Transcript: Religious Literacy - What Every American Should Know

Source Organization: Pew Research Center

Speaker: Stephen Prothero

Chair of the Department of Religion at Boston University

Venue: Pew Forum Faith Angle Conference

12/03/2007 - Some of the nation's leading journalists gathered in Key West, Fla., in December 2007 for the Pew Forum's biannual Faith Angle Conference on religion, politics and public life. Stephen Prothero, chair of the Department of Religion at Boston University, discussed the issue of religious illiteracy in the United States.

Stephen Prothero, author of Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- And Doesn't, argues that the United States is one of the most religious countries on earth, but Americans know nothing about religion -- their own or the religions of others.

He asks: How can we engage a politician who is rightly or wrongly invoking the Bible or using religion for political purposes without knowing something about religion ourselves, as citizens, journalists and academics? Prothero says the impact of religious illiteracy on foreign policy is even more significant, arguing that he doesn't think we understood Iraq as a place where people are, in many cases, primarily motivated by religion.

Stephen Prothero, Chairman, Department of Religion, Boston University

Michael Cromartie, Vice President, Ethics and Public Policy Center; Senior Adviser, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

Read the full transcript Religious Literacy: What Every American Should Know on the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life Web site.

In the following edited excerpt, ellipses have been omitted to improve readability. 

STEPHEN PROTHERO: What I'd like to do today is talk a little bit about this religious literacy project that I've been working on. Let me say at the very beginning, though, that there are two ways to talk about religion. There's this Sunday school, synagoguey, churchy, mosquey way of talking about religion, which is the way that religious people talk about it. Then there's this other way of talking about religion, which is more secular. So that's the kind of talking about religion that I'm going to do today -- the more secular talking about religion.

I get asked a lot about how I got started on this project, and I'm actually not really sure. But I think one thing that I noticed when I moved from Atlanta -- I used to teach at Georgia State University -- to Boston was that my students didn't seem to get the references that I was making to religion as much as I expected that they would. I've been at Boston University now for 10 years, and it was maybe about five, six years ago I started noticing a shift. When I would say things like in Matthew, blah, blah, blah, the students would get that look like they sort of knew what I was talking about but they really didn't.

I realized they were thinking, "Matthew Perry? From "Friends?" So I gradually realized I have to explain this stuff: Matthew, which is one of the four Gospels, which are books in the New Testament, which is a scripture in Christianity, which is one of the world's religions.

Even when they were taking an upper-level course in American Christianity [I found] I couldn't expect that they knew much at all about Christianity. And so, I started giving this quiz that's in my book. It's my religious literacy quiz1 that's been published in some of the newspapers and magazines you all work for. I started giving it to my students and it was really, really intriguing to me how poorly they would do. Then I started trying to see how they did vis-à-vis some surveys.

One of the [surveys] that I found back in the '60s was really funny. It said, do you know the Ten Commandments? And the answer on the survey was yes or no. So all these people would say, "Yes, oh yes, sure, I know. Of course, I do. I know the Ten Commandments." My question was, "Name the Ten Commandments. How many can you name?"

I also should say that I give the quiz to my students before they take my class, not when they're done with my class because that would be too embarrassing to give it at the end. But I ask them to name the four Gospels. Name one sacred text of Hinduism. What's the Golden Rule? What are the first five books of the Hebrew Bible? What's Ramadan? What religion is it practiced in? Super basic things. Not, who was the pope when [Martin] Luther nailed his theses on the wall at Wittenberg? Nothing like that.

And students do really badly. I think about one out of nine of my students would pass with 60 percent or better. And one thing that really intrigued me is, at the end, I would give them a list of Bible characters and then Bible stories and I'd ask them to match them. I'd have Adam and Eve and Paul and Moses on one side and, on the other side, I'd have Exodus and the Road to Damascus and the Garden of Eden. I'd ask them to draw a line between the two, and it's amazing the lines that they would draw in their heads. Paul would be getting the olive branch from the dove and Jesus would be parting the Red Sea. I mean, somebody must have been able to do that. It was probably Jesus, you know.

And again, these weren't obscure things. It wasn't even like David and Goliath things. And so now, when I read stories in magazines and newspapers -- Appalachian State beats Michigan, or any other David and Goliath story -- I always kind of laugh and think nobody knows that story. Most Americans probably don't know that reference to David and Goliath.

The central paradox of [my] book was clarified to me by an Austrian colleague of mine, who was teaching at Boston University with me a few years ago. He was teaching a course on Orthodox-Catholic relations. After a couple weeks, he seemed a little frustrated. He said, Steve, these Americans are very strange -- they all go to church and they know nothing about Christianity. Nothing. He said, I have to start from the very beginning, with ... there was a guy named Jesus. That's where I have to start when I'm trying to teach this course on Orthodox-Catholic relations, where I thought I could assume all this information about the history of Christianity and what Orthodoxy was and what Catholicism was.

He was really astonished. And that helped to clarify for me the central paradox in my book, which is that the United States is one of the most religious countries on earth, but Americans know nothing about religion, their own religions or the religions of other people.

There have been surveys done on this, not very many, but most Americans cannot name any of the Gospels. It's about 50 percent, a little below, when you ask them to name a Gospel. Most don't know that Genesis is the first book of the Hebrew Bible. Ten percent think that Joan of Arc was Noah's wife. A sizeable minority think that Sodom and Gomorrah were a happily married biblical couple. This is the kind of stuff you get when you ask about the Bible, you ask about Judaism and Christianity.

If you shift over to religions outside of the Judeo-Christian canopy, it's really quite astonishing. Americans will admit to a very high level of ignorance about Islam. There have been some surveys where people are asked: What do you know about Islam? Have you ever met a Muslim? Do you know anything about it? And Americans will typically run for the side of the survey that heads towards absolutely, positively nothing -- that kind of response. There was a survey done of American teenagers, where the teenagers were asked simply to name the world's religions, and half couldn't name Judaism as a world religion. Half couldn't name Buddhism as a world religion.

Now, religious illiteracy is a religious problem [even] inside religious communities. There's a lot of writing among Jews about Jewish illiteracy. There's a lot of hand-wringing since Vatican II among Catholics about Catholic illiteracy. Evangelicals are very worried about biblical illiteracy If you do Google searches on these kinds of terms, Jewish literacy, Catholic literacy, biblical literacy and illiteracy, you get a lot of hits.

But the angle of approach for me in this project was the civic and political side. Instead of seeing religious illiteracy as a religious problem for religious people, I'm looking at it as a civic problem and I'm looking at it from two angles. The first is the domestic angle, where we have politics now where we used to have one religious party and now we have two religious parties, in the sense that Democrats have now joined Republicans in deciding that it's smart to talk about God and it's smart to talk about faith because that's the way you get elected.

So basically we have a politics where politicians on both sides are being encouraged to talk about religion, about their own faith, but also to connect their public policy initiatives to religious ideas, particularly to biblical ideas and Jewish and Christian ideas. Hillary Clinton now, when she talks about immigration, she's quite likely to talk about the Good Samaritan story and to say why do I think that an immigration bill, where we have to turn in people who come over the border illegally, why do I think that's wrong? Well, because of the Good Samaritan story. You know, we're supposed to treat foreigners in a good way. We're supposed to treat them like our neighbors, according to the Bible.

In this kind of politics, it seems to me that it's imperative for citizens to know something about religion. How can you engage a politician who is rightly or wrongly invoking the Bible or invoking religion for political purposes on issues like gay marriage or abortion or the environment or poverty or euthanasia or capital punishment or war without knowing something about religion yourself?

Now, of course, you can say as people like [John] Rawls and [Richard] Rorty and other political philosophers have said, this is wrong. We shouldn't have a politics that is so infused with religion. Europeans, apparently, get along perfectly without it. Why do we have to be different? This is a violation in some way of at least the spirit of the First Amendment if not the letter of the First Amendment.

And my response is, well, that's all well and good, but we have the country that we have and people are going to be talking about religion on television. Politicians are going to be invoking religious reasons for their public policy stances, and we, as citizens and as journalists and academics, should know something about religion so we can engage them, and also so we can -- I think, in some cases -- so we can flush out the demagogues who have a kind of religious invocation where they're sort of invoking God or invoking religion without actually having a religious argument underneath that invocation. So that's the domestic side.

The international side, to me, is even more urgent. This is where we have a situation like Madeline Albright observed in her book, The Mighty and the Almighty. When she was secretary of state under [President] Clinton, she had a couple dozen economic advisers she could call any time of the day or night when she wanted to figure out what was going on with the economy of some country, or the political situation. But she didn't have anybody that she could call up and say explain to me this Sunni-Shiite thing, or what's going on in Afghanistan with religion, or in Kashmir do people really care about Hinduism and Islam there and is that operative? Or, what's going on with the civil war in Sri Lanka between Hindus and Buddhists? I thought Buddhists were nice to each other; I didn't think that they liked to kill people for religious reasons.

She also observed that there's no requirement for ambassadors to countries that have substantial religious populations, that they know anything about that religion. There's neither a prerequisite nor a policy for having U.S. ambassadors to Middle Eastern countries, for example, have any training in Islam or to know one salient difference between Sunnis and Shiites; or for the ambassador to India to know anything about Hinduism whatsoever.

I think one thing we've learned in terms of the Iraq War is that it doesn't look, at least to me, like our government knew much at all about Islam before we went into Iraq, and we had a sense that we understood the situation by understanding it in terms of ethnicity, of politics, of the economy. But I don't think we understood it as a religious place, where religious reasons mattered, where people were, perhaps in many cases, primarily motivated by religion.

If you look at places like Iraq and Iran, it's pretty clear that these are places where Islam matters. And you look at Kashmir, where we have two nuclear powers -- a Hindu majority, the state of India, and the Muslim majority, the state of Pakistan -- facing down each other. And we have, as I mentioned, Sri Lanka, where you have a civil war between Hindus and Buddhists. These are places where you need to understand religion in order to understand what's going on, even to start. I think it's ironic that in a country where so many people are religious, and where religion is so much a part of domestic politics, that we still seem to be operating on this old secularization paradigm where we can understand other countries and other people purely on the basis of their economic and political thoughts and actions and motivations. So religious illiteracy is a problem, not only for Americans to understand what's going on here with Democrats and Republicans, but also to understand what's going on in the world.

When I was initially starting on the book, somebody suggested to me that I try to write up a history of how this happened, how did we get to this place of religious illiteracy? And that, to me -- I'm a historian of American religion -- interested me, and I didn't know the answer to that.

I spent actually about 90 percent of my time on the book on these two chapters, where I talk about the incredible religious literacy that we had in the colonial and early national periods, and then the demise of religious literacy over the course of American history. The basic argument that is that there was quite a remarkable level of religious literacy about the Bible and Protestant theology, particularly Calvinist theology, in the colonial period across the colonies and that persisted until the early 19th century.

One reason for this was because basic literacy and religious literacy were yoked in the sense that the way people learned to read was by reading the Bible. Most homes had either zero or one book, and those that had one book had a Bible. The readers and primers -- like the New England Primer from the colonial period and then Webster's Speller, which was just passed by the Harry Potter series as one of the best-selling books in American history -- were thoroughly drenched in theology. They were the kind of books where you would be reading the 23rd Psalm, or a passage from the Sermon on the Mount, in order to learn how to read the words included in these spellers. There'd be words like "abomination." There would be "fornication" too, by the way. Kids would be learning these words: fornication, abomination, Armageddon, apocalypse -- the biblical words.

So that was the situation, really through the early national period. And then the argument that I make is against a sort of received wisdom that you sometimes hear from the religious right, which is that religion goes away from the public schools in the early '60s with the 1962 and 1963 Supreme Court rulings against devotional Bible-reading and prayer in the public schools. And there were basically the "bad" secular liberals in the Supreme Court who ran religion out of the public schools and therefore made us a nation of religious illiterates.

Actually that is off by about 100 years and the villains are the wrong people; the villains were really the religious people, particularly evangelicals, but also liberal Protestants and, to some extent, Catholics. This happened really in the period of the Second Great Awakening in the 1830s, 1840s and 1850s with the rise of evangelicalism and with the displacement of Puritanism as the dominant religious impulse, an impulse that was very keen on the integration of the head and the heart in the way religion was done -- that God gave us heads, God gave us brains, God gave us reason, God gave us this book to read. And we're supposed to use those faculties to reach God, to understand God.

This gets replaced by a form of evangelicalism that is really much more emotional, less doctrinal, trust-the-head a lot less. It really focuses on loving Jesus, a relationship with Jesus, rather than on knowing what Jesus had to say. And particularly -- and this is one of the main arguments that I make in the book -- the shift of the locus of religion into morality, where we see in our politics, really clearly today, that to be religious is to be moral, and it's to be moral in a bedroom sort of way; it's to be moral around issues like gay marriage and abortion and stem cell research, rather than to be moral in a more fulsome way.

I saw this in a memoir written by a friend of mine. This is a book called My Faith So Far by Patton Dodd, who is now the Protestantism editor at Beliefnet. It's about his struggle as an evangelical to kind of hang in with evangelicalism as he goes to Oral Roberts University. And it's really comical in the way that -- how he knows he's a Christian or not. He knows he's a Christian when he's not having pre-marital sex and when he's not smoking pot, but when he's smoking pot and having pre-marital sex, that's when he's not being a Christian. I just thought that was so curious and so weird and so contemporary that this is how you would understand the Christian life, as opposed to thinking it was because you believed in Jesus, or you believed that the Bible was true, or you had a personal relationship with Jesus, or all sorts of other things.

Anyway, this all happens, I think, in the period of the Second Great Awakening, where evangelicals move into things like temperance, abolitionism, women's rights, prison reform, education reform, and where they start to equate being religious with being a do-gooder in the world, with making the world a better place, with civilizing and Christianizing American culture.

And religious literacy is a loser along the way because it becomes increasingly less important, and, in fact, it becomes a barrier to ecumenical cooperation on things like abolition for people to actually argue or to know the salient differences, say, between Methodists and Baptists.

Let me say something quickly about my proposal for how to address this problem, and the argument basically goes like this: insofar as it is a civic problem, it requires a civic solution, and the place we do civic solutions is the public schools. At least, that's one of the places we try to do civic solutions. And so I have an argument that we should do two mandatory courses in the public schools on religion, one on the Bible, and one on the world's religions.

The objections to this, you probably know what they are. One is the silly and stupid objection that it's unconstitutional, which just isn't true. The Supreme Court has ruled about a dozen times over the last 50 years on religion and public education explicitly, and it's very clear, their position. It's been pretty stable actually, which is that there's a distinction between preaching about religion and teaching about religion. Preaching about religion can't be done. You can't preach atheism, you can't preach theism, you can't preach for or against any particular religion, but you can talk about religion and you can teach about religion. You need to make a distinction between -- as I did at the start of my talk -- between talking about religion in a religious way and talking about religion in a secular way.

The other objection is that it's too controversial. We already have enough problems in America about religion. Why do you want to inject these problems in the public schools? Public schools should be sanctuaries from these kinds of grownup problems. I think this is based on a false assumption that is driven to a great extent by the media, that the cultural wars are sort of raging around religion. I'm of the party that doesn't believe the culture wars are really raging out there around religion in ordinary America. I think that it's the conflict narrative imperative of journalism that breeds the false assumption that culture wars are really rife.

So I think there's a perception that that's what's going to happen in the public schools, that it's going to be like a Christopher Hitchens and a Jerry Falwell in the classroom, and they're going to be talking about stuff. And, of course, if that were my proposal, I would not propose it. But my proposal is that we would read the Sermon on the Mount and say this is a very influential text in world history and it was not delivered by Billy Graham, as a third of Americans believe the Sermon on the Mount was delivered byand that we should know what it says because it's the sort of thing that politicians appeal to, that John Edwards appeals to when he talks about poverty, and that pacifists have appealed to when they talk about "Blessed are the peacemakers," and you can't understand the history of American pacifism without understanding that text.

Read the full transcript Religious Literacy: What Every American Should Know on the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life Web site.

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