Religious Literacy

*This is a paper I just wrote for my Religious Diversity class.  I’m quite proud of it.*

Many people claim that America is a Christian nation. They recognize the impact religious beliefs had on the Founding Fathers and on the creation of America. However, many people also claim that America isn’t a Christian nation. These people hold to the First Amendment, which argues for the separation of church and state. They believe, because the church is separate from the government, we can’t claim that America has a national religion.

I believe that America is neither a Christian nation, nor a non-Christian nation. I believe America is a nation influenced by religious beliefs and was created with Christian morals and ideologies in mind. However, I believe that modern America is illiterate towards the religious influences of the past, the impact of the present, and the implications of the future. This illiteracy, this basic lack of understanding of the many religions living in the United States and the impact those religions have on the world, creates a diluted sense of American pop culture, history, and politics and society.

At the beginning of the semester, inspired by Stephen Prothero, his book Religious Literacy, and the questions he poses to his classes (Prothero, 2008), I created a similar survey and posted it on my Facebook page, and on a blog I write. The questions were composed of similar to the ones Prothero uses, and others I thought helped to further examine modern religious literacy. The responses illustrated more knowledge in terms of the Christian religion, but questions focusing on other religions and the relationship between religion and government were barely answered, or were answered wrongly.   This study boldly illustrates modern religious illiteracy.

Religious iconography and ideas are echoed and illustrated in almost every aspect of pop culture. Movies, books, songs, music videos, even celebrities utilize religious components to enhance the impact. The Golden Compass, which was a popular book and movie several years ago, provides a good example of the impact religious influences have on society. This book and movie were praised, but by understanding the author’s views on religion, particularly Christianity, a deeper understanding of the story is created. The Chronicles of Narnia is another example. Author C. S. Lewis created the series to be an allegory to the Christian teachings, an extension of his previous religious writings. This is most obvious in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe; however, many modern readers and movie-watchers are ignorant this fact.

In terms of music, many artists have used religious themes in their songs and music videos. Lady Gaga’s “Judas”, Madonna’s “Like a Prayer”, and even Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks” include religious themes in their songs, and religious iconography in the music videos. These songs are catchy and are liked by the fan base. But I would argue that very few of Lady Gaga’s, Madonna’s, or even Kanye West’s fan base are aware of the religious elements of these songs, and music videos. Carrie Underwood’s song “Something in the Water” is one of the clearest examples of religious themes. This song is directly about being baptized, and the Christian faith. However, many people listening to this song may not know what baptism is, and why water is important to the Christian faith.

rs_1024x759-170212180602-1024-beyonce-grammy-awards-showMany celebrities, including Beyoncé and the Dali Lama utilize religious themes in their persona as well. At the 2017 Grammy’s, Beyoncé’s performance referenced several religious figures. While pregnant and wearing a golden halo, Beyoncé referenced the Virgin Mary, Oshun (the African goddess of love and beauty), Mami Wata (the mother of water), the Black Madonna, and Durga (the Hindu mother of the universe). By understanding the importance of the religious themes celebrities present, we experience a deeper understanding of their impact, or art. The Dali Lama is the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists. Recently, the Dali Lama was part of an ad for Apple products. The Dali Lama for Tibetan Buddhists is similar to Jesus Christ for Christians, but because of western religious ignorance, this ad was not seen as offensive or inappropriate. Finally, many religious symbols, such as the mandala, are embraced as “cool” or “interesting” in pop culture, but are not accepted as important religious icons. In terms of pop culture, religious illiteracy does not allow for a deeper understanding and appreciation of stories, books, music, and other religions.

The history of America is full of religious influences and implications. Every child in school knows about the Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving, but what it not often taught is the religious animosity that plagued the first colonies. Diana Eck, author of A New Religious America writes; “As decades brought more and more settlers to these shores, our Christian ancestors did not create widely tolerant communities. The Puritans of Boston envisioned a society, a biblical commonwealth, decisively shaped by their own form of Christianity. They were concerned primarily with religious freedom for themselves and did not regard it as a foundation for common life with people who differed from them” (Eck, 2001). As a student born and raised in Pennsylvania, I am ashamed to say I was unaware of how intolerant the first settlers were towards settlers from other beliefs of Christianity. I was not aware that Pennsylvania was created as a religious experiment, where settlers of various beliefs could live (Eck, 2001).

Many history textbooks leave out this uncomfortable bit of history, opting instead for the peaceful image of the settlers, and of First Thanksgiving, of pilgrims and Native Americans celebrating together. However, as Eck also points out, “The Christian settlers who encountered the Native peoples of the land, on the whole, thought of this encounter, not with people of different spiritual traditions, but with people of no spiritual life at all” (Eck, 2001). The pilgrims and the Native peoples did not get along, but textbooks ignore this.

Many textbooks also leave out the impact of religion on many major events, such as the GWH_Covercreation of the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution, the Civil War, 9/11, and even through to today. The Founding Fathers, though religious in different ways, understood the importance of religion to the new nation. By breaking with the King of England, the colonists were declaring religious freedom abroad, but “were careful to direct their revolt against the British monarchy rather than Christianity” (Prothero, 2008). The Founding Fathers crafted the United States’ Constitution in to allow for continued religious freedom, in both deliberately not referencing God and Christian doctrine in the Constitution, and in the creation of the First Amendment. Though the phrase “In God We Trust” is printed on our national currency, the Founding Fathers, particularly Thomas Jefferson, viewed God through a Deist perspective.  However, not many kids in school are knowledgeable of this fact. Many textbooks also ignore the religious implication in the Civil War. This moment in US history is taught mainly as a battle over slavery, but the religious views of the North and South in terms of slavery are often ignored. How is it possible to understand why the South petitioned for slavery and the North petitioned against slavery, if the driving Biblical views aren’t examined?

The impact of religion World War II is often ignored as well, unless addressing the Jews and the Holocaust. Textbooks are more focused on the political implications of the Civil Rights movement and of the Cold War, rather than understanding how religious beliefs propelled the Civil Rights movement, and shaped attitudes towards Communists (Prothero, 2008). And in terms world religions, all but Christianity seem to drop off the map after their beginnings are introduced. Islam, in particular, disappears for thousands of years, until being introduced again for the Iranian hostage crisis in the 1970’s, and then again in terms of 9/11 (Prothero, 2008). Because of this, Prothero states, “[S]tudents are led to believe that religion somehow belongs to the past; the present (and presumably, the future) belongs to secularism” (Prothero, 2008). Students are taught a diluted version of American history, void of much of the religious implications, which in turn is one of the biggest components to history itself. When many of the major political conversations today have historical roots, such as racism, right to life, immigration, it is also important to consider these subjects’ religious history. But given the minimal religious teaching in schools, students understand a warped sense of these conversations.

Religion plays a large part in politics, in both domestic and international politics. An understanding of history is crucial to an understanding of governmental policies and actions. How are we to understand the Vietnam War in the mid 1960’s through the 1970’s without understanding the religious protests from pacifists, Buddhists monks, and the jailing of Vietnamese pastors? How are we to understand the impact of 9/11 without having a basic understanding of the Qur’an and Islam? How can we understand the impact certain governments, such as Communism, Fascism, and Socialism, and even dictatorships have on religious beliefs, if international politics are not studied in conjunction with religious beliefs? Eck states “Clearly, the representation and misrepresentation of religion is a public business, for it shapes our civic climate whether or not we are religious” (Eck, 2001). But like history, if the American people only understand one level of the issue, they develop a warped sense of the impact of an issue. For example, how can Americans begin to understand ISIS and the nature of terrorism, without understanding fundamental components of Islam? If Americans understand only the political aspect, the impact of the religious consequences is lost, and vice versa.

636079210767955768-1790083820_government-shutdown2This diversity is experienced even in the federal government. In 1991, a Muslim imam performed a prayer over Congress, standing in as chaplain. This prayer was offered as close to the Muslim holiday of Eid al- Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice (Eck, 2001). This landmark prayer set the stage for national acceptance of other religions. Jewish, Muslim, and even some Hindu holidays are recognized on a national level. The White House even hosts a Seder feast to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Passover, and an Iftar feast to celebrate the Muslim holiday of Ramadan. Former President Bill Clinton even wrote a letter to the Sikh communities in America, commemorating the 529th birthday of Guru Nanak, the teacher who launched the Sikh movement (Eck, 2001). The federal government has begun to recognize the other religions in America, and has begun to incorporate them into the fabric of the nation.

With different religions, comes different interpretations of policies, political ideologies, and international affairs. Much like Christians fall on both sides of the political spectrum, so too do people from other religious beliefs. These new voices add different perspectives to conversations of immigration, abortion, and homosexuality. By accepting these new voices and understanding these new perspective, we are better able to work together as a diverse people to help shape our nation. When people from other religions are elected into political offices, different religions began to play a larger role in creating policies for America. These religions create new conversations surrounding school and workplace policies. These conversations include the right for a Sikh to wear his turban as part of his uniform for the U. S. army, for a practitioner of Wicca to practice on an army base, for a young Sikh to be able to carry the symbolic dagger for religious initiation to school, and for Muslims to be able to take the time to pray during the work day (Eck, 2001). These conversations will ultimately reach into government, in order to form policies both protecting religious freedoms, while maintaining the separation of church and state.  But a lack of understanding of other religions, and the impact they have on politics and society, create a misunderstood sense of the nation’s both domestic and international affairs.

Both Diana Eck and Stephen Prothero illustrate the negative impact religious illiteracy has on American culture. Through pluralism, Eck argues that “[p]luralism is a matter of engaging not only with political institutions but also with Americans of other religious communities” (Eck, 2001). Not only will be as a nation become more aware of our neighbor’s customs and traditions, but we will develop a deeper sense of our nation’s history and society. She alludes to the idea that, through pluralism, we will be able to combat religious illiteracy, and become a diverse nation, accepting and embracing people from other nations and other religions. Prothero states, “The argument is that you need religious literacy in order to be an effective citizen” (Prothero, 2008). He believes that only way to combat religious illiteracy is “that one needs to know something about the world’s religions in order to be truly educated” (Prothero, 2008). I agree with both of these authors. As a Christian who has traveled the world, and considers herself to be a pluralist, I believe that one is completely ignorant of another’s way of life, until one takes the time to understand that person’s religious beliefs.

America is not a Christian nation. It was founded with Christian principles in mind, but as the nation has progressed through time, it has become influenced by many other religions. America is a nation of Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Jains, Christians, and many others. This is a culturally, and religiously, diverse nation. Instead of a Christian nation, America is simply a religious nation.




Works Cited

Eck, D. L. (2001). A New Religious America. New York: HarperCollins

Prothero, S. (2008). Religious Literacy. New York: HarperCollins

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s