Tuesday, April 10, 2007
America Gets an "F" in Religion
So how does America's citizenry fare with general knowledge of the Bible and world religions? According to Stephen Prothere, head of the department of religion at Boston University, our illiteracy in these areas as a nation is "a major civic problem." In an interview for U.S. News & World Report (April 9), Pothhero was questioned about how a nation often acknowledged as the most religious of modern industrial nations could be among the most ill-informed on matters of religion. "While chose to two thirds of all Americans regard the Bible as a soruce of answers to life's questions," they note, "only half can name even one of the New Testament Gospels. Similarly, in a land of growing relgious diversity, only 10 percent of U.S. teenagers can name the world's five major religions."
Surprisingly he lays much of the blame not at the feet of secularists or government rulings banning prayers and Bible reading in school - traditional targets - but at the church itself. He traces the problem's origins back to the mid-19th century when churches began to "debate over the Bible" they would read, referring, I would suppose, to the debate over the scripture's reliability as a sacred text.
The second reason he identifies strikes at the change of emphasis in the church today, which many of us have seen even within the ranks of Lutheranism, especially with the advent of "church growth" as a movement within the church. He said that this problem of knowledge began "when they started focusing on loving Jesus rather than listening to him." The Bible, he notes, "became a kind of ornament and a source of authority rather than the book you actually read. Sermons became more about ordinary life and less about biblical narratives, which Sunday schools focused more on morality than on learning about your own particular denomination."
Evangelicalism, which Prothero identifies as the dominant Christian emphasis in this country from the early 19th century, changed the focus of their Puritan predecessors, focusing "on experience and emotion" whereby they "slowly turned Americans away from religious learning." Leaders within Evangelicalism have begun to sound the alarm of this deficit, but it would appear that for the majority the need to pack pews and fill churches is still the dominant driving force.
But this change in emphasis has also affected how we view our religious identity as a nation. Prof. Prothero was asked how Americans went from describing their civic religion as Christian to calling it Judeo-Christian. He noted that "The shift came in response, first, to the Nazis' use of Christianity to advance their anti-Semitic program and, second, to the postwar threat of communism. In order to distance themselves from anti-Semitic fascists and to fight 'godless' communism. American Christians made common cause with Jews."
With all this diversity, one would think that teaching religion in our schools would be a natural effort. However, Prothero admits that "fear of controversy" still holds us back. Still, he suggests that "we need to have courses about the Bible in middle schools and high schools" and he thinks that they should be mandatory, as an "opt-out program." "One course would cover the five and seven great religions. The other would be about the Bible. Students would learn the basic stories and characters, but they would also learn about the uses of the Bible in world and American history, in literature, and in politics."
There is no doubt that raising the 'literacy' of Americans with regard to the Bible and religion in general would have a positive benefit for the nation as a whole. Much of our struggle with Middle Eastern politics comes from a lack of understanding of Middle Eastern religion and culture. However, the illiteracy problem should not have to be solved by the nation's schools alone, especially as regards the Bible itself. As a church we have failed. The church must again assume leadership in this area within the churches themselves. This is not the state's problem! It is a crisis of catechesis, and Lutherans are failing much like the rest of the nation.