Emerson and the Downfall of Religious Literacy

Rev. Douglas Taylor
Oct 28, 2007

I bumped into an interesting book this past spring titled Religious Literacy by Stephen Prothero.  Prothero argues that we have become religiously illiterate as a nation.  He claims this alarming development is weakening the very fabric of our democracy.  And further claims that the solution is to reintroduce the teaching of the Bible in our public schools.  On the jacket cover of the book Prothero write:

The United States is one of the most religious places on earth, but it is also a nation of chocking religious illiteracy.  Only 10% of American teenagers can name all five major world religions.  Nearly 2/3 of Americans believe that the Bible holds the answers to all of most of life’s basic questions, yet only half of American adults can name even one of the four gospels and most Americans cannot name the first book of the Bible.

Prothero sources one of those scenes from a 1997 Tonight Show episode where Jay Leno asks the average person on the street how much they know about the Bible.  “Interviewees told him that God created Eve from an apple, that Jacob gave his son Joseph a new car, and that Matthew was swallowed by a whale.”  (Ibid p 30)  “10% of Americans believed that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.  Only 1/3 know that Jesus (not Billy Graham) delivered the Sermon on the Mount.  A majority of Americans wrongly believe that the Bible says that Jesus was born in Jerusalem.”  (Ibid p30)  “Many high school seniors think that Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife.”  (Ibid 6)

What does it matter that we are loosing our Bible trivia knowledge.  So what?  Prothero begins his book recounting his experience of watching television coverage of the FBI closing in on David Koresh’s Branch Davidian compound in Waco TX.  He calls it a case of death by religious ignorance.  He wrote that he wanted to call the FBI and warn them that they were playing into the role Koresh had set up for them as described in the biblical book of Revelation; and that if they were to give Koresh more time it might have ended differently.  Prothero is quick to say, “might have,” acknowledging that the many people how saw Koresh as hell-bent on death and destruction may very well have been correct.  But the scene sure did play out as if Koresh was taking the Book of Revelation way too seriously.  The FBI acted like they were dealing with a deadly group of irrational and incomprehensible people, but that’s just Prothero’s point: The situation was comprehensible from a religious perspective.

Prothero demonstrates that America has descended into pious ignorance, but it is a descent that has a long history.  Prothero notes that the Evangelical attempts to write pious Evangelical-style Christianity into the fabric of the founding of our nation is laughable; but so is the liberal secular attempts to tell the story of our history as if religion played no part.

Throughout the history of America religion has played a critical role.  The nineteenth-century abolitionists wrestled with the biblical passages about slaves obeying their masters.  The Women’s movement had to deal with passages enjoining women to remain silent.  The temperance movement and prison reform, public education and care for the insane were all issues that were fought with the bible in hand.  What does the bible offer in terms of the issues of the environment, gay marriage, or abortion?  Are we blind to the ways in which policy is being and has always been influenced by moral and doctrinal arguments from the bible?  Surely we are not blind to the impact religion has on foreign policy!  Yet we still step in it seeming unwittingly.  Not wanting to overstate Prothero’s case for him, there certainly are situations in which this religious illiteracy, our national amnesia of biblical trivia, is dangerous.

It’s some how, this is partly Ralph Waldo Emerson’s fault!

Typically such a dire decline is blamed on the rabid secularist agenda of the cultural left.  But Prothero lays the blame at the feet of some of the most religious people in America!  Mostly he blames evangelical fundamentalists, but we on the religious left get a share of the blame as well.  Prothero suggests the decline is seen primarily by the shifts of religious focus that have transpired right under our noses beginning a few generations after the birth of the nation.  There are four shifts mentioned: the shift from head to heart, from Doctrine to Story-telling, from Bible to Jesus, from Theology to Morality.

The shift from head to heart is seen in the way “Evangelicals actively discouraged religious learning” (Ibid p93) and in the story of a Methodist bishop who opposed the building of new seminaries to educate new clergy saying that faith was strongest in a soul unfettered by book learning.  He backed that statement up admitting that he would opt any day for a preacher without education over a preacher without passion. (p87)  The days of the dull, dry, dreary Sunday sermon have long since been buried in the pages of history.  Now the sermon is a moving and inspiring experience instead of an education of the people.  And it is not only the sermon which has gone through this sift: the shift is articulated by one Sunday school teacher who said, “the efficacy of moral and religious instruction consists more in what our children are brought to feel, than what they are taught to know.”  (p106)  And is that not unlike some of our R.E. philosophy?

The shift from Doctrine to Storytelling follows easily after this.  Partly due also to the advent of bestselling story serials published in the magazines in the 1800’s.  Harriett Beecher Stowe wrote that the world was “running mad for Stories,” adding, “Soon it will be necessary that every leading clergyman shall embody his theology in a serial story, to be delivered from the pulpit Sunday after Sunday.”(p108)  The pulpit was quickly in competition with newspapers, plays and novels; and today we contend also against TV, movies, celebrity watching, and the Internet.  Lincoln once said, “When I see a man preach I like to see him act as if he were fighting bees.” (p89)  Preachers are no longer called upon to be scholars so much as entertainers.

Prothero mentions this third shift from Bible to Jesus to demonstrate that people don’t ask, ‘What does the Bible tell us about such a situation?’ and instead ask, “What would Jesus do?” Often this approach has no connection to a scholarly study of the Theology and Ethic of Jesus demonstrated in scripture and is instead simply a free-floating exposition of a modernized Americanized Jesus.  Yet we ask “What would Jesus do?” as if we are using such a ploy to tell ourselves only what we already plan to hear.

The last shift is perhaps the most striking and critical: from doctrine to morality.  Prothero writes that what happened was a:

…collapse of religion into “values” and “values” into sexual morality, which in turn functions via an odd sort of circular reasoning as a proxy for religiosity.  At least in popular parlance, what makes religious folks religious today is not so much that they believe in Jesus’ divinity or Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths but that they hold certain moral positions on bedroom issues such as premarital sex, homosexuality, and abortion. (p101)

Interestingly, this is where the religious left really takes the cake.  There were three components came together from within the religious left that carved this path, leaving it wide open for the evangelicals to follow through behind.  First, was the social gospel movement with Rev. Walter Rauschenbusch from “Hell’s Kitchen,” arguing that “it was more important to care for the poor than to memorize the Apostles’ Creed.” (p112)  Many set aside denominational differences for the sake of the greater good of women’s suffrage or temperance for example.  The Social movements that swept through churches rallied people to do good rather than believe correctly – emphasizing morality over doctrine.

The second ingredient in the mix was the effort of Non-denominationalism.  In the justice-making work there were efforts to smooth over the distinctions and differences between the various denominations working together to bring about the Kingdom of God.  So, without talking about different understandings of infant baptism, the sacrament of communion, or who is or is not going to be in heaven, there arose a sort of watered-down version of Christianity that could be called ‘golden-rule-ism.’  It is an attempt to create a religious sentiment that can cover the variety while not raising contentious differences.

The third direction this comes from is the public education movement.  Reformer and Unitarian Horace Mann undertook strenuous efforts to offer something that could hold the differing religious perspectives together.  Prior to his work to create a public system of education, the land was dotted by various sectarian parochial schools.  Mann’s goal of universal education took a giant step forward by developing a universal Protestantism that could be palatable to all present (except, of course, the Catholics – which was apparently on purpose.)  This generalized, standardized religion was focused on virtue, character, and piety: in other words, morality without doctrine.  (p95) Mann’s success allowed for significant strides forward in terms of public education, but the ramifications mixed with the other forces push religion into a shift from doctrine to morality.

So here is Unitarian Universalism we can find echoes of this shift, we occasionally will live and preach and believe as if theology and doctrine are at best outdated, while living by the creed of Thomas Paine who wrote “my religion is to do good.” (p112)  I’m not going to argue against activism, I will argue in favor of balance.  For when we forget the theological base from which we reach out then become rootless and easily manipulated into whatever the latest pet cause may be rather than being grounded in the strength of conviction.

Where does this leave Emerson?  To unpack that we must look back to Prothero’s arguments for the shift from head to heart.  Prothero compares the religious right and religious left efforts to drive the shift from head to heart by calling one low brow and the other highbrow.  Evangelical characterized the lowbrow form, and Prothero continues saying:

This lowbrow anti-intellectualism found a highbrow analog – that historian Christopher Lasch later called “the anti-intellectualism of the intellectuals” – in such liberals as the Transcendentalist sage Ralph Waldo Emerson and the poet of democracy Walt Whitman.  Both of these men labored to make religion more personal and less abstract, to free it from both doctrine and dispute.  Emerson was an heir to the Puritans, but he was as dismissive as any camp meeting preacher of the Christian creeds.  “We can never see Christianity from the catechism,” he wrote, preferring the purview “from the pastures, from the boat in the pond, from amidst the songs of wood-birds.”  Echoing Emerson, Whitman sneered at Christianity’s doctrinal dimensions in favor of a more experiential faith.  “The true Christian religion,” he wrote, “consists neither in rites or Bibles or sermons or Sundays – but in noiseless secret ecstasy and unremitted aspiration.”  (p 107)

Well, that’s us!  Guilty as charged.  While this is an accurate summation of Emerson’s perspective, I think it unfairly leaves out a wealth of understanding that sets the scenario up to leave Emerson in a poor light.  Indeed Emerson felt that we ought experience our relationship with the universe, with God, rather than memorize formulas regarding other people’s interpretations of such experiences!  Emerson once wrote, “When we can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other men’s transcripts of their readings.” (American Scholar)  And his Divinity School Address leads up to this ringing line: “Let me admonish you, first of all, to go alone; to refuse all good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of [humanity], and dare to love God without mediator or veil.”

But we err when we believe that Emerson’s call to refuse all good models is a call to ignore the thoughts and writings of other people’s experiences.  Instead it is a call to also have your own experiences and to value your own above all others.  He did not mean we should ignore all good models, only that we should not limit ourselves to them.  Indeed, were we to live only an inner life, ignoring scripture and tradition and the doctrines of others, we would decline quickly into a fantasy life with no basis in reality.  Emerson was a well-read, classically trained scholar.  But today he is seen as an easy advocate for being ‘spiritual but not religious,’ and is quoted as an authority in numerous vacuous, feel-good, pseudo-religious schemes.

Therefore, Prothero and I argue, we would do well to be more aware of the religious trivia that pervades our culture.  And I suspect Emerson would not disagree provided the end goal was still self-actualization and not simply the memorizing of Biblical Trivia.  As Prothero says near the end of his first chapter, “the more you know about religion, the less likely you are to be suckered by one of its elaborate cons.” (p 37)  He argues for teaching about the Bible and its influence in our culture.  He urges for there to be a World Religion course as well.  If you want to see the specifics of his reasoning on that I suggest reading the book.  He states early on, “My goal is to help citizens participate fully in social, political, and economic life in a nation and a world where religion counts.” (p15)

I suggest that in order to maintain our balance as a faith tradition and as a congregation we would do well to keep both our activism and our personal spirituality well grounded and informed by regular exposure to theological reflection on the scriptures and doctrines of the world’s religions, particularly the Christian scripture and tradition that has so deeply influenced and influences the culture in which we live.

So if over the next few years you hear me quoting more from the Bible or wrestling with Christian theology, take heart that our goal will be to better understand our Unitarian Universalist theological perspective in the context of the religious landscape around us.  And in so doing, will connect more richly in our justice work and understand more deeply in our spiritual searching.

In a world without end

May it be so.