Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--And Doesn't

Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--And Doesn't

by Stephen Prothero
Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--And Doesn't

Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--And Doesn't

by Stephen Prothero


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The United States is one of the most religious places on earth, but it is also a nation of shocking religious illiteracy.

  • Only 10 percent of American teenagers can name all five major world religions and 15 percent cannot name any.
  • Nearly two-thirds of Americans believe that the Bible holds the answers to all or most of life's basic questions, yet only half of American adults can name even one of the four gospels and most Americans cannot name the first book of the Bible.

Despite this lack of basic knowledge, politicians and pundits continue to root public policy arguments in religious rhetoric whose meanings are missed—or misinterpreted—by the vast majority of Americans.

"We have a major civic problem on our hands," says religion scholar Stephen Prothero. He makes the provocative case that to remedy this problem, we should return to teaching religion in the public schools. Alongside "reading, writing, and arithmetic," religion ought to become the "Fourth R" of American education.

Many believe that America's descent into religious illiteracy was the doing of activist judges and secularists hell-bent on banishing religion from the public square. Prothero reveals that this is a profound misunderstanding. "In one of the great ironies of American religious history," Prothero writes, "it was the nation's most fervent people of faith who steered us down the road to religious illiteracy. Just how that happened is one of the stories this book has to tell."

Prothero avoids the trap of religious relativism by addressing both the core tenets of the world's major religions and the real differences among them. Complete with a dictionary of the key beliefs, characters, and stories of Christianity, Islam, and other religions, Religious Literacy reveals what every American needs to know in order to confront the domestic and foreign challenges facing this country today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060859527
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication date: 03/11/2008
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 433,413
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.86(d)

About the Author

Stephen Prothero is the New York Times bestselling author of Religious Literacy and God Is Not One and a professor of religion at Boston University. His work has been featured on the cover of TIME magazine, The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Colbert Report, NPR, and other top national media outlets. He writes and reviews for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, The Washington Post, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, Salon, Slate, and other publications. Visit the author at or follow his tweets @sprothero.

Read an Excerpt

Religious Literacy

Chapter One

A Nation of Religious Illiterates

Both the Religious Right and the Secular Left feel besieged. In the Left Behind novels popular in conservative Christian circles, true believers are "raptured" into heaven at the end of times; everyone else is "left behind." Today secularists are attesting to a Last Days scenario of another sort, in which the old order of reason, rights, and the separation of church and state is being replaced by a new medievalism in which the president and his acolytes answer to God rather than to the American people. This disquiet can be heard in port cities across the country, but it is particularly palpable in Manhattan, the mecca of the Secular Left, where many report that their island is starting to feel, well, like an island again, cut off from the heartland by (among other things) its cosmopolitanism. At least for New Yorkers, it is as if the iconic Saul Steinberg cartoon of the United States according to Manhattan—an image that looks west across Ninth Avenue and the Hudson River and New Jersey to a Kansas City the size of a yellow cab and a Los Angeles no bigger than a courier's bicycle—is eerily mutating into a Grant Wood landscape, its bucolic foreground anchored not by yellow cabs but by the corn rows and church spires of Kansas, with nary a skyscraper on the horizon. "I feel assaulted," one New Yorker told me. "I feel like these Christians are hiding a crucifix in their shoe. Any minute they'll pull it out and gut you."28

Bill O'Reilly of The O'Reilly Factor on Fox News feels assaulted too. Whereas secularists are sure that theReligious Right has taken over US politics, he is morally certain that "secular progressives" are winning the culture wars. Christmas is "under siege," O'Reilly says. An "anti-Christian jihad" is banishing Christmas trees from holiday parades, Christmas carols from public school pageants, and Christmas greetings from department stores. In the world according to O'Reilly, the ultimate aim of these criminalizers of Christmas is nothing less than banishing religion from the public square and thereby clearing the way for "secular progressive programs like legalization of narcotics, euthanasia, abortion at will, gay marriage." Televangelist Jerry Falwell also believes that "radical secularists" are "aggressively attempting to redefine America in their own Godless image," and religious broadcaster Pat Buchanan complains about "hate crimes against Christianity." The mission of the Secular Left, concludes Buchanan, is "to expunge from the public life of the West all reminders that ours was once a Christian civilization and America once a Christian country."29

The emotions on both sides of this question are understandable, though the irony of the situation—in which each camp sees itself as a victim and believes that the other is seizing control of the country—seems lost on everyone concerned. The fact of the matter is that, in the American marketplace of ideas, neither faith nor faithlessness is close to either bankruptcy or monopoly. Though O'Reilly may rage, Christmas (which remains a national holiday) is not fading into that good night. And theocracy—in the true sense of church-run government—is not even a twinkle in the Bush administration's eye. Much ink has been spilled, and many megabytes expended, trying to pigeonhole the nation into either "secular America" or "Christian America." It has always been both.

The United States is by law a secular country. God is not mentioned in the Constitution, and the First Amendment's establishment clause forbids the state from getting into the church business. However, that same amendment also includes a free exercise clause safeguarding religious liberty, and Americans have long exercised this liberty by praying to God, donating to religious congregations, and hoping for heaven. So there is logic not only to President John Adams's affirmation in the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796 that "the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion" but also to the Supreme Court's 1892 observation that "this is a Christian nation." In short, the long-standing debate about whether the United States is secular or religious is fundamentally confused. Thanks to the establishment clause, the US government is secular by law; thanks to the free exercise clause, American society is religious by choice.30

Ever since George Washington put his hand on a Bible and swore to uphold a godless Constitution, the United States has been both staunchly secular and resolutely religious. Church and state have never been completely separated in the United States; religion and politics were bedfellows from the start. Traditional liberals such as the political philosopher John Rawls insist that religion restrict itself to the individual heart, the pious home, and the religious congregation; religion is a private matter that will contaminate civil society if not quarantined from public life. Because religion is a "conversation stopper," political discourse must be conducted entirely in terms of "public reason," which by definition excludes religious reasons. According to this strict separationist perspective, the wall between church and state is supposed to form, as one nineteenth-century activist once put it, "a barrier high and eternal as the Andes." The only alternative is "politics as holy war."31

George W. Bush caught a lot of flak for disrespecting this church-state divide at his 2001 inauguration, which included one prayer offered by the Reverend Franklin Graham (Billy's son) in the name of "the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit" and another offered by the United Methodist minister Kirbyjon Caldwell "in the name that's above all other names, Jesus, the Christ." But Bush's sin was also committed, in flagrante delicto, by Bill Clinton, whose inaugurations were unabashedly Christian affairs. Clinton's 1997 fete included a trinitarian prayer by Billy Graham, a benediction by a black Baptist preacher, and songs by no fewer than three gospel groups (one called the Resurrection Choir). Plainly, the celebrated wall of separation between church and state has never been particularly wide or sturdy. Breached nearly as often as it has been respected, this wall resembles a rickety picket fence far more than the eternal Andes. Washington and Madison, Reagan and Clinton all declared national days of prayer or thanksgiving, and the Supreme Court still opens its sessions with "God save the United States and this Honorable Court." As G. K. Chesterton once put it, the United States has long been "a nation with the soul of a church."32

Religious Literacy. Copyright © by Stephen Prothero. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Table of Contents

Introduction     1
The Problem
A Nation of Religious Illiterates     27
Religion Matters     49
The Past
Eden (What We Once Knew)     73
The Fall (How We Forgot)     109
The Proposal
Redemption (What to Do?)     155
A Dictionary of Religious Literacy     185
Religious Literacy Quiz     293
Further Reading     299
Acknowledgments     303
Notes     307
Index     353

What People are Saying About This

Bruce Feiler

“Smart but gentle, loving but blunt, Prothero is uniquely qualified to guide us through the fraught fields of faith.”

Lauren F. Winner

“A compelling, provocative, wholly innovative historical interpretation of the place of learning in American religious life. I love this book!”

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