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A Review of Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know and Doesn’t

By Lee Duigon
May 01, 2007

Does the acquisition of factual knowledge about religion lead to an understanding of religion?

Author Stephen Prothero, who chairs the religion department at Boston University, believes it does. “My goal,” he writes, “is to help citizens participate fully in social, political, and economic life in a nation and a world in which religion counts” (p. 15).

The problem, as he sees it, is Americans’ vast ignorance of religion—ignorance not only of other people’s religions, but of the Christian religion which most of them profess.

But is the problem really knowledge, or the lack of knowledge? As R. J. Rushdoony observes, “The more sinful man is, the more dangerous he is … The old proverb is true: You can’t make a good omelette with bad eggs.”1

Bible Bloopers

Prothero has no trouble proving his point that “religious amnesia” is rampant in America. As a teacher, he has the opportunity to quiz his students frequently. The answers he gets are … well, judge for yourself.

  • Most of his college students can’t name the four gospels (p. 28).
  • Most of them can remember only four of the Ten Commandments (p. 28).
  • Many believed that Jesus, not Moses, led the Israelites through the Red Sea (p. 29).
  • In a national “scientific survey,” only one-third of the respondents knew that Jesus, not Billy Graham, preached the Sermon on the Mount (p. 30).
  • In the same survey, 10 percent identified Joan of Arc as Noah’s wife (p. 30).

Such bloopers are legion. Not only that, as one of my acquaintances put it, “Why should what you know have anything to do with what you believe?” We are naturally led to wonder: what has gone wrong?

Good Intentions, Bad Results

“Every religious festival [in ancient Israel] had an element of instruction in it, and it was essential in all things that the children be reared in the essentials and fundamentals of the faith. God so requires it.” —R. J. Rushdoony2

Once upon a time, Prothero writes, American children, too, were reared in the essentials and fundamentals of the faith—the Christian faith. Children got their schooling at home and learned to read by reading the Bible and readers and primers that were chock-full of Bible stories, Bible verses, and Bible-derived lessons in life and morals. Literacy itself, and Bible literacy, amounted to virtually the same thing.

But as the nineteenth century dawned, all this began to change.

Who was responsible? Not unbelievers, Prothero says, but Christians themselves: “[T]he villains were not activist judges or ACLU types … but well-meaning folks intent on doing just the opposite … [It was] the nation’s most fervent people of faith who steered Americans down the road to religious illiteracy” (p. 11).

Why should this be? Rushdoony says it was because the church got above itself, like the scribes and Pharisees of the New Testament. “Too often the church identifies faith with itself, and faithfulness with loyalty to the institutional forms and practices,” he writes.3 Prothero sees it also as a process of conflict resolution and constant compromise.

Citing a remark made by sociologist Will Herberg back in 1955, Prothero reports, “[T]he religion which actually prevails among Americans today has lost much of its authentic Christian (or Jewish) content” (p. 7). In the Second Great Awakening, 1801–1831, evangelism replaced Puritanism: “[M]ore than any other single event, the Second Great Awakening aided and abetted our national amnesia” (p. 90), giving priority to feelings over facts, to personal experience over doctrine, to fervor over theology, to works over faith.

As Americans of various denominations came together to campaign against slavery, fight intemperance, and help the poor, they were motivated to bury their doctrinal differences. The rise of public education was especially critical.

In Philadelphia, in 1844, for instance, Catholics and Protestants rioted over whose Bible should be used in the city’s public schools (p. 97). In the end, four people were killed, and the Catholics, unable to win the dispute, switched to demanding Bible-free schools.

Protestants, meanwhile, deemed it “better to secularize public schools than to let [Horace] Mann’s Unitarianism prevail” (p. 97).

The “acids of nondenominationalism were starting to erode religious content” not only in the schools, Prothero writes, but in every aspect of American life (p. 85), from politics to the churches themselves. Higher education followed the public schools into nonsectarianism (p. 101), and “evangelicals made a virtue of their ignorance” (p. 106).

Church sermons, once instructional and doctrinal, drifted into “story-telling” (p. 109). Famous evangelists like D. L. Moody said things like, “My theology! I didn’t know I had any” (p. 104). Churches emphasized “having a relationship with an astonishingly malleable Jesus” (p. 111), aiding an overall “shift from theology to morality” (p. 111).

In pursuit of political ends, America’s Christianity became increasingly generic. Anti-communism united Protestants and Catholics, and when Jews came aboard in the 1950s, Americans began talking about a “Judeo-Christian tradition” (p. 113). In the 1980s the Moral Majority brought Protestants, Catholics, and Jews together to campaign for “values.” More recently, “values evangelists” have reached out to Muslims under the umbrella of an “Abrahamic tradition” (p. 115). The big tent of American Christianity just keeps getting bigger and bigger!

The result is appalling. Describing the conduct of a recent Chicago Leadership Prayer Breakfast—“interfaith,” of course, complete with rabbis and imams—Joseph Stowell reports:

For the first time in my life, I was being asked to publicly deny Jesus. By joining in the standing ovation I would affirm the speaker’s premise that it was best for me to give up the “tradition” that divided us. It was clear. The only way I could stand would be to turn my back on Jesus.4

The problem is not only religious illiteracy, Professor Prothero. More than knowledge has been sacrificed on the altar of tolerance. The sacrifice, for many, has been their belief in Christ.

Destroying Christian Order

If in America today “faith is almost entirely devoid of content” (p. 1), Prothero says, “you need religious literacy in order to be an effective citizen” (p. 9). Historical events, like the American Revolution and the Civil War, cannot be understood “in a religion vacuum” (p. 4). Nor can current events be understood: “[I]t should be obvious that Christian literacy is more important than other religious literacies when it comes to understanding U.S. politics” (p. 13).

For most people in the world, Prothero argues, religion matters. “[P]arochial secularists were wrong about the waning of religion and the ‘death of God’… [They] based their predictions on nothing more substantial than the vague air of skepticism they detected at the dean’s sherry hour” (p. 40).

Politics spurred a revival of religion as a force in public life, as seen in the elections of presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. “Religion has always mattered in American society,” Prothero says (p. 45).

But … “the God-fearing faith of Calvinism yielded to the Jesus-loving faith of evangelicalism” (p. 46), while the role of religion in history was progressively deleted from school and college textbooks, contributing to a “massive ignorance” (p. 52).

It’s more than that, Professor. “State control of education has been a central means of destroying Christian order … By means of education, certain aspects of life and experience are given the priority of truth and others are relegated to unimportance or are classed as wrong,” Rushdoony says.5 Prothero errs in overlooking the consciously anti-Christian agenda of the public school enterprise, amply documented in such books as Rushdoony’s The Messianic Character of American Education.6

Still, Prothero is not completely unaware of the baneful influence of public education and benign neglect at home. “The fact of the matter,” he says, “is that you cannot avoid teaching religion to your kids; if you offer them nothing, you are telling them that religion counts for nothing” (p. 126).

Prothero’s Prescription

“The Fall into religious ignorance is reversible,” Prothero insists (p. 121); and he offers a prescription for reversing it. Briefly:

  • Churches must go back to preaching and teaching from the Scriptures (p. 126).
  • The media must provide better coverage of religion (p. 126).
  • Individuals must study harder, reading the Bible and familiarizing themselves with other religions (p. 127).
  • Schools must teach “about religion,” offering religion studies as allowed by the courts (p. 127).

Let’s examine the ingredients of this prescription.

It is true that many churches have abandoned scriptural teaching from the pulpit. A few still provide it; and new technology makes it available to all through such resources as sermonaudio.com. But it’s hard to imagine the other churches changing their ways. As long as entertainment at the expense of instruction equates to warm bodies in the pews and cold cash in the collection plates, business will go on as usual.

It is true that Christians ought to spend more time reading and studying the Bible. But only a massive change of heart would provide the motivation for it. Every adult school teacher who has handed out a reading assignment, no matter how small, has heard the refrain, “I didn’t have the time.” What is going to convince them to make the time for reading the Bible, Prothero does not discuss.

As for the media, as heavily populated as it is by unbelievers, scoffers, and debunkers, Prothero’s hopes for help from this quarter seem misplaced. We are talking about people whose idea of “covering Jesus” is to run to the Jesus Seminar for assurances that the Resurrection never occurred.

By and large, the culture of the education establishment is implacably anti-Christian and highly unlikely to change. Prothero would insist on a “fair and balanced” education “about” religion, neither preaching it nor debunking it: “[S]teer clear of both advocating religion and impugning it while at the same time communicating that individual religious convictions are to be treated, as a matter of both law and civility, with respect” (p. 132).

Very idealistic, to be sure, but Prothero expects too much from teachers who are already up to their eyebrows in queer studies, women’s studies, global warming, Darwinism, and left-wing political activism.

Education “about religion,” carried out by secular public schools and colleges, seems unlikely to accomplish much. Our skepticism is expressed by Rushdoony: “Phonics will again teach children to read, but is a barbarian who reads any less a barbarian? Knowledge is clearly good, but has knowledge made our professors any better than the rest of the population? Do professors have a lower percentage of moral and mental problems than do farmers?”7 How can anyone hope to “understand” religious faith without having it?

Meanwhile, Prothero has left out the most important element of any child’s religious training—the family! In fact, he makes a startling admission: his own children are, generally speaking, religiously illiterate (pp. 125–126). For a man who makes his living as a professor of religion studies, whose family goes to church and whose children go to Sunday school, this is an embarrassment. Was he so busy teaching other people’s children that he had no time to teach his own?

Why We Need to Know

As glaring as this omission is, Prothero has missed something even more important—the real reason why we ought to be knowledgeable about the Christian religion (never mind the others).

The reason is simple: God commands it.

In the words of Christ Himself, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations … Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19–20).

And, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15).

And, “[B]e ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15).

We can hardly teach what we do not know, or preach a gospel out of ignorance, or give a reason for a faith we do not understand.

Prothero wants to reverse religious illiteracy because to him it’s good civics. To us, it’s a matter of obedience to God. If making our hearers better Christians, or converting them to Christianity in the first place, makes them better citizens, well and good. But the commandment is to be obeyed regardless. We belong to God’s Kingdom before we are citizens of any country.

We are not sold on his remedy, but he has done a good job (and an entertaining one) of calling attention to the ailment.

We are not convinced that hours of instruction “about” religion, divorced from belief, will produce an understanding of any religion. We don’t believe it’s possible to be religiously neutral or that it’s intellectually honest to claim to be so.

We and Prothero agree, for different reasons, with the prophet Hosea: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge,” and not forgetting the rest of the verse, “because thou hast rejected knowledge, I will also reject thee” (Hosea 4:6).


1. R. J. Rushdoony, Roots of Reconstruction, “False Religions” (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1991), 307.

2. Rushdoony, Systematic Theology (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1994), 683.

3. Ibid.,  674.

4. Joseph Stowell, The Trouble with Jesus (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2003), 22.

5. Rushdoony, Institutes of Biblical Law, Vol. 1 (The Craig Press, 1973), 296.

6. Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1995.

7. Rushdoony, Roots of Reconstruction,  309.


Topics: Biblical Law, Theology, Culture

Lee Duigon

Lee is the author of the Bell Mountain Series of novels and a contributing editor for our Faith for All of Life magazine. Lee provides commentary on cultural trends and relevant issues to Christians, along with providing cogent book and media reviews.

Lee has his own blog at www.leeduigon.com.

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