Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Religious Literacy (Prothero): 2 - Religion Matters

As I've mentioned previously, my motivation for starting this blog was a book I read called Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--And Doesn't, by Stephen Prothero, published this year (2007). One of the tasks I've set for myself here in the blog is to record some notes from this book and my response to it. Last time I posted some notes about Chapter 1, A Nation of Religious Illiterates. In this post you'll find my notes for Chapter 2: Religion Matters.

Prothero opens this chapter with some reflections on secularism and how, not that long ago, the secularism of late 1960s and 1970s prompted American academics to propose something called "secularization theory." Prothero suggests that the whole notion may have been groundless to begin with: "Theorists who postulated the death of religion under modernity's crush (or, at a minimum, its retreat into the closet of the private) often based their predictions on nothing more substantial than the vague air of skepticism they detected at the dean's sherry hour." [40]

What is especially interesting is that various forces within the religious world, rather than fighting modernism, have actually embraced it and turned it for their own purposes, showing that there is no inherent entailment of secularism in modernity: "Religion and modernity have become fast friends, with evangelicals borrowing (and sanctifying) virtually every accoutrement of modern life: theater, radio, rock music, marketing, advertising, television and the Internet, to say nothing of individualism and consumer capitalism." [40]

It's very interesting reading Prothero's brief overview of the entanglement of religion and politics as we are about to embark on the latest presidential campaign, with the Democratic candidates professing their faith in a public forum sponsored by Sojourners. This forum marks a self-conscious attempt by the Democrats to move away from the situation that Prothero describes in this book when "in the 1990s a double-digit 'God gap' opened up among frequent worshippers between the Democrats (now understood as the secular party) and the Republicans (the 'faith-based' alternative)." [42] No wonder the Democrats are trying this new strategy, given the statistics that Prothero reports here: "During the 1960s and 1970s there had been no discernible party preference among religious practitioners; religious affiliation was politically irrelevant. In 1992, however, frequent worshippers (those who attend religious congregations at least once a week) preferred Bush the Elder over Bill Clinton by 14 percentage points. that gap widened to 20 percent in the 2000 Bush-Gore and 2004 Bush-Kerry elections, dwarfing the proverbial gender gap." [42]

In short, the "secularization theorists" have given up the concept as irrelevant to understanding American society today. Prothero quotes Peter Berger, a prominent sociologist who had promoted secularization theory, as saying "the whole body of literature by historians and social scientists loosely labeled 'secularization theory' is essentially mistaken." [43]

This is not to say that there is no such thing as secularism, but Prothero argues that instead of being viewed as an inevitable trend, it is secularism that needs to be explainined as a bit of an unexpected oddity: "What needs explaining is not the persistence of religion in modern socieities, but the emergency of unbelief in Europe and among American leaders in media, law and higher education." [43]

Whatever the cause, the consequences of the disconnect between religion and education have clearly had seriously negative consequences. In an assessment of high school textbooks, Prothero observes: "After President Lincoln is buried, religion typically goes underground too, leaving students with the distinct impression that, insofar as religion has had any historical effects, those effects are now safely behind us. In fact, according to one study of US history textbooks, there is typically more discussion of railroads than religion in the postbellum period." [44] Prothero then provides a brief overview of American history pointing to example after example of crucial historical developments in which religion was a key factor.

One interesting item from this list was in Prothero's inventory of social movements (abolitionism, temperance movement, etc.) was his reference to the origin of the "what would Jesus do?" phrase. Apparently it comes from a novel, In His Steps, published in 1897 by a Congregationalist minister, Charles M. Sheldon. As Prothero notes: "Charles M. Sheldon is remember today for bequeathing to us the query "What would Jesus do?" but its original purpose was to drive home the point that if Jesus were out and about in Victorian America, he would be caring for slum dwellers, not selling steel." [48]

I was also intrigued by this comment regarding the Japanese interment camps of WWII: "Religion mattered during World War II, when the federal government packed virtually every Japanese American Buddhist in the country off to an internment camp, in part because government officials confused Buddhism with Shinto (in which the Japanese emperor was worshipped as a god)." This is a recurring theme in Prothero's book. He is concerned that when religion is a factor in public policy, public ignorance about religion will lead to badly misinformed policies.

In a later chapter, Prothero will provide a detailed analysis of the historical evolution of religious education in America, and in this chapter he starts to set out the general lines of that evolution. I'm going to include a rather long quote here, since it is essential to the main historical argument of Prothero's book [52]:
The current booms in homeschooling and evangelical private schooling can be credited in part to a widespread perception among conservative Christian parents that public schools have gone over to the secular side. Recently some conservative Christians have called for what might be termed a 'second disestablishment' of the public schools. Whereas the first disestablishment, effected over the course of the nineteenth century, got rid of a sectarian bias toward Protestantism in public schools, this second disestablishment takes aim at sectarian bias toward 'secular humanism.' Turning the tables on liberal critics of fundamentalists' efforts to censor such books as Catch-22 and Heather Has Two Mommies, conservative Christian critics contend that secular humanists are now effectively censoring schoolbooks and, though them, the public schools themselves.
Prothero will have a great deal more to say in a later chapter about that "first disestablishment" of religion in American education and it is a truly fascinating story, so stay tuned for that one!

In my own teaching, I've had students who are shocked that we read so many religious texts in my classes. They seem to think that the "separation of church and state" means that there is no place for religious texts in humanities courses at a state university. Yet, while they are shocked that they are 'allowed' (as they often put it) to read religious texts in these classes, by and large they are fascinated by the texts and ask for recommendations on more to read. The flexible format of my classes has allowed me to include a wide variety of religious texts and I love introducing my students to the incredible storytelling traditions of Hinduism (I teach a course on the Ramayana and the Mahabharata), Buddhism (jataka tales!), Judaism (Ginzberg's Legends of the Jews is available online - a priceless resource), Christianity (especially texts unknown to Protestant students, like Susannah and the Elders, Daniel and the Dragon, etc.), and Islam (the glorious treasure-trove of Sufi tales).

Prothero, thankfully, helps sort through the legal background, showing that teaching ABOUT religion in schools is not illegal! In fact, just the opposite, as he explains: "This muzzling of religion is not only unfair, it is likely unconstitutional. As a series of recent Supreme Court rulings has made plain, the First Amendment requires that the public schools be neutral with respect to religion. That means not taking sides among the religions, not favoring Christianity over Buddhism, for example, or the Baptists over the Lutherans. But it also means not taking sides between religion and irreligion." [53]

Finally, there was also a comment that Prothero made about the larger historical context of this problem which really resonated with me personally. I am not a "religious person" in the sense that I do not go to church, but at the same time my cultural interests are firmly tied to those cultures which put religion at the center of things, where art (music, literature, poetry) is inspired by the profound force of religious mystery. Romanticism has always marked a kind of tragic shift for me in terms of European culture, when the mysteries of religion seemed to morph into a tedious self-obsession with individual ego, numbingly solipsistic. Anyway, Prothero made what seems to me a very astute comment about how it is not simply the Enlightenment but also Romanticism which is at work in the divorce from religion we see today in so much of education and the mass media: "Schoolbooks tend to trivialize religion because of the secular biases of those who write and publish them. Eurosecularity is rampant in both higher education and the media, textbook publishing's two homes. The former answers to the Englightenment and the latter to Romanticism, but neither takes religion as seriously as the American public does. Many authors and publishers are as a result convinced that religion just doesn't matter, except perhaps to the ancient past." [54]

I'm not a historian by training, and I don't tend to think "historically" about things, but I am really intrigued by the historical observations which Prothero shares with us in this book. In the next chapter, he embarks on a wonderful historical exploration of American schooling starting in the colonial period. It's one of my favorite chapters in the book, so I hope I will be able to find the time to blog my notes for that chapter very soon. Stay tuned!

For now, those are my notes for Chapter 2. I'll be tagging future posts on this topic with the label prothero, so if you want to see any other posts I've added on this topic, just click on the prothero label link.

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