Friday, December 14, 2007

New Feature: Reviews by UNT Dallas Campus Faculty and Staff

We want to share with you reviews of books and other resources that are written by our own UNT Dallas Campus community members. This idea came from Greg Tomlin, our Director of Marketing, News and Information. It is therefore appropriate that we begin with a review he recently did about: "Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know - And Doesn’t."

Further information: (Borrow the book from a library near you; don't have a card for that library? Get your FREE TexShare card from the Dallas Campus Library to borrow materials from participating libraries throughout Texas.) (Buy the book from Amazon; of course, you can buy it from other book outlets or the publisher.)

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Stephen Prothero, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know - And Doesn’t. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007. 296 pp. $24.95. Hardcover.

America is the most religious nation on earth, but American citizens - even the most pious - know almost nothing about religion, Stephen Prothero contends in this novel examination of the decline of familial and public religious education in the United States.

A nominal Anglican and chair of the religion department at Boston University, Prothero calls religion "the most volatile constituent of culture" and the greatest force for good (and evil) in the world. And with the world becoming more religious, contrary to the early secularization theory of Prothero’s sociologist colleague Peter Berger, the author argues that American ignorance of religion is not merely a spiritual problem - it is a civic problem that can lead to tragic consequences.

Prothero claims that America never acquiesced to the secular paradigm, despite the secularists’ call for a "naked public square," and today religious language appears in virtually every inauguration speech, State of the Union address, public policy squabble in Congress, and in every discussion of military-foreign policy. Religion is a factor in the abortion debate, in discussions about illegal immigration and even in inquiries about the qualifications of Supreme Court nominees. It makes sense then, Prothero writes, to know something specifically about the Christian faith, but also about other religions as well.

One of the most valuable contributions in Prothero’s work is an appended dictionary of essential terms and concepts within the four major religions in America (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism) and their related sects. The dictionary also provides definitions of theological concepts (such as "inerrant" and "dispensational premillennialism") and terms related to expressions of faith in the political realm (such as "Moral Majority"). The four major religions in America receive significant attention, but the bulk of terms are drawn from Catholic, Protestant and Free Church Christianity.

Prothero’s central thesis about why America has become starkly ignorant of religion may startle some readers; he provides no indictment of activist judges who abolished prayer in school or struck down public displays of the Ten Commandments. Instead, Prothero posits that it was "the nation’s most fervent people of faith who steered us down the road to religious illiteracy."
In this sense, Prothero’s observation is not entirely new. Norte Dame historian Mark Noll probed the problem of a lack of critical thinking among evangelicals in his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. There, Noll, addressing the question of why evangelicals seemed reluctant to engage culture, suggested that the "scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind." Prothero’s approach, on the other hand, is different. More than merely lamenting religious ignorance or intellectual inaction, he provides explanation for why there is a lack of religious learning among Christians and among the culture at large.

In the Colonial era, when Americans were largely a people of the Book, knowledge of the Bible permeated every aspect of life. Children were named for biblical characters, towns were named for biblical sites such as Jericho and Bethlehem, and sayings from the four Gospels surfaced in the rhetoric of the Revolution. Even Thomas Jefferson - regarded by many ministers as an American Absalom - believed that knowledge of the Bible was of paramount importance. And so learning during the period was never divorced from biblical inquests. Religious teachings were expressed in the New England Primer, where words such as"damnify," "holiness," "beatitude," "benediction," "fornication" and "abomination" appeared. Noah Webster’s The American Spelling Book and even the popular McGuffey readers, the products of a Scotch-Irish Presbyterian minister, laid the groundwork in public education for religious literacy. The reader and other educational books contained basic treatises about man’s Fall into sin, his need for redemption, and about the person and work of Christ.

But by the early 19th century, when the great influx of European immigration began, Prothero writes that the "acids of non-denominationalism were starting to erode religious content." Add to that the fact that Roman Catholics became the largest percentage of the population by the end of the 19th century, and Protestants had little hope that there could be a common school with a common Judeo-Christian religion. Because the citizens of the new nation (Catholic and Protestant) needed to live together amicably, sectarian theology was emphasized less in education in favor of morality. On moral issues, after all, most Catholics and Protestants could agree.

With America on her way to non-sectarian (read non-Roman Catholic), less doctrinal, and more emotional religion in the form of pure moralism, Americans found themselves far from the ideal, perhaps even somewhere East of Eden, within a century.

The fall into religious illiteracy is amply documented by Prothero. However, lest the problem be seen as the result of Protestant responses to Roman Catholicism, Prothero cites the subversion of the Puritan intellect by the emotional excesses of the Second Great Awakening as another principle reason for the decline of religious knowledge in America. Baptists and Methodists, he claims, made much sport of criticizing the old Mainline denominations for their emphases on doctrine, and instead advocated experiencing a "religion of the heart." Among these groups preaching changed, with many ministers (who had never seen the inside of the academy) practicing more storytelling than doctrinal exposition. This lack of doctrinal preaching ironically contributed to Evangelical’s ignorance about the core tenets of evangelical religion.

In 1954, Prothero writes, virtually no American could name the founder of another religion besides Christianity. Ignorance of the religion of many new Americans from India, China, and Africa, however, was more understandable than ignorance of the basic Judeo-Christian tradition. Today, as evidenced by the classes he teaches and a simple religion quiz given to each student, Prothero finds near nothing of the Protestant character of American life remaining. Students cannot name the four Gospels, the Ten Commandments, the twelve disciples or even a single beatitude.

Admittedly, Prothero does not believe that America can return to its Protestant paradise, characterized best by New England Primer and McGuffey’s readers. But he does believe that redemption of some sort is available by the reintroduction of religious education in public schools. This measure, most often debunked by groups like the American Civil Liberties Union as unconstitutional, is in fact constitutional, the author believes. In the same case that outlawed devotional Bible reading in schools (Abington v. Schempp) in 1963, the Supreme Court approved the academic study of religion.

Just how to accomplish this without violating the separation of church and state or without descending inevitably into sectarian instruction is a more thorny question, which Prothero attempts to answer. Since the Bible and Christianity are essential to understanding American civic life and political history, students should have the opportunity of electively studying the Book, he writes. In conjunction with the course on the Bible, a separate course on world religions could provide insight into the five pillars of Islam, the content of the Hindu vedas, and the four noble truths of Buddhism. In short, Prothero advocates the reinstatement of a fourth "R" in American education so students will be exposed to reading, writing, arithmetic, and religion.
Liberals will reject Prothero’s suggestion out of hand in favor of a continued, though failed, program of secularization in public schools. Conservatives are likely to laud Prothero’s proposal for its effort to educate a religiously illiterate people. But they are likely to reject it for the same reason, raising questions about who is best qualified to teach religion to the young and impressionable. Would most evangelical Christians be comforted by the thought of a conservative Muslim teaching the tenets of Christianity or the doctrines of the Bible? An affirmative answer is as unlikely from the Evangelical as it would be from a Muslim whose children would be instructed about the Quran by a Southern Baptist. Prothero’s work is nonetheless of immense importance for the history of American religion.

Dr. Gregory Tomlin
Director of Marketing, News and Information
University of North Texas
Dallas Campus
7300 Houston School Road
Dallas, Texas 75241
(972) 780-3615 (Direct)
(972) 780-3606 (Fax)

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