The Fourth R
America has long been called a Christian nation, and most Americans identify themselves as Christian. But polls also show most can’t name the first book of the Bible. And, according to a 2005 Harper’s magazine article by Bill McKibben, 75 percent of Americans believe the Bible teaches “God helps those who help themselves.” Actually, Benjamin Franklin came up with that idea, which contradicts Proverbs 28:26, “He who trusts in himself is a fool.”
With such ignorance, how effective can Americans be as citizens confronting a Sunni-Shiite civil war in Iraq, Bush’s term “Islamofacism,” debates on intelligent design, rulings about “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, a so-called “war on Christmas” and community arguments over Christmas displays on public property?
“Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn’t” by Stephen Prothero (Harper San Francisco; 296 pages; $24.95) proposes a way to counter this anti-intellectualism by making religious studies the “Fourth R” in high schools and colleges.
Although chairman of the religious studies department at Boston University, Prothero’s argument isn’t about faith, but about how knowledge of religion is vital to the functioning of a democracy that requires a well-informed citizenry. This, of course, is a key rationale for journalism, so Prothero’s book is likely to get a lot of positive press for his mission, if not always for his writing.
He is careful to stress the difference between indoctrination, or making people believe a particular religion, and religious literacy, or getting people to understand “the religious terms, symbols, images, beliefs, practices, scriptures, heroes, themes, and stories that are employed in American
Not understanding this distinction, Prothero argues, is part of the problem. Although the Supreme Court has ruled against “Sunday-school-style religious instruction,” he writes, the high court also ruled that “the Bible may constitutionally be used in an appropriate study of history, civilization, ethics, comparative religions and the like.”
For high schools, Prothero describes two required courses: one that views the Bible in terms of its literary and religious importance, another that introduces students to “the seven great religious traditions of the world: Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.”
For colleges, he calls for all students to be required to take one course in religious studies, so graduates can have at least “minimal religious literacy.”
He also addresses the practical concerns about money, scheduling and the politics of educational requirements.
Trying too hard
The weakness in his writing, however, begins early on by trying too hard to prove the importance of religion in daily life. He mentions popular books like the “Left Behind” series and “The Da Vinci Code,” and rappers who invoke the name Jesus to show the currency of religious signifiers. But pointing to examples of religious names, images and even ideas doesn’t prove that these references are being used for a religious purpose as opposed to marketing.
So when Prothero dismisses the “parochial enclave” of “secularization theory” that suggested God was dead, he seems to be confusing uses and abuses of religious figures in pop culture and politics with belief.
But this is a minor part of his book, which in addition to presenting his pedagogical proposal includes a list of 100 key terms as part of a “Dictionary of Religious Literacy” — examples include the Ten Commandments, Ramadan, Hinduism and al-Qaida — and a quick history of religion in American education.
In chapters with names that unfortunately conflate religiousness with religious literacy — the titles are “Eden (What We Once Knew)” and “The Fall (How We Forgot)” — Prothero traces America’s religious literacy from Colonial-era laws requiring parents to teach their children about religion, usually through the Bible, to such contemporary debates as a gay Episcopal bishop.
Prothero locates the decline in religious literacy not in secularism, but in religious movements.
In the 19th century, Christians of different sects worked together to promote religion in schools, but to do so they had to find a “lowest common denominator” of belief, which meant teaching about “moral character” — often the Golden Rule — instead of doctrines that differentiated the sects. Therefore, specifics about belief and the Bible were no longer being taught in public schools.
Also in the 19th century, evangelical Christianity gained in popularity, attracting members from various Protestant sects. The evangelical emphasis on being “born again” over doctrine, however, meant a diminishment of religious literacy. “In the name of heartfelt faith, unmediated experience, and Jesus himself, they actively discourage religious learning,” Prothero writes. “It is to evangelicalism, therefore, that we owe both the vitality of religion in contemporary America and our impoverished understanding of it.”
So why is now the time to try to teach religious literacy? Prothero suggests there has been a trend to move away from the kind of sameness that highlighted the multicultural movement and toward the more difficult, but more accurate, ability to understand and respect radical differences of particular beliefs — both among Christian sects and among other traditions.
“Tolerance is doubtless a necessity for civil society,” he writes. “It is enshrined in the First Amendment and should be taught (and celebrated) in public school social studies courses. But a commitment to tolerance by no means entails indifference to either religious doctrines or religious differences. In fact, tolerance is an empty virtue in the absence of firmly held and mutually contradictory beliefs.”
Prothero should be applauded for undertaking the task of inserting religious literacy into public debate, and his book would make a good beginning as a text for teaching religious literacy. After all, it does teach about constitutional debates. But it doesn’t always go far enough.
His “Dictionary of Religious Literacy” is limited to terms currently used in U.S. discourse. For example, it includes Hanukkah but not the more important Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, because Hanukkah comes into debates about religious displays around Christmastime.
In other words, his dictionary highlights the provinciality of American discourse.
So even though Prothero is challenging Americans to open up schools to studies of religious literacy, he isn’t challenging the status quo in terms of content, which would be mostly biblical and Christian.
A possible problem with this is that it would do nothing to locate America’s place in the world in terms of religion, allowing Americans to complacently accept its sense of exceptionalism, which could lead to things like wars in places where the belief systems of others are poorly understood.
The advantage of Prothero’s approach, though, is that it could be politically viable in a purportedly Christian nation with a public school system often fraught with contentious battles over the content of what children are taught.