What Every American Needs to Know
By Stephen Prothero
Book Summary by Rosemary Roberts
Americans are feeling outnumbered and threatened, not so much by foreign terrorists
but by their fellow Americans. An atmosphere of faith-based paranoia permeates
a portion of our cultural climate.
Unlike the Europeans, whose educations have included a thorough steeping in
religious studies, we do not -- cannot -- view religion objectively. Instead,
we clutch our Bibles to our bosoms and with varying degrees of emotional fervor,
proclaiming ourselves "a religious nation."
We take pride when the most momentous decisions -- personal, judicial,
political, and even official government rulings are made
in compliance with religious convictions....our own
religious convictions, that is. Religious demographics
are shifting in the United States and this has become
a source of unease for many.
Important decisions based on concepts we don't embrace or understand, breeds
fear and a polarized "us and them" perspective.
Convinced by a barrage of rightwing propaganda broadcasts,
Secularists believe that the separation between Church and State is crumbling.
Meanwhile, the Religious Right bewails the dilution of Christmas into a non-denominational
"Happy Holiday" with a litany of abominations ...euthanasia, gay marriage
and abortion sure to follow.
Our constitution protects our freedom of religion in its free exercise clause.
It also protects us from religion in the First Amendment's establishment clause.
The debate intensifies. Both sides contend that the other intends to take control,
forcing the nation into a mold of its own dread design.
The Bill O'Reillys, Jerry Falwells and Pat Buchanans paint a future of Godless
depravity. Simultaneously, Secularists see hard-won rights and reason losing
ground. They fear a future ruled by a distorted concept of deity. Ironically,
each side is sure the other side is winning!
This is, and always has been, a nation both secular and Christian. As a people,
we have nodded in agreement with such apparent contradictions. John Adams declared,
in 1796, that this government was not founded on religion. We accept that statement
We accept as equally true the 1892 Supreme Court's description of this as "a
Christian nation." We punctuate Presidential inaugurations with prayer.
The Supreme Court recognizes God in every session.
We declare national days of thanksgiving and prayer and accept them without
question. As a nation, we are a singular hybrid of both Church and State. Any
disparity lies in the eye of the believer -- and the non-believer.
Americans believe in God. They pray -- and they pay to do it....to the tune
of the $88 billion they append in maintaining their various religious institutions.
That represents a mountain of faith -- more than the gross domestic product
of many nations!
Conservatives may assert that America is sinking into godlessness but facts
just don't support that contention. Those claiming no religious preference doubled
from 7% to 14% during the 1990s. Most of these, however, admitted to the habit
of personal prayer and a belief in life after death.
They have not rejected God or spirituality, but have simply chosen to avoid
the trappings of organized religion.
Our politics and news media are filled with religious references and images.
Christian music is $1 billion big business. Conservative commentators enjoy
radio and television ratings that disprove their contention that Americans have
abandoned religion. In public debate and court-rooms all across the nation,
interest in religion is vibrant and alive.
Religion in America is also pluralistic. There are more Buddhist schools in
religiously heterogeneous Los Angeles than in Tokyo! Buddhist thought influences
the religious lives of more than 12% of Americans, among them many Jews and
Some of our one million Hindu Americans operate the largest companies in Silicon
Valley. Churches and community centers across the land hold classes in Yoga,
an import from India. Martial arts reflect the influence of Taoism. Islam is
overtaking Judaism and will soon become our second largest religion.
All these faiths, and more, create the cross-cultural microcosm that is Flushing,
New York. Sikh gurdwaras, Korean churches, Mormon temples, Orthodox, Reform
and Conservative synagogues reflect the variety of religious experience in America
Cultural enrichment results from such diversity. Islam is a burgeoning political
force in many areas of the country. Hindus struggle to overcome an unrealistic
public image projected by Hollywood. Meanwhile, a manufacturer mines their philosophy
for exotic names to label a new line of perfumes.
Our movie stars support Tibetan independence and the Dalai Lama has become
an American celebrity. These diverse religions are interwoven with American
culture, yet our knowledge of them is superficial. We don't understand them
Our Bible is the most widely translated book in America, followed by Lao Tzu's
Tao Te Ching,
the Taoist classic. Most major booksellers carry translations of these works.
The Bhagavad Gita (Hindu scripture) and the Quran (Islamic scripture) are available
too, but we rarely read them.
Few Americans can name even one scripture from any Asian religion nor do many
know there is a distinction between Hinduism and Buddhism. Religious tolerance
is a core American value.
We must recognize that only with knowledge and understanding of "the other"
can we nurture that quality.
Statistics record the relative balance of various denominations in our fifty
states. We know how many of which groups believe in reincarnation, in haunted
houses, in angels and witches.
Most Americans welcome women into the clergy. We are well aware that a minority
disagrees, fervently believing that a woman's role should be submission to her
Still, with all this available information, we have limited knowledge of our
own faith. The tenets of other faiths are virtually unknown.
The Gallup polls have tracked religious literacy for more than half a century.
Most American homes contain at least one Bible. This is hardly surprising, since
publishers sell about twenty million copies a year.
The Gideons donate a steady supply free Bibles. Most Americans will assert
that our holy book holds real answers to real problems, and some claim to read
Still, Bible reading has been declining for decades, leaving us a nation of
Surprisingly, Bible references confuse born-again Christians almost as much
they do the population in general. Private school students beat evangelicals
identifying the famous "brother's keeper" and naming the man who was
blinded on the road to Damascus.
More recent surveys show that evangelicals know less about the holy book than
believers of other denominations. All groups displayed varying degrees of religious
Children's accounts can be hilarious
..Joshua leading the Battle of Geritol,
Moses climbing Mount Cyanide, and the apostles marrying the epistles. Sadly,
as these children grow up they aren't learning better, at school, at church,
or in the home.
Since the 1960s, for instance, Catholic catechism classes have been watered
down. Many parents feel inadequate to explain their faith to others -- even
their own children.
Alarmed, church fathers have tried to augment inadequate religious training
with faith-based magazines, Bible stories in comic-book format, and religious
board games. These efforts prove largely ineffective.
University students are likely to fail a basic religious literacy quiz. They
do not know the Quran is the Islamic holy book. They don't realize that the
First Amendment guarantees their right to worship as they please, and the right
not to worship at all.
Like most Americans, they know about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. They
stumble, though, over naming the four Gospels or the first books of the Old
Testament. Many can't list even five of the Ten Commandments.
The most familiar Bible references routinely become a mismatch of characters
and events: Noah leads the Exodus from Babylon, the star of Bethlehem shines
down on Jerusalem, and Jesus parts the Red Sea.
All this might be amusing if religious illiterates could not hold the highest
offices in the land. Are they suitably equipped for lifetime appointments to
the Supreme Court, or for analysis of world and national affairs on major network
Closer to home, Joe Citizen can cast his precious vote, based on his personal
convictions, which could be grounded in religious ignorance.
He can sit on juries, making life and death decisions. Determinations of guilt
or innocence can -- and sometimes are -- prejudiced by a serious misunderstanding
To do justice to the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, we need to
add religious literacy to our list of basic requirements.
Literacy is necessary to complete understanding of the issues confronting America
today. Religious literacy is equally important in understanding how best to
WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE?
The explosion of interest in religion following WWII was hardly surprising but
as the 1960s faded into the 1970s, religious fervor waned. Naïve idealism,
combined with the natural rebelliousness of youth, found expression in the counterculture.
Meanwhile, academia increasingly consigned religion to the bench. Social issues,
politics and the economy were in the game. Outmoded and unneeded, religion clearly
was not! Science agreed; the rest of society took note.
Small wonder, that Time magazine, in 1966, voiced the pervasive conviction that
God must be dead. The Supreme Court yanked religion out of schools and passed
Roe vs Wade. Seculari- zation was scoring relentlessly; religion was striking
The game continues, but the tide has turned. Bookshelves groan under their load
of "spiritual" best sellers. Religion-based entertainment plays well,
on TV and in the theater. Who would have thought, back in the '60s, that God
would make it big in show-biz?
It wasn't pop culture that dragged religion out of its sickbed. True, a group
of evangelicals realized that the inexorable march of modernity could be used
to advantage. Religion had a real flair for dressing up and entertaining us
on the big screen
. and the small.
Young music fans discovered that Jesus rocks! Best seller lists included an
increasing number of Bible-centered books, both pro and con. Marketing and distribution
techniques could sell not only widgets, but religious notions of every flavor.
On the internet, faith-based sites blossomed like the legendary lilies of the
Religion was back on its feet, but it was politics that recognized its power
and directed it. Until Jimmy Carter's 1977 inauguration, references to religious
affiliation were muted.
Now, it is an essential part of any candidate's credentials. Religious affiliation
and party affiliation intertwine in America today.
Religion was at the root of the Iranian Revolution of '79, the rise to power
of the BJP in India, and the tragedy of 9/11. Currently, wars in Afghanistan
and in Iraq illustrate the importance of religion in foreign policy.
Still, high school textbooks ignore this truth, treating the religious significance
of historic events almost like a mad uncle, hidden in the attic. When such incidents
must be mentioned, they are dutifully trotted out, then whisked back into obscurity
before anyone questions their significance.
Religion may not have been the driving force behind the witch-burnings, the
Scopes Trial and the Civil War. It was, however, woven into the very fabric
of such events
as well as the judgments and circumstances that grew out
Religious conviction, for good or ill, has colored every facet of our nation's
history. Shorn of all religious motivation, these events can make little or
no sense. Worse, what we take from them will be distorted -- a useless, possibly
The Revolution, Civil War, New Deal, even the Reagan Revolution did not happen
in a social vacuum. Every decision, every deed, was inextricably interwoven
with the beliefs and convictions of everyone involved.
Religious blocs founded their own comfort zones. Puritans, Baptists, Anglicans,
Roman Catholics and Quakers formed a crazy quilt of belief patterns all across
the eastern United States.
Religions bumped up against each other, chaffed often, and occasionally traded
hosts. Sometimes they melded, as colonists interacted with the Indians, the
Spanish, French and British
and with one another. Religion has always affected
American history, influencing events as they unfolded.
These events, in turn, introduced new patterns of thinking. Having shaken off
George III, and buttressed by their First Amendment rights, the people took
charge of their churches as well as their government. Calvinism gave way to
a livelier, very American evangelicalism.
The 1800s brought a plethora of social reforms, among them: the prison system,
asylums, abolition, prohibition and women's suffrage. All of these were rooted
in religious convictions.
Some people actually hoped that such reforms would bring on the Second Coming
of Christ. Following the Civil War (in which both sides claimed a mandate from
the Almighty), capitalism became the subject of debate.
Acquisition of wealth, as a pious obligation, added yet another facet to American
religious thought. This was balanced by Social Gospel proponents, convinced
that espousing capitalism was surely NOT what Jesus would do.
Religion, as expressed in the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, had helped nudge
Americans westward. This desire to save heathen souls, (along with military
and commercial designs), was instrumental in opening Japan to trade.
It figured, too, in the expansion of American influence into Hawaii, Cuba,
and the Philippines. Later, it spread into Haiti, Nicaragua and other areas
of Latin America.
During WWII, as always, an American would paint God in his own image, quoting
the Bible to support a personal stance, either for or against the war. Meanwhile,
the government rounded up and interned Japanese American citizens. Our officials
were ignorant of any distinction between Buddhism and emperor-worshipping Shintoism.
Throughout the Cold War with its atheistic "commies" and during the
Civil Rights Movement, religion spoke out, unabashed. From the "Beat"
generation through the "Greatest" generation it has expressed itself
in many voices. Historically, it has called out to waves of immigrants and today
is often strident in our social and political discussions.
Our current president is sometimes accused of religiosity but the common faith
was openly embraced by earlier White House residents. A not-so-common faith,
however, would have blocked access to the presidency -- as well as to lesser
As recently as 1928, his Catholicism cost Al Smith the governorship of New
York. These days, a Jew might well be elected but an atheist would not.
Religion has influenced World events, too. Politics, social structure, economics,
scientific development and history have all been molded by the power of religious
beliefs. Religious law profoundly affects conditions as diverse as the spread
of AIDS in Africa to the operation of Muslim banks.
Though we need to understand these forces in a shrinking world, our textbooks
sidestep the subject of religion. That attempt to avoid controversy fuels evangelical
allegations that secular humanism rules.
Despite their best efforts at neutrality, media and higher education tend toward
a secular bias. The textbooks they write and publish reflect that. Emotion runs
high on either side.
In addition, Supreme Court rulings on this issue are widely misunderstood.
The teaching of religion is unconstitutional. Teaching about it is perfectly
.but considered a mine field by those unsure of the boundaries.
Meanwhile, our youngsters are forming a life view riddled with gaps in their
understanding of the world about them. We owe it to them to provide a whole
cloth of knowledge essential to their management of the future.
AS IT HAPPENED
Early Americans carried their Bibles not only in their pockets, but in their
hearts and minds. The good book provided daily guidance. It also inspired names
for their children, for the places that marked their journeys, and for the towns
that grew up where they settled.
The holy book was a comforting presence in that transplanted culture. Biblical
references enriched what was said, and what was heard. Even presidential speeches
evoked those familiar images, understood by all.
Transplanting civilization to the wilds of the New World would require an
unshakable grounding in moral order. Recognizing this, they instilled that self
discipline through religious training. Back in the fourteenth century, the Spanish
crown had charged its New World explorers to build schools and churches.
These were staffed with missionaries, to instruct peoples of the New World
in Catholic faith. Two hundred years later, no one had yet dared question the
importance of religious belief to an orderly society. Catholicism, however,
was being questioned - and challenged -- by Luther, Calvin and others.
These Protestant revolutionists replaced the concept of an intermediary priesthood
with the goal of basic literacy for everyone. People should be able to read
the Scriptures, at least, for themselves.
European monarchs preferred not to educate potentially troublesome masses,
so the colonies soon surpassed the continent in literacy. In the largely illiterate
world of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, New England was an oasis
of basic education.
There, it was a rare man or woman who could not read and keep accounts. This
educational imperative served to develop moral, orderly citizens, capable of
governing themselves. In the 1820s, suffrage was granted to men, regardless
of financial status. Women, though, were in for a long wait.
Outside New England, literacy was less common, even among whites. Slave-holders
weren't anxious to encourage thoughts of freedom anyplace this side of the pearly
It fell mainly to religious groups to educate the handful of Indians and blacks
who did master reading. Illiterate whites received education in religion, if
nothing else. Even slaves, once converted, were trained in the faith. While
Europe read novels, religious books permeated thought in the colonies.
The earliest primer was a paddle-shaped slab of wood called a hornbook. A
lesson was attached, protected by see-through lamination of animal horn. Introduction
of the printing press replaced this ubiquitous tool with affordable books.
The New England Primer was first, distilling its alphabet and reading lessons
strictly from the Bible. It was followed by Noah Webster's The American Spelling
Book, McGuffey's Readers and a host of other schoolbooks.
Some were specifically directed to Quakers, Anglicans, or Lutherans, others
to the widely suspect Catholics. All were virtually dripping with religion.
Boys could expect to need reading and writing skills. Usually, girls were
taught only to read. As mothers, they would be expected to vaccinate their children
against damnation through early and total immersion in the Holy Word. Religion
was instilled outside the home, as well.
Churches, of course, sermonized long and persuasively, strictly from scripture.
Teaching the basics of religion was of major importance. Over time, a variety
of Christian denominations spread the good word to any unchurched but amenable
whites, Indians and slaves.
In the late 1700s Sunday Schools were instituted to teach the children of
the working class how to read. African Americans were often included. Thirty
years later, publicly funded education took hold.
This British model Sunday School mutated from basic literacy-via-religion
to become religious literacy for its own sake. This training was very popular,
especially in the North, where enrollment of girls outnumbered that of boys.
Universal free education first bloomed in America. Beginning in the mid-seventeenth
century, New England laws required the appointment of teachers for reading,
writing and grammar.
Gradually, schools assumed the educational responsibilities formerly held at
home. This trend spread more slowly in the south. Education of girls met greater
resistance. However, in the 1820s, publicly funded education began and several
decades later, it was established in the south. Through it all, training a pious,
Protestant citizenry had been the goal of education. Now, the common school
could begin its gradual evolution into a source for secular education. Sunday
Schools could focus solely on religious literacy and leave basic education of
the poor to the publicly funded schools.
Sunday Schools took that mission seriously. They published and distributed religious
tracts in as many flavors as there were denominations. Before the Civil War,
they had built most of the nation's existing libraries. Almost half of all the
library books in the entire country were theirs.
In frontier areas, though, general ignorance diluted the spread of literacy,
religious or otherwise. Schools, libraries and churches were impractical, and
often absent, in sparsely populated areas.
Missionaries appealed for help. They described the scourge of deplorable novels
poisoning the minds of those few who could read. They pleaded for the means
to evangelize the morally destitute and funds were forthcoming.
Within ten years, their home churches had built free libraries. They distributed
thousands of books and millions of tracts, in a veritable media blitz!
Colleges today are the bastion of intellectualism, rather than of piety. Originally,
they focused on preserving the wisdom passed down from the antiquity. Primarily,
this meant a distillation of all knowledge through the filter of Protestantism.
Among those who emigrated to the New World before the mid 1600s were one hundred
Cambridge and Oxford graduates. Most of these were ministers. In America, the
mission of Harvard, William and Mary, and Yale was to educate Protestant ministers.
By the early nineteenth century, educational reformers were arguing that this
theological fixation impeded the progress of science.
Still, the theological focus in colleges remained, long after public schools
had shifted away from a strictly religious perspective. Even into the twentieth
century, state universities proved more Christian-oriented then the general
Historically, the concerted efforts of home, church, school, Sunday School,
and college had been to instill scripture. However, by the early nineteenth
century, the social advantages of religious tolerance were becoming apparent.
Agreement, despite differences, is the American imperative.
Even though the various religious groups could not arrive at theological consensus,
morality was one virtue embraced by all. Religion had begun its journey away
from Knowledge-with-conviction. Presently, it is stranded at Emotional-experience-with-a-political-affiliation.
AS IT WAS
The New World colonists and early Americans measured faith by one's level of
religious knowledge. They drew all their educational riches from a common cultural
purse of Biblical training.
When did teaching of religion degenerate into lip service? What transmuted
genuine knowledge of the faith into the brass tokens of today's "religious
Some blame Supreme Court rulings of the 1960s. Decades before, however, at
the turn of the century, "practical" life skills were already nudging
religion out of public schools.
The real power behind the dethroning of religious knowledge was not some secular
conspiracy. Nor was it the banning of school devotional reading and prayer.
That ruling spawned the double backlash of two powerful pressure groups: Moral
Majority and Christian Coalition.
They threw themselves (and their political clout) into a drive to preserve
Religious Tradition in a rapidly changing world. Many churches lent their support.
In their zeal, they smothered the wits out of the very traditions they were
trying to protect.
Religion was once synonymous with social order, education and morality. For
many Americans, it has become little more than an emotional experience.
This began early in the 1800s, when an ecstasy of revivalism swept the nation.
Passionate piety found its voice, converting souls by the millions. The somber
obedience of Calvinism dissolved before this heady blend of ardent (if unschooled)
oratory and entertainment.
By the late 1830s, First Amendment rights were guaranteed and exercised. Christianity
was diverse and widespread. Evangelism was most prevalent, followed by the Methodist
and Baptist denominations.
Immigration was swelling the ranks of Catholics. Mormons, Adventists and Spiritualists
spiced up the menu of options.
African Americans, who had rarely been tempted by cold, bland Puritanism, discovered
an appetite for this new Christianity. They were hungry for The Word - in terms
they could relate to -- and this was comfort food for the soul.
They learned and loved the Bible stories, even as other American Christians
were steadily sliding into religious illiteracy. Only Presbyterians and Congregationalists
steadfastly continued religious education.
Thanks to the increasing publication of sectarian magazines and tracts, public
discussion - often heated - continued between the various denominations. This
sparked public interest and temporarily slowed the decline of religious knowledge.
After the Civil War, however, confrontation mellowed into increased cooperation
between the various religious organizations. There were more pressing, practical
concerns than doctrinal discrepancies. Joining forces to battle social ills,
these good people focused on the aspects all could agree upon: Jesus and morality.
Distinguishing aspects of doctrine were confined to discussion within one's
own congregation. Thus, with only good intentions, religious groups, themselves,
nudged religion into the no-discussion zone
on the road to religious illiteracy.
All religions have certain basic qualities in common. It is in the balance
of these various elements that makes each denomination unique.
Puritanism, which dominated the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, was heavy
in doctrinal education. In the early nineteenth century, Evan-gelicalism took
hold, emphasizing faith and emotional experience.
While these two belief systems shared some common ingredients, the results
were as different as beaten biscuits are from brownies. There seemed no end
to the variety possible! As public schools spread across the land denominations
proliferated, creating widely diverse student bodies.
What choice was there, but to stifle the all-too-human mistrust of the unfamiliar?
In the mid 1800s, piety, virtue and a safe, generic Christianity allowed prayers,
hymns and devotionals in public schools. Jews and Catholics were ignored, however,
along with those of other faiths -- and those of none.
Tensions simmered as generic Protestantism ruled in the schools. Catholics,
long the target of a nervous intolerance, viewed this nonsectarian religion
as anti-Catholic, and rightly so.
They sought funding to set up schools where their children could be taught
by those who shared their faith. Funding was denied.
This sparked support for unified, secular education, unencumbered by a need
to recognize the faceless faith of a religion with no distinguishing features.
By 1870, Roman Catholics outnumbered Americans of other denominations; Cincinnati
evicted religion from its school system.
In comparing the content of nineteenth century textbooks, we can trace religion's
fall from grace. The burgeoning Catholic population, faced with laws banning
state funding of sectarian education, formed and funded a network of parochial
schools. By 1895, they numbered four thousand.
Meanwhile, public schooling spread into the south and Midwest, intensifying
the need for one-size-fits-all neutrality on this potentially explosive subject.
Religion, once ruler in the realm of education, was closeted, bound and gagged
by law. Morality and ethics took the throne.
Higher education resisted, but gradually followed suit. By the early twentieth
century the focus had shifted from the preservation of the old, to a search
for the new. Religion vs Science. Practical studies, at first, were consigned
to newly created colleges in specialized fields, such as engineering or agriculture.
By the late 1800s, such specialized courses became widely available as college
electives, displacing required courses in religion. The teaching of religion
was destined to become the province of divinity schools.
Some blame secularism for these changes. Harvard had shifted its motto from
a paean of Christian praise to a simple tribute to Truth. Academe was phasing
out ministerial training, mandatory courses in religion, and attendance at chapel.
Still, colleges struggled to retain their character building mission.
Morality mattered, but the academic nurturing of spirituality, in a pluralistic
society, required the tolerance of an unsectarian view. Thus, faith and philosophical
considerations influenced the direction of higher education during the latter
part of the nineteenth century.
Then, early in the twentieth, financial practicalities pushed the denominational
institution firmly into the past. The Carnegie Foundation's faculty pension
program granted eligibility only to nondenominational colleges. Religious literacy,
once universally required by American colleges, had given way to the humanities.
Ironically, the religious freedom sought -- and fought for -- by the colonists
had carried within it the seeds of religious diversity. For a time, Puritanism
had bloomed, cultivated in a carefully controlled education.
The fertile New World social and political thought, however, nourished other
seeds, as well. By the eighteenth century, a proliferation of upstart denominations
were pushing out the drab, more demanding Calvinist ideals.
This new bouquet of religions was colorful but supplying optimal conditions
for individual varieties was impossible, in land dedicated to equality. In the
cause of tolerance, official cultivation was denied to one and all. Knowledge
and under- standing of each unique sect has slowly eroded.
During the blossoming of Puritanism, sermons had been unadorned religious instruction;
they stuck to Scripture. Anecdotes - personal and otherwise -- had no place
Preachers were paid by the town and had little competition
.no radio or
television, of course. Even novels were frowned upon. Exercise of the imagination
was not encouraged, except in Biblical concepts like hellfire.
radually, creative verbal imagery replaced dry and dusty doctrine in pulpits
across the land. Christian Scientists, Mormons, and some confessional congregations,
struggled to retain strictly theological sermons.
They inevitably gave way, however, adopting the popular Sunday storytelling
sessions that were attracting converts in droves. Over the nineteenth century,
personal experience replaced scholarly discourse as a measure of piety.
Sermons became increasingly homespun in tone until many considered an education
in theology a detriment to genuine "spirit-filled" preaching. In popular
opinion, religious education and religious experience were mutually exclusive.
Meanwhile, science and scholarship were chipping away at Biblical infallibility.
In the decades following the Civil war, the authority of the Bible, vs the personality
of Jesus, rode a seesaw in public acceptance. The face of Jesus kept changing
to reflect one group of believers, or another.
Still, Christian liberals and conservatives (both Protestant and Catholic)
were steadily moving away from simply "being good." They preferred
"being good for something", as Cayce would say. Piety was evolving
into morality and losing its protective coat of religious literacy in the process.
In the postwar mid twentieth century, new churches and synagogues mushroomed
across the land as membership soared. A president was baptized. God was officially
included in the Pledge of Allegiance and in the nation's motto: "In God
We came to see ourselves as a "Judeo-Christian" nation, as the Cold
War made warm bedfellows of Protestant, Catholic and Jewish Americans. A century
earlier, popery had threatened; now, it was communism.
Facing that, the civic virtue of tolerance required us to politely ignore doctrinal
differences. Religious literacy became so diluted with tolerance that it ran
clear of color and of substance.
In the 1960s this retreat from individuality reversed itself. Along came the
hippie, Black Power and a parade other of disenchanted Americans.
They had been all but invisible due to race, ethnicity, gender, sexual preference,
or religious beliefs. Of these, only the big three: Protestant, Catholic, and
Jew had enjoyed recognition. As this wave of human specificity swept past, the
Judeo-Christian concept was knocked off its feet.
It was the Moral Majority who picked it up, brushed it off - and polarized
the "Judeo-Christian tradition." During the 1980s and 1990s they renamed
and assumed it as their own Judeo-Christian "Ethic." Demonizing the
liberal Democrats, and claiming to hold the exclusive franchise for "family
values," they gained political power.
The conservative Catholics and orthodox Jews who supported the Moral Majority
have since felt pressure to conform. This comes from politically active factions
of the Christian Coalition, which supplanted the Moral Majority.
They maintain that differences in doctrine are incompatible with shared values.
Thus, any issue that is uniquely Catholic, Protestant or Jewish must be swept
under the rug.
Since 9/11, that sweeping has been more energetic than ever. Judaic-Christian-Islamic
is now a common description of religion in America. These three major faiths
may all be rooted in Abraham, but the diversity of their traditions has drastically
reduced any common ground.
Other world faiths are also represented within our population. Increasing,
too, are the numbers of "spiritual" individuals who avoid organized
religions. In today's multi-faith reality, the common ground of tolerance is
all that remains.
As all distinguishing characteristics piled up under the rug, religious literacy
lost ground -- but not without a fight. Some, notably the Presbyterians, struggled
to hold their own.
Catholics persevered, until Vatican II consigned their sturdy religious training
to the dustbin. Funda-mentalists, too, have pushed back, preferring faith over
They deplore the growing emphasis on healing social ills rather than on personal
salvation through Bible study. Despite these pockets of resistance, tolerance
remains the one virtue acceptable to all.
Because doctrinal differences have been swept away from public consciousness,
Christians are rarely designated according to denomination anymore. Instead,
they are seen as 'liberal' or 'conservative', according to their social/political
views. Most Christians, however, reflect varying combinations of the following:
- Those who rely on knowledge of doctrine, approaching God intellectually
- Those who experience God through the emotions
- Those who emphasize ethics, morality and good works
The doctrinal approach, once universal in America, gave way to variable mixtures
of the emotional approach and the ethical. These days, ethics/morals/good works
.ideally, when coupled with a healthy respect for other religions.
The question, then, becomes: How can we respect a religion - any religion -
if we know nothing about it? Perhaps the time has come for the next step in
the evolution of faith in America. Perhaps lip service will give way to a genuine
understanding of religion in all its colorful complexity.
AS IT IS, AS IT COULD BE
Ask today's children a few basic Bible questions. Their uninformed answers
would have scandalized our Puritan forefathers. Instead, we gather up those
gaffs and email them 'round the world
There's nothing funny, though, about losing a portion of their American heritage.
What can be done to reclaim the knowledge and appreciation of our cultural traditions?
Churches could help by weaning their congregations away from a steady diet
of Sunday morning entertainment. Let them introduce some solid scripture
deserve the "meat and potatoes" of their faith.
Offer the unique "house dressing"
the Sunday crowd needs to
understand what distinguishes them among denominations. Entertainment is okay.
Fun is fine.
but first, nourish them in their faith. Then bring on "dessert."
Families were once the first line of defense against religious illiteracy.
Now, many parents avoid exposing their children to religious thought. Some feel
ill-equipped to discuss a subject they know little about.
Some don't believe or just don't care. Some claim to be preparing their young
for spiritual autonomy in a multi-faith society. This is fallacy; avoidance
of the subject is an eloquent statement that is not lost on youngsters. Reading
and discussion groups can help parents develop some confidence in their own
In a world catalyzed by religions, a faith-savvy media could better interpret
and report the news. A religiously literate audience could more easily weigh
Our democracy, built on the power of informed choice, requires full understanding
for a wise evaluation of any issue.
While the greater society can bolster its efforts, the educational system
holds the accepted teaching credentials in America today.
Before religion can be incorporated into the curriculum, we must educate religiously
illiterate teachers and professors. Presently, many panic and sidestep their
students' questions about religion. We need to clarify the differences between
the unlawful "teaching of religion" and "teaching about religion",
which is perfectly legal.
There are dozens of other unresolved questions about religion and schools; courts
will address these issues, over time. They have already established the legality
of a purely academic approach to the various religions. Teaching -- and learning
-- about religion in school is not only constitutionally correct
a cultural necessity.
Cultural and devotional issues aside, the First Amendment demands neutrality
between religions. It also forbids promoting for or against religion in a publicly
Thus, in emulation of the Catholic parochial schools, Protestant private schools
are proliferating, as are those for Muslims. Still, most students attend public
schools where the avoidance of religion creates an anti-religious, secular bias.
This is hardly constitutional.
Education activists understand the role religion plays in a complete understanding
of the non-religious curriculum. They are applying pressure, from both the left
and the right, with increasing success.
During the 1990s their joint efforts provided schools with detailed information
on the dos and don'ts of teaching religion. It must be presented, not as faith,
but as curriculum. Still, necessary training to teach world religion courses,
in compliance with the law, has only begun.
California and Utah are moving ahead. Harvard Divinity School trains teachers
to incorporate religiously relevant material into social studies, history and
We need one basic, high school course in the Bible. The don'ts (such as promoting
or disparaging the Bible) are straightforward enough. The dos include demystifying
the Biblical allusions that pepper our speech and our literature, art, music,
.even our politics.
We can teach about the Bible as literature, but that is just part of the story.
It has also been the driving force behind our national history and its relationship
to world history. We need to explain its influence on current events. Most important,
we must instill a respect for faiths of every flavor
.. and for the absence
of any faith.
There are ardent critics of the Bible in the classroom. The left dreads that
fatal attraction between Church and State. The right fears that viewing the
Bible under the harsh light of scholarly analysis would strip away its mystique
its power. Still, the need for a fully informed citizenry far outweighs the
Some critics of religion as public school curriculum fear its possible proselytizing
effects on students. They advocate an equal emphasis on all world scriptures,
not just the Bible. Reading the Quran and Tao Te Ching could be informative.
Some other belief systems, though, such as Zoroastrianism or Scientology, have
had little impact on the history of Western civilization. Our literary and other
cultural references are rooted mainly in the Bible.
Our Western civilization, however, keeps bumping up against other cultures
in an increasingly global society. America is home to 1200 mosques and is second
only to India in its number of Hindu temples.
These are just two groups of many non-Christian Americans. There are skirmishes
and wars daily between opposing religious factions in other parts of the world.
Like it or not, we are directly or indirectly involved in these affairs. Our
foreign policy - indeed, our future -- depends on educating an informed citizenry.
To accomplish this, we need at least one required high school course covering
the major world religions: Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam
Judaism and Taoism. Let us discuss their founders and origins, in their historical
Then, we should cover the impact these movements had - and still have -- on
local and world events. Some religions are unique to a certain area while others
are highly concentrated in specific regions.
In such locations, we should include special units on those individual religions.
Properly taught, these courses would pay social dividends far exceeding their
Protestant and Catholic colleges usually require courses on religion for graduation;
most public and nonsectarian institutions do not. As a result, we fill positions
in every field (even those in politics and the communications industry), with
religious illiterates. We depend on journalists, newscasters, producers, and
elected officials for insights and analysis.
In a world catalyzed by religion, they are ill equipped to navigate the mine
field of charged issues. Views tainted by ignorance distort the realities. Recognizing
this, some advocate for the reinstatement of theology as king, influencing --
if not ruling over -- every collegiate discipline. Impossible!
One thorough course in religious studies is possible, however, and could produce
the fully literate leaders America so desperately needs. At least one such course
should be required for college graduation.
Europeans, educated in religious studies, are not believers. In contrast,
many Americans profess to a faith they know nothing about. Religious fervor,
uncontained by any structure of religious knowledge, can be dangerously unstable.
Would religious literacy damp down that flame of faith -- and extinguish it,
perhaps? One must ask: If emotional energy was all that fueled that faith
great a loss could it be?
The emphasis on religion in America's earliest public schools was expected
to mold the children into responsible citizens. Accomplishing that goal today
is a genuine conundrum.
This nation, founded on the principle of religious/political freedom, has attracted
a diversity of believers searching for exactly that! In protecting the rights
and freedoms of all, their common values have been reduced to a handful, at
least in the public arena. Such necessary social virtues as tolerance, guaranteed
by the First Amendment, could be taught in grammar school.
Religion, however, encompasses far more than character development. Fiercely
held beliefs create the motivating energy behind the events of today
they have throughout history.
Ignoring or trivializing those beliefs is not an option, in a world where ocean
and wilderness can no longer isolate and insulate us. We must learn to understand
them if we are to deal effectively with twenty-first century challenges.
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