HISTORY WITH & WITHOUT RELIGION
A follow-up discussion on the previous topic.  James Loewen describes religion as one of the "Taboo Subjects" of American history. 

 


CAPTAIN
Below Prothero states:  "Eurosecularity is rampant in both higher education and the media, textbook publishing's two homes. The former answers to the Enlightenment and the latter to Romanticism, but neither takes religion as seriously as the American public does."
> What does the author mean "higher education ... answers to the Enlightenment?"  Investigate and discuss.

RECORDER
Below Prothero states:  "Eurosecularity is rampant in both higher education and the media, textbook publishing's two homes. The former answers to the Enlightenment and the latter to Romanticism, but neither takes religion as seriously as the American public does."
> What does the author mean "the media ... answers to .. Romanticism?"  Investigate and discuss.

ENCOURAGER
Below Prothero makes a reference to "Judeo-Christian."
> What does this mean--what is this concept about?  Investigate and discuss.

DEVIL'S ADVOCATE
Below Prothero refers to "secularization theory."
> What does this mean--what is this concept about?  Investigate and discuss.

REFLECTOR
Below Prothero refers to "red-state." 
> What does this mean--what is this concept about?  Investigate and discuss.


 

Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--And Doesn't Read this selection from Steven Prothero's Religious Literacy, Chapter 2: “Religion Matters“

In 1966 Time magazine asked, on a stark, black cover reminiscent of a Victorian funeral card, "Is God Dead?" Today, when books on spirituality crowd the best-seller lists, God is a recurring character on television, and Jesus is big at the box office, this question seems, well, a little European. "Is Secularism Dead?" seems the pertinent question. Whereas red­state believers once felt marooned in a sea of secularists, now unbelievers in the blue states feel adrift in a sea of patriotic piety.  The challenge is not to decide whether it is time to pay our last respects to the Almighty but to figure out how anyone ever could have imagined that God was anything other than alive and well and living in America. Was there really a time when people actually believed that the world was outgrowing religion?  

As the 1966 Time cover indicates, the answer to that question is yes.  Social theorists of such stature as Auguste Comte in the nineteenth century and Max Weber in the twentieth were convinced that wherever modernity advanced, religion would fade.  Their acolytes multiplied in the early 1960s, as the religious revival that followed the Second World War was fading into the countercultural camp meeting of the late 1960s and early 1970s.  At the height of this flirtation with secularity, theologians weren't just predicting the eclipse of God, they were bragging about doing God in. To be clear, these "Death of God" theologians were not saying that God was literally deceased; many of them didn't believe that God had ever been literally alive in the first place. What they were saying was that God was as good as dead-that divinity had ceased to matter in the modern world.

The academic culture that produced "secularization theory," as the social-scientific species of this prognosticating is called, is a curiously parochial enclave, by no sights as cosmopolitan as its natives imagine, and by no means representative of modern societies.  Among academia's curiosities is the persistent skepticism of its inhabitants, their tendency to dismiss faith as fanaticism. 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; if academia was marching away from God-or so the logic went-the rest of the modern world would surely follow. So it seemed safe for social scientists to ignore religion as a force in the modern world. Religion, after all, had no force over them. When it came to truly important matters such as politics, economy, and society, religion must be as vestigial as the appendix; whether you had one or not didn't matter a whit (though having one might make you deathly ill). Or so went the conventional wisdom.


Pop Goes Jesus

That such wisdom now begs for an adjective as dismissive as conventional owes much to the vitality of religion in American popular culture, which is indebted in turn to the collective decision of evangelicals--made around the time the novel was still a scandal and no self-respecting church would cotton to an organ-to join modernity rather than fight it. Since that time 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.

We now know that prophecies of God's death, however passionately or poetically argued, were but fingers in the wind, measuring little more than the climate of faith in, say, Sigmund Freud's Vienna, Jean-Paul Sartre's Paris, or the environs of Harvard Square. Secularization theory has run aground, as grand theories often do, on the shoals of historical facts. Today the hard-core atheist, once a stock figure in American life, has gone the way of the freak show. The best-seller lists, long obsessed with sex, lies, and other virtues, are now salted with titles ripped from the hymnals. Sales of The Purpose-Driven Life (2002) by the megachurch pastor Rick Warren and Tim LaHaye's and Jerry B. Jenkins's apocalyptic Left Behind novels are sufficient (20 and 60 million, respectively) to turn even John Grisham green. On the other side of the spirituality spectrum Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code (2003) and Ron Howard's 2006 movie of the same name combine a caustic critique of Catholicism with a provocative retelling of the life of Jesus. Spirituality and religion, angels and vampires, the Son of God and the supernatural suffuse all sorts of television shows. And on the radio, supposedly secular artists now invoke the J­word with impunity-all the way to the bank. "If I talk about God my record won't get played, Huh?" Kanye West raps in "Jesus Walks." Not exactly. The song won a Grammy.

It was politics rather than pop culture, however, that drove a stake into the heart of the assumption that modernity was sucking the vitality out of religion. The story of the recent rediscovery of the force of faith-­that is to say, the story of the shipwreck of secularization theory--begins with the US Supreme Court, which outlawed prayer and devotional Bible reading in the public schools in 1962 and 1963 and upheld abortion in 1973 in Roe v. Wade. Democrats defended these rulings (and the freedoms of the counterculture) in the name of Thomas Jefferson, individual rights, public reason, and the First Amendment. Republicans decried the same rulings (and the licentiousness of the counterculture) in the name of God, family values, revelation, and the Judeo-Christian tradition. In this way religion became a player once again in American political life. 

The first beneficiary of this rechristening of US politics was of course the peanut farmer and Sunday school teacher from Plains, Georgia, Jimmy Carter. Before Carter it was possible to see the United States as a secular nation with a citizenry that, while individually religious, had nevertheless agreed to quarantine religion from the public square. The White House had been dominated until Carter's 1977 inauguration by a New England ethos that viewed public professions of religion as bad manners or bad faith (or both). Senator John Kennedy, while campaigning for the presidency in 1960, felt obliged to pledge to make policy on subjects such as birth control, gambling, and education without any regard to his Catholicism. Carter, however, in keeping with the emergent southern style in US politics, spoke repeatedly and unabashedly about his piety (not least in Playboy, where he famously confessed to lusting in his heart).  Governor Ronald Reagan was swept to victory on the wings of the Moral Majority, which from its founding in 1979 had urged the nation to repent of its godlessness and amorality and return to its ostensibly Judeo-Christian roots. President Reagan's speeches repeatedly invoked themes from the biblical common­wealth of New England's Puritans, notably Governor John Winthrop's metaphor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony as a "city upon a hill" (an image that Winthrop himself borrowed from Matthew 5: 14: "Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be bid").
 

Textbook Ignorance (American Style)

High school textbooks blatantly disregard this rule, following instead Emily Post's dictum not to discuss religion in polite company. So US high school students learn virtually nothing about the powerful historical and contemporary effects of religious beliefs, religious practices, religious people, and religious institutions.

When religion is mentioned in US history schoolbooks, it is all too often an afterthought or an embarrassment (or both) and clearly a diver­sion from what is presumed throughout to be a secular story. Historian Jon Buder has called this the jack-in-the-box approach: Religious charac­ters pop up here and there, typically with all of the color and substance of a circus clown, but their appearances-prosecuting witches in Salem in the 1690s or making monkeys of themselves at the Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, in the 1920s--are always a surprise (or a scare), and, happily, they go back into hiding as quickly as they emerge. Readers of American history textbooks might learn something about the religious bigotry of the Puritans and the quaint customs of Native Americans of bygone days. And when the Civil War rolls around there may be a brief discussion of the Quakers' abolitionist sentiments. But after President Abraham 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 of religion in the post bellum period."

Secularists love to chuckle at evangelicals for their quaint take on American history--for forcibly converting the Founding Fathers to Christianity and for reading the godless Constitution as part of God's divine plan for "Christian America." But secularists have their foibles too, including their own odd take on American history--an interpretation enshrined, unfortunately, in all too many history textbooks. According to this view--call it the secular myth of America-American civilization is on the march from religion to reason, superstition to science.  True, religion intrudes occasionally to retard this advance, but zealots always retreat dutifully into the backwaters from whence they came.  A thirst for freedom sends the Pilgrims to the New World, but when they get here all they want to do is catch cod, and when Thanksgiving rolls around they give thanks not to God but to the Indians, or to the land itself. The revivals of the early nineteenth century send Americans scurrying to the pews (and away from bars and brothels), but their real purpose is to dupe factory workers into thinking that "God" loves a happy laborer. According to one major study of thirty-one history textbooks up for adoption in Texas, "The treatment of religion as a force in US history continues to receive short shrift."
 

A Very Short History of Religion in US History

The tendency of textbook authors and publishers to reduce religion, as one critic has put it, to "either a quaint relic or a chronic source of strife" cannot erase the fact that what sociologist Gerhard Lenski called "the religious factor" has been a major factor in US history-and not always on the Dark Side." In fact, none of the classic events in American history--the Revolution, the Civil War, the New Deal, the Reagan Revolution-can be understood without some knowledge of the religious motivations of the generals, soldiers, thinkers, politicians, and voters who made them happen. As the following very short history indicates, religion has always mattered in American society.

Religion mattered in North America's English colonies. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed in Democracy in America (1835), "It must never be forgotten that religion gave birth to Anglo-American society.'?" The Puritans came here at least in part to worship God as they saw fit. In virtually everything they thought and did (fishing and farming included), they understood themselves to be in a covenantal relationship with God.  According to the terms of this conditional covenant, God would bless them if they acted well and curse them if they did otherwise. In this way every aspect of life among the Puritans, including their economics and their politics, was brought under the sacred canopy of their faith.

In The Protestant Ethic and the Rise of Capitalism (1904-1905), Max Weber argued that religious ideas give rise to economic realities (not, as Karl Marx had argued, the other way around). More specifically, Weber contended that the "Protestant ethic" of the Puritans birthed capitalism--by providing a divine mandate for hard work, savings, and other essentials of a capitalist economy. That mayor may not be the case. It is indisputable, however, that Puritanism in colonial New England profoundly influenced the course of American literature art economics society, and politics."

Puritanism also affected the founding of Rhode Island, which Roger Williams established as a haven for Baptists and other religious dissenters from Puritan orthodoxy.  Anglicanism mattered in the founding of Virginia, and Roman Catholicism in the founding of Maryland. And Quaker William Penn established Pennsylvania as a "holy experiment" ill religious liberty.

Religion mattered in the encounters of British, French, and Spanish colonists with the Indians, and of these colonists with one another. These encounters have often been understood chiefly in military, economic, technological, and even biological terms (since so many Indians died of European diseases), but they were also religious exchanges. Colonists con­verted Indians to Protestantism and Catholicism, and some colonists taken captive by Indians took up Indian religious practices. Spanish mis­sions included both forts and churches. The French traded furs with the Mohawks, but they also preached to them the Catholic Christ. Later in US history, Native Americans responded to efforts to "civilize" and "Chris­tianize" them with new religious movements such as the Ghost Dance, which played a major role in the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890.

Religion mattered in the American Revolution too, which proceeded very differently from France's more secular revolt. The Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s, a grand revival that stretched up and down the eastern seaboard, helped to knit the colonists into one people and in so doing paved the way for a rebellion against the British Crown that many understood theologically--as a quest to make good in the political realm on the liberty they had already found in the spiritual.  The revolution may not have been, as historian J. C. D. Clark has argued, "the last great war of religion in the western world," but it was motivated in part by religious dissenters who saw Anglicanism and monarchy as parts of a single tyrannical force and termed their rebellion "the cause of heaven against hell." As this rhetoric intimates, Americans in the making were careful to direct their revolt against the British monarchy rather than Christianity. Those who drafted the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were influenced far more by Deism than by anticlericalism, The early republic experienced, as historian Henry May has observed, a moderate, pro-Christian Enlightenment as opposed to the more radical, anti-Christian Enlightenment of the French."

This moderate Enlightenment transformed American religion, chiefly by making Protestantism more egalitarian. Having cast off George III, Americans became chary of the tyranny of Calvin's capricious God.  In the spiritual marketplace brought on by the First Amendment, "populist preachers" and the "sovereign audience" reigned.  Ordinary people took control of their churches just as they had taken control of their government. In the process the God-fearing faith of Calvinism yielded to the Jesus-loving faith of evangelicalism, and American religion became less intellectual and more enthusiastic. Americans, the Baptist firebrand Elias Smith proclaimed in 1809, must be "wholly free to examine for ourselves what is truth, without being bound to a catechism, creed, confession of faith, discipline or any rule excepting the scriptures."

Religion mattered as well during the early nineteenth century, when a series of social reforms swept the country. The movements to abolish slav­ery, reform the prison system, prohibit alcohol consumption, care for the insane, bring education to the masses, and win for women the right to vote were all led by evangelical Protestants and justified on biblical grounds. (Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison put Jesus on the masthead of his newspaper, The Liberator.) Moreover, these social reformers drew the resources required to fight these fights from a deeply theological well of postmillennial optimism. They pushed to free slaves and to shut down saloons because they believed that such reforms would usher in the kingdom of God, which in turn would bring on Christ's Second Coming. And if these efforts also preserved the Protestant character of the nation in the face of the Catholic hordes washing ashore from Europe, well, so much the better.

Religion mattered in the Civil War also. This defining moment in American history was of course a battle over slavery and state's rights.  But it was also a holy war in which, as President Abraham Lincoln famously observed, both sides "read the same Bible and pray to the same God." The Presbyterian Church of the Confederate States of America argued that slavery was "a gracious Providence" sanctioned in the Bible, while Frederick Douglass, disgusted over Christendom's complicity in the sin of slavery, divided Christianity into two irreconcilable factions: "the corrupt, slaveholding, woman-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land" and "the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ." When the war ended, both sides saw it as an Armageddon of sorts. Southerners fastened onto the Myth of the Lost Cause, which embraced Confederate soldiers as martyrs and the South as something of a resurrected Christ, while Northerners anointed Lincoln, who was assassinated on Good Friday, as a Christ of their own who shed his blood to atone for the sins of the nation."

After the Civil War Americans debated the pros and cons of capitalism with much of the theological passion they had devoted to the slavery question. Steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie promulgated a "gospel of wealth," which understood getting rich as a religious obligation. This theology was later popularized by the Baptist minister and Temple University president Russell Conwell, who contended in "Acres of Diamonds," a sermon he reportedly preached six thousand times to 13 million people, that "to make money honestly is to preach the gos­pel." Progressive proponents of the Social Gospel, by contrast, saw capi­talism as a sin. The novel In His Steps (1897) by the Congregationalist minister Charles M. Sheldon is remembered 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."

Religion mattered as the United States expanded its empire overseas in the late nineteenth century. Earlier, the doctrine of Manifest Destiny had propelled Americans west into the frontier on the theory that it was God's will for them to civilize and Protestantize the continent. After bumping up against the Pacific, Americans looked farther afield, forcibly opening Japan to trade in 1853, and annexing Hawaii and waging war in Cuba and the Philippines in 1898. This expansion, which would soon extend to Haiti, Nicaragua, and many other Latin American countries, was motivated and justified by commercial and military interests, to be sure, but also by a desire to missionize the "heathen."

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). As in the Civil War, Americans again gave theological reasons both for supporting and opposing this war. Partisans of "muscular Christianity," recalling that Jesus "came not to send peace, but a sword" (Matthew 10:34), contended that their "manly Redeemer" would want them to fight for what is right. Christian pacifists, who wor­shipped a "sweet Savior," countered with the story of Jesus rebuking followers after they drew blood from his captors in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:51-52).80

During the Cold War, of course, religious considerations were paramount. In this era "reds" were atheists, Americans were monotheists, and the Cold War was spiritual warfare that, in an era of nuclear weapons, carried portents of the Apocalypse. Religion mattered too in the civil rights movement, which as one historian has written was "led by ministers, fortified by Scripture, exhorted in massive church meetings, and buoyed by gospel music.?" And it mattered as a thousand freedoms bloomed during the Beat movement of the 1950s and the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, which were fueled not only by jazz, rock 'n' roll, and marijuana but also by Zen, Transcendental Meditation, and Jesus piety.

Religion mattered as well in each of America's great waves of immigration since, in addition to hopes and dreams, pilgrims from Ireland and Ger­many, Japan and India brought to America their religious traditions. Catholicism arrived in force with the Irish in the 1830s and Judaism with Eastern Europeans in the 1880s. After the passage of new immigration legislation in 1965 Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims came in numbers too. Each of these immigration waves set off nativist opposition, on the one hand, and renewed calls for tolerance and pluralism, on the other. It was largely through the force of immigration that Americans came to debate whether the United States is a secular or a Christian country and (more recently) whether it is Judeo-Christian, judeo-Christian-Islamic, or multi-religious.

Finally, religion mattered in the culture wars of the 1980s and beyond, which were set off by Supreme Court decisions banning school prayer and upholding abortion, and by a little-known 1978 IRS ruling that eliminated the tax-exempt status of segregated Christian schools. These events in turn catapulted evangelicals back into US politics, something they had remained aloof from since their embarrassment at the Scopes "Monkey Trial" in 1925.

 

Reasons for Neglect

Many reasons have been offered for this not-so-benign neglect of religion in US and world history textbooks, which appears to have begun in the 1960s and 1970s. A desire to steer clear of controversy has already been mentioned. Another reason is confusion about Supreme Court decisions on religion and public education. Many teachers, parents, principals, superintendents, curriculum committees, textbook authors, textbook publishers, and members of textbook selection boards are simply unaware that the Court has repeatedly and explicitly given a constitutional seal of approval to teaching about religion "when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education."?  In fact, many teachers wrongly believe that any mention of religion is unconstitutional. A related reason for the silence on religion in public schools is confusion about the crucial distinction between theology and religious studies-between what the Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg called "the teaching of religion" (which is unconstitutional) and "the teaching about religion" (which is not)." Religion has been neglected because of demands for coverage of other "new" subjects-from women and blacks to Native Americans and Latinos. Religion has also been squeezed our by the "back to basics" movement, by the mania for testing (such as Massachusetts's high-stakes MCAS examinations), and by President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" initiative. In each of these cases an emphasis on so-called essentials has pushed to the sidelines supposed inessentials, such as the study of religion.

Schoolbooks also 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 Enlightenment 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. In other words, while historians and sociologists are finally coming around to repudiating secularization theory, that theory continues to animate, consciously or unconsciously, the writing and editing of high school textbooks.

So perhaps Peter Berger is not all wrong; perhaps those who lord over this country still have a bit of Sweden's secularity in them. The United States is ruled, to be sure, from the White House, the Capitol, and the Supreme Court, and none of these institutions is in danger of going over to the secular side any time soon. But knowledge is power too, and textbooks have long functioned in the United States as the scriptures of our schools, which are themselves, as Frances Fitzgerald once put it, "Ministries of Truth for children."  Schoolbooks tell us what we need to know and what we ought to value. They tell us what matters and what can be ignored, what is worth dying for and what (or who) is to be shunned. They tell us what America is, both as an ideal and as a reality, and they interpret the wider world--the beaker in which the American experiment is forever bubbling up. This is no small power: telling children what to think about themselves, their country, and the world-telling them as well what to think of Islam and Christianity and Judaism or whether to think of religion at all.  At least for the time being the 'gospel that these ministries are peddling is that religion is moribund-that God is dead.

Things were not always so. Not long ago high school textbooks were filled with references to the living God and the resurrected Christ. They quoted freely from the Gospel of Matthew and the five books of Moses. The truths these schoolbooks told were religious to the core: that the United States was a chosen nation, that good boys and girls would go to heaven, and that cleanliness was next to godliness. You may not agree with these messages, but there is no gainsaying the fact that this sort of education cultivated religious literacy, at least of the Protestant sort. In fact, in the colonies and the early republic, basic literacy and religious literacy were intimately intertwined. It was impossible to learn how to read without learning basic facts about the Christian tradition. To understand how we fell into the predicament we find ourselves in today, we need to go back to this educational Eden and see how teachers and students in that time heeded the biblical commandment to "remember."