Friday, January 14, 2005

Stupid Americans, Pt. MCCXXXIV

Terrific op-ed piece by Steven Prothero, citing a study showing that while Americans are the most religion-professing people on earth, we are also quite ignorant about what religion says, exactly. (The money quote is that 12% in the poll thought that Joan of Arc was Noah's wife.)

Prothero chides 1st Amendment absolutists who, for instance, want schools not only to refrain from teaching religion but even from teaching about religion. He also makes a glancing mention of congregations who preach and teach using contemporary stories rather than Bible stories. Ed Kilgore at New Donkey takes the latter point and expands on it:

At one point in our history, religious pluralism created a way to define ourselves distinctively within the common American civic creed. Now the arrow seems pointed in the other direction, with religious identity being less and less a matter of heritage, doctrine and liturgy, and more and more a matter of consumer choice--and of secular values.

I think this is exactly right. In a mobile society, fewer of us live in the town where we grew up, where our parents and grandparents lived. Fewer of us unquestioningly follow in the civic and religious traditions we grew up in. Whether and where to worship is a consumer choice; churches compete with one another as well as with Starbucks, local golf courses, and sports on TV.

Entering the life stage of marriage and parenthood leads many young adults to give church another spin. (A book on my reading list is "Spirit and Flesh" by Jim Ault Jr., a sociologist's look at an evangelical church. Ault feels that marriage counseling / family support is a crucial factor in young adults' joining and staying in a conservative church.) But to attract customers, a church has got to be entertaining. The music is peppy, the preaching and teaching are light and in a self-help vein. Bible study is awfully dry, so isn't emphasized.

As Kilgore further points out, the doctrinal ignorance of church members plays into the hands of preachers with political/social agendas. (Conservatives take advantage of public stupidity? Shocking but true!) It's likely that those evangelicals who can't name the four Gospels, are nonetheless certain that those Gospels are clearly thumbs-down on gay marriage, abortion, estate taxes, and Dan Rather. So folks who have joined a church with secular motives (achieve success, have a happy marriage and family) hear the preaching of ministers with essentially secular motives (self-aggrandizement on some level).

[T]he rampant secularization of much of the American faith tradition in the not-so-sacred cause of cultural and political conservatism must be laid at the parsonage door of those religious leaders who have abused the prophetic function of their ministry to acquire a "seat at the table" of secular power.

In particular, Christian Right leaders in every denomination who abet and exploit the doctrinal and historical indifference of The Faithful to promote an agenda of intolerance and self-righteousness are the true Secularists of contemporary American society, and far more dangerous to the integrity of our faith communities than all the honest unbelievers in our midst or in Europe or Asia.

What a great, great post. This is a lot better and subtler about Democrats-and-religion than Amy Sullivan's writing. I guess I wish Kilgore or some other Democratic heavyweight could have articulated it before Election Day, but it's good stuff to throw into the hopper as progressives strategize and build toward '06 and '08.

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