Last month, the Pew Research Center released a study indicating that 68% of U.S. Christian adults believe that the Bible should have some, or a great deal, of influence on U.S. laws; seemingly an innocuous sentiment. But Pew’s second finding was a bit more surprising. Fully 42% of American Christians made clear that in their view, the Bible should have more influence on U.S. laws than the will of the people if there is a conflict between them. That’s quite a statement.
The somewhat shocking conclusion of the Pew study appears to be that more than four-in-ten American Christians would be inclined to overrule the principal of popular sovereignty that undergirds the U.S. system of government in favor of a theological basis for the state. Regardless of whether one focuses on this number, or the fact that almost 70% of Christians in the U.S. want more emphasis placed on the Bible in the lawmaking process, either data point would seem to indicate that most American Christians are well versed in Scripture. This would be quite an erroneous assumption.
Another Pew report issued in 2018 indicates that the majority of U.S. Christians, including American Catholics, lacks a basic knowledge of the Bible, their respective denominational creeds, as well as those of the major non-Christian religions. American Christians could only correctly answer 58% of questions posed by Pew about Christianity and the Bible. This score compares quite favorably to American Christians’ knowledge of other religions where they could only correctly answer 30% of Pew’s questions about other faith traditions.
Other surveys confirm the findings of the Pew report, which are that American Christians are effectively religiously illiterate. Anecdotally, the fact that America’s favorite Bible verse, “God helps those who help themselves,” does not actually appear in the Bible seems to proves the point.
Yet despite the fact that American Christians know very little about what the Bible actually says, or what their respective denominations teach, they are by far the most devout of industrial world populations. More broadly, belief in God is the single most unifying factor among Americans.
A Crumbling Foundation
As a religious people, Americans also tend to vote based on their faith convictions. In 2016, the Barna Group found that religious beliefs were the most cited the factor in terms of how individuals intended to vote in that year’s presidential election. The Barna findings, in conjunction with the Pew survey results regarding basic religious knowledge, would seem to indicate that many American Christians are likely voting based on what they believe to be in the Bible, rather than on what the Bible states or what their faith traditions actually teach.
Many framers of the Constitution viewed a religiously literate populace as a requisite for the form of government that they were developing, and a necessary bulwark against tyranny. Benjamin Franklin succinctly made this point, stating, “A Bible and a newspaper in every house, a good school in every district – all studied and appreciated as they merit – are the principal support of virtue, mortality and civil liberty.”
A sizeable segment of the public that largely lacks real knowledge of its professed faith and yet votes, in some measure, on an imagined understanding of those religious precepts is potentially in great danger of having its faith manipulated at the ballot box. This hazard seems to be particularly acute in the Internet age when so much disinformation abounds and an uninformed public cannot necessarily discern the difference between fact and fiction, particularly as it pertains to genuinely Christian responses to the problems faced by society.
But the issue of religious illiteracy is deeper than just politics. It goes to the state of Christianity in America. Douthat, McKibben, Hirsh and many others have made a very compelling case that without a firm foundation in the basics, what passes for Christianity in the US is becoming a politicized culture war rallying cry, or a shallow self-help course. In particular, Douthat forcefully argues that the majority of American Christians are likely living in an unbeknownst heretical state of self-absorption, which he posits is largely due to their lack of religious literacy.
Loss of Collective Memory
Why does this matter? Because as sociologist of religion Daniele Hervieu-Leger points out, and Prothero repeats in his book Religious Illiteracy, a loss of collective memory, which is what seems to be happening in the U.S. in terms of Christianity, results in an eventual loss of faith. Hervieu-Leger argues that this loss of memory rather than a loss of belief, accounts in large part for the apparent collapse of institutional churches in Europe. The sharp rise in Nones, and in the spiritual-but-not-religious demographics in the U.S. during the last decade, can potentially be attributed, at least in part, to a lack of understanding of the core of Christianity, the Bible, and the true teachings and history of the Church.
For American Catholics, the problem is apparently even more profound. Multiple studies have found that U.S. Catholics are generally loathe to enter into religious discussions because they feel that their lack of biblical knowledge will be readily apparent. This being the case, it is little wonder that so many American Catholics are pulled away from the Church by fundamentalist Christians whose apparently authoritative command of Scripture convinces them that Catholicism, or any non-fundamentalist creed, is non-biblical and therefore wrong?
Is it any surprise that so many more drift away into a vague agnosticism or directionless and non-demanding spirituality? This inherent fear of discussing religion, which seems to belie a profound lack of knowledge of the faith, may also result in a general inability on the part of America Catholics to help their children comprehend the beauty and depth of the faith, thus contributing to the loss of collective memory of the Church in the U.S.
Importance of Faith Traditions
This is in no way to trivialize the recent and abominable failings of the various denominational clergy, ranging from the sex abuse scandals within the Catholic and Baptist churches to the twisting of Christianity into a message of self-serving mammon in the Prosperity Gospel of so many televangelists. It is only to state that if American Christians in general, and American Catholics in particular, had a better understating of true depth of their faith traditions then perhaps they would be better able to separate out their eternal majesty and beauty from the passing people who disgrace it.
Ignorance of the Bible, to say nothing of the writings of those who over the millennia have shared with us the profound wisdom of their reflections and insights on the faith, robs us of the depth and power of Christianity in the face of so many problems of life. One of the most supremely beautiful elements of the Catholic Tradition is that there is almost no facet of the human condition about which some theologian or philosopher has not given deep consideration. In an increasingly complex and harrowing world, there is very little with which we grapple in terms of faith, life, loss or pain that St. Augustine, Hildegard, Duns Scotus, Erasmus, St. Ignatius, St. Teresa of Avila, Descartes, Pascal, Chesterton, Rahner, Stein, Dulles, or Merton (just to name a few in the pantheon of Catholic luminaries) have not also faced.
To Be Salt and Light
Catholics, and indeed all Christians, are called by Christ to be salt and light to the world. They are to season, illuminate, and transform the earth and humanity. If they have no knowledge of their own Scriptures, how can they be aware of this lofty, beautiful, and divinely sanctioned mandate? If they do not know the transcendent beauty of their own Tradition and canon, how can they ever aspire to the majestic heights that they are called to reach? Christians are meant to be so much more than they are, but sadly, they do not seem to know it.
By forsaking the sacred texts of the faith, and the incredible body of work that surrounds them, we rob ourselves of so much more than civic order. We dim the luminosity of our own souls, we curtail the Holy Spirit’s ability to illuminate our minds with divine wisdom and guidance, and we limit the reach of Christ’s peace in our lives.
In such trying times as we presently face, allowing the wisdom and truth of the Scriptures and the Tradition to penetrate our minds and souls can revitalize us and the Church. Never have these works been more readily available to us and perhaps never more neglected. But if we embrace them and allow them to become part of our very being, they will transform us through the Holy Spirit and enable us to truly be the salt and light that we are commanded to be and that this world so desperately needs.