is almost like an introductory course on religious studies by itself.
“Religious Literacy” is a fairly quick and entertaining read. If you really want to understand our country and what role religion plays in our society, you need to understand the religious influences at work in it. As Stephen Prothero puts it, “one needs to know something about the world’s religions in order to be truly educated.”