Religious Literacy - What Every American Needs to Know--And Doesn't
This is not a very long book, but much is packed into it. There are six chapters, with the sixth being a dictionary of religious literacy containing words and phrases that would be good for people to know and understand. These chapters take us up to 233 pages, and the appendix, notes and index leave the book at just under 300 pages.
Prothero starts off with memories of the Waco siege in the early 1990's. Federal agents had come onto the Branch Davidian property on February 25, 1993 in an attempt to arrest David Koresh. A quick gun battle left six Branch Davidians and four BATF agents dead. A siege of nearly two months passed before the FBI (who had taken control from the BATF) attacked the compound with tanks and tear gas and a fire broke out leaving about 75 Branch Davidians including 21 children dead. Prothero remembered thinking that, while the FBI thought it was in control in the weeks leading up to the horrifying end of the siege, it was David Koresh who was manipulating events using a script that could be found in the Book of Revelation. Prothero recognized it and predicted that this would end in fire. He wondered if and how he might pass this on to the FBI, and in the end decided to do nothing, assuming that the people at the siege were getting good counsel by people who knew what they were doing. In Prothero's words "Unfortunately, no such counsel was forthcoming."
A little religious literacy might have prevented much of the loss of life that occurred on April 19, 1993.
Chapter One -- A Nation of Religious Illiterates -- describes the state of things today -- what people don't know and what misinformation passes for knowledge. He provides a religious literacy quiz to test the reader's knowledge about religious matters, and I have to admit that I passed it, but not by much. If it had been confined to Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, I would have done well. I did miss one of the 5 pillars of Islam and forgot that penance was one of the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church, but when the questions turned to Buddhism and Hinduism, I fell flat on my face.
Chapter Two -- Religion Matters -- demonstrates how pervasive religious issues have been in US history. Much of the original colonization was a direct response to religious persecution in the Old World, and it is difficult to understand the Civil War without understanding the religious dimension. Similar things are true on a more global scale -- religion, for better or worse, has affected world events, and ignorance of religion has been at the root of much of the worst of events. So why is religious literacy not taught in the schools? Why, Prothero asks, are teachers and students no longer heeding the Biblical commandment to "remember."
Chapter Three --Eden (What We Once Knew) -- relates how religion was once a given in America. People were familiar with Biblical references and searched for meaning in what they read. It pervaded home, schools, the workplace, and the government. Its contribution to near universal literacy (the the reading and writing sense) was clear. It was, to be sure, mostly Christian and mostly Protestant, and while this represented the majority view at the time, it may have planted the seeds for the events to which Prothero devoted Chapter Four.
Chapter Four -- The Fall (How We Forgot) -- lays out many of the complex reasons for religious literacy taking a back seat. One factor was the separation of piety and learning, and the rise of non-denominationalism and its tendency toward emphasizing social action rather than doctrinal issues. Prothero refers to this as a descent into "pious ignorance" as core beliefs kept shrinking. The educational system was partly to blame.
Keeping in mind that the US was largely Protestant in the 18th and 19th centuries in its governance, the increasing Catholic and Jewish population wanted to be represented. The result was that education became "nonsectarian" and "nondenominational" led by such reformers as Horace Mann. The outcome of these reforms was a watered-down system of piety; doctrines on which all Christians could agree Christian morality; reading from the King James Version; and prayer, hymn singing, and devotional Bible reading. It remained Protestant, but did not approach the efficacy of the previous generation where religion was employed as a powerful tool in teaching children. Under the 19th century reformers religion was still seen as a necessary means in education, but it failed to teach religious literacy.
And then there were what Prothero referred to as the "Bible Wars" -- a time when the Catholics worked to see to it that their version of the Scriptures were given equal use in the schools, and the Protestants did their best to prevent this. The Jews seemed to be irrelevant in these fights. The response of an ever-increasing number of school systems was to evict religion from the schools, making them totally secular, and denying pupils even a one-dimensional view of religion. When religion showed itself at all, it was a generic sort of thing with little that any particular religion could relate to.
While all this was going on in the schools, the various Christian leaders were developing a tendency toward anti-intellectualism. Such leaders as Jonathan Edwards were being supplanted by new leaders like Peter Cartwright who wore his lack of education with pride. Evangelical Christians went from supporters of education and the development of the intellect to becoming a body that preferred "feel" Jesus rather than "know" him. Prothero sees this as reversible, and holds out hope that this is, in fact, starting to happen.
Chapter Five -- Redemption (What to Do) -- lays out what we need to do to reclaim our religious literacy and culminates in a proposal that suggests a path to do just that. It involves realizing that the First Amendment to the Constitution does NOT prohibit religion from the public sphere; it is a two-fold protection from the State imposing a religion upon the People, and further from the State preventing the People from freely practicing their faith. The bottom line is that, using the words of distinguished jurists over the years, Prothero holds that it is fully Constitutional to teach ABOUT religion -- and as long as the curriculum is objective and fair, it should be done. Not only the majority religion should be discussed, but the world religions should be taught as well. The result will be religiously literate graduates who are better prepared to understand the world around them.
Chapter Six -- A Dictionary of Religious Literacy -- This chapter covers key words, phrases and concepts relating to the major world religions, and is one that lends itself to browsing.
The Appendix covers the religious literacy quiz, and the Notes are available for those who enjoy reading such things.
Stephen Prothero has made an excellent case for promoting religious literacy in the schools. We can never go back to the 17th and 18th centuries when the New England Primer or McGuffy's reader used Christian themes to teach reading, spelling, and writing, but we cannot afford to default on our responsibilities to our children. In this world where religion plays such a great role for good and for evil, to be ignorant is dangerous.