Growing up in rural South Carolina, you can be sure that I got my share of Old Time Religion. From attending camp meetings under a tent in the dead of summer (complete with cardboard funeral parlor fans with a picture of Jesus on the front) to Mrs. Trumbull, the Bible teacher who paid a weekly visit to every fifth grade class in Rock Hill School District #3 and referred to her students as her “squash blossoms,” I had a healthy dose of Christianity. And my upbringing, in the religious sense, was quite typical for the nation’s Bible Belt.
As an adult, I’ve opened my mind about spiritual matters, making an effort to learn about other belief systems and cultures that are based on religions other than Christianity. And along the way, I’ve encountered plenty of people who are content to stick with what they know, turning down or even looking down upon efforts to understand another’s beliefs. I don’t want to sound too judgmental, but I’ve always thought those people were selling themselves and their fellow man a little short by not making an effort to understand, especially in today’s world.
With that in mind, it came as a huge surprise this weekend to learn just how uneducated Americans are about their own religion. The Washington Post’s Book World section included a review Sunday of a new book, “Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know – and Doesn’t,” which has some startling data.
“The United States is the most religious nation in the developed world, if religiosity is measured by belief in all things supernatural — from God and the Virgin Birth to the humbler workings of angels and demons. Americans are also the most religiously ignorant people in the Western world. Fewer than half of us can identify Genesis as the first book of the Bible, and only one third know that Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount.”
Huh? Are you kidding me?
The author of the review makes the point that Americans aren’t only dumb about religion: A mere one-third of us can name just one of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment (free speech, freedom of religion and a free press, among others). Seems like the people taking that poll could have guessed with better success? Who are they asking, anyway?
I’ll be honest – it’s really hard not to judge people on this fact when, from where I sit, people who have a hard-right religious view try to influence so much of American life and culture.
But maybe there’s a different explanation. According to polls discussed in the book, only half of the adults asked could name one of the four Gospels of the Bible (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, he said, remembering the days in elementary school when he competed in the South Carolina Baptist Conference’s annual Bible Drill competition).
But what if the people who participated in the poll were never Christians in the first place? Perhaps they asked Muslim or Buddhist immigrants? Or maybe they asked Jews, who don’t use the New Testament. After all, America isn’t as homogeneous as it once was.
The Atlanta suburbs where my Mom and Grandma lived have thriving Asian, Middle Eastern and African populations. And trust me, the Atlanta suburbs are just about as Bible Belt as one can get, yet on a typical day at the mall, you’re just as likely to see someone who was born outside of America as opposed to someone born and raised here.
So maybe it’s not that Americans are ignorant about their Christian religion; perhaps we, as a nation, just don’t fit the bill of being a “Christian nation” anymore?