Why are we so religiously illiterate?

If you ask that question you're likely, these days, to get a finger pointing back to a series of 1960s Supreme Court decisions that outlawed school prayer and devotional bible reading. But Stephen Prothero goes much further back than the 1960s to find the answer that might prove somewhat surprising/disconcerting.

Indeed, in the early days of the Republic and before, as Puritanism was the leading religious voice in the colonies/country religious literacy was foundational to education, but several things happened during the early years of the 19th century.

Now, as I read this section of Prothero's Religious Literacy (ch. 4) I felt that to some degree there was an intellectual elitism at play here that may not allow for alternative modes of learning the faith -- but that said, I think he has a point. Here are a few of the contributors to our fall into religious illiteracy.

1. The Second Great Awakening -- I hope you did a double take there, but his point is that the Puritans tried to keep head/heart in balance. An informed faith was essential to a Jonathan Edwards, who was one of America's greatest intellects as well as revivalist preacher. But the 2nd Awakenings emphasis on experience disconnected the head from the heart and for some ignorance was truly bliss.

2. Common School Movement -- Modern public schools are rooted in the reforms of Horace Mann, a Unitarian, who saw the value of religion as a former of piety/moral virtue. He also saw doctrinal distinctions as disruptive to this. So, America's common schools tried to create a non-sectarian Protestant school system that used the KJV.

3. Bible Wars -- Remember Harold Lindsell and his Battle for the Bible? Well here was a real Bible Battle Royale! You see the schools were using the KJV, without note or comment, but Catholics used the Douay-Rheims -- with appropriate commentary. Catholic demands led to riots in Philadelphia that left a dozen dead. In New York when the Catholic Bishop asked for funds for Parochial Schools and was turned down, he said -- hey, then why not remove the Bible if we can't have our own. Ultimately that prevailed.
  • You see here -- in the name of tolerance the schools pursued a generic/non-sectarian religious education.
  • In the name of intolerance of Roman Catholics -- that generic faith proved exclusive and unworkable.

Thus in the end because of the difficulties of including a growing Catholic population and criticism from Sectarian Protestants that Mann's generic faith looked too much like Unitarianism for their comfort, the schools had to go secular.

In the 1840s the Presbyterian General Assembly was decrying the anti-Christian bias of Public schools. Not the 1960s to the present -- the 1840s!!!!

In 187o the Cincinnati School Board voted to "outlaw hymn singing, Bible Reading, and religious education from its public schools." (Prothero, p. 98). That's nearly a century prior to the Supreme Court made such rules law of the land.


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