Missing the Boat: We need to address religious literacy in our community

A letter from our Chairman: Robert Bruttell


Until recently I didn’t have a term for it.
I had noticed that very few people know much about other people’s religions. What does a menorah represent? Why do some Muslim women wear hijab and others do not? What’s the difference between a Muslim and a Sikh, and which ones wear the turbans?
I knew that few people can answer these questions, let alone knew the difference between Sunni and Shi’a or between Conservative and Reform Jews. What I had somehow not suspected is that most people in the United States know little about their own religious traditions. That was a surprise.
Maybe I should have suspected it. I have had Jewish friends ask me to tell them the story of Joseph and his brothers in order to better understand Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” I have long known that my fellow Catholics know little about their own powerful social justice traditions. I guess maybe I thought that was specialized knowledge.
But watch this video clip of Stephen Prothero, professor of religion at Boston University, discussing the problem of religious illiteracy:
Last year I stumbled across Prothero’s book, “Religious Literacy – What Every American Needs to Know and Doesn’t.” (You might recognize Prothero from the recent PBS series “God in America.”) In his book Prothero claims that, for instance, when the President of the United States refers to being on “the Damascus road” not many people know – not even those who are adherents to the Christian Gospel tradition – what the reference means.
I wondered: Would I find that my students at a Catholic university know more? After all, many of them graduated from parochial high schools. So I quizzed them.
The Ten Commandments? Nope. The Seven Sacraments? Nope. The holy scripture of Islam? Sorry.
The students themselves were surprised.
I felt like Jay Leno doing his “Jay-walking” shtick. “Question: In the Bible, who was it that built an ark and saved all the animals from the flood? Answer: Hmmm. Was it Joan?”
That’s funny. But the issue is no joke. I think this is a bigger problem than it may appear at first. As a civic community we need a common frame of reference. Historically, American thought has always been grounded in religious references. America as that “City on a hill,” “manifest destiny,” and “American exceptionalism” are all religiously rooted terms. But what’s more, today American pluralism–all these new religions that have joined our commonwealth in substantial numbers during the last 45 years or so  –has widened the range of terms, beliefs and practices that are required in order to understand the very live arguments that are rampant in the public forum. For two examples you only have to reflect on the recent spate of anti-Sharia laws or the questions being raised about politicians who are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In America, religion is the most dynamic component of culture. And there is no doubt that understanding culture is of critical importance for politics, the courts, law enforcement and health care. Religious illiteracy is making it difficult for us to live together.
We need to address religious literacy in our metropolitan Detroit community.
I invite your comments on this issue. So please let us know what you think. And stay tuned. Religious literacy will remain a primary concern of the IFLC – especially now that we have a term for it.