The Nation's Pulse

America’s Appalling Ignorance of Christianity

Does anyone still go to Sunday School?

By 5.2.14

Wikimedia Commons/Harlan County, Ky., Sept. 15, 1946
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New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently wrote about the lack of religious knowledge in America today and argued that a person cannot understand the world without knowing something about the world’s religions, including Pentecostals and Evangelicals. Kristof admitted that when he was covering the presidential campaign of George W. Bush, he was surprised at how the candidate connected with Americans because of his evangelical faith; more surprisingly, Kristof admitted that he had “only the vaguest idea at the time what an evangelical was.” Kristof’s column includes a four-paragraph litany of Biblical “facts” and asks readers to find the mistakes — 20 of them — that “reflect the general muddling in our society about religious knowledge.” Kristof notes that it’s not just secular Americans, but a large swath of those Americans who profess a belief in God are “largely ignorant about religion.”

Kristof is not alone in the observation. Stephen Prothero notes in his book, Religious Literacy, America is a “nation of religious illiterates.” Because this ignorance is a “major civic problem,” Prothero advocates returning to teaching religion in the public schools. In addition to “reading, writing and arithmetic,” religion, he says, “ought to become the ‘Fourth R’ of American education.” Given what he sees as a widespread “lack of basic knowledge,” Prothero questions how politicians and pundits continue to “root public policy arguments in religious rhetoric” not understanding that most of the public either misses or misinterprets those Biblical references. For instance, Prothero notes:

  • Only 10 percent of American teenagers can name all five major world religions and 15 percent cannot name any.
  • Nearly two-thirds of Americans believe that the Bible holds the answers to all or 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.

Kristof expands the litany of ignorance: “Only one-third know that Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount, and 10 percent think that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.”

I am struck by three things:

1. The recognition of the religious ignorance of Americans.

2. The acknowledgement that Biblical knowledge is essential for an educated person.

3. The implicit assertion of the mainstream significance of the evangelical understanding of the Bible and Christian faith.

Religious Ignorance
The Pew Forum on Religious Life reports that a third of American adults under the age of 30 have no religious affiliation whatsoever — less religious involvement than either their parents or their grandparents. That shouldn’t surprise anyone because Sunday Schools — one of the major means of Biblical instruction in the past — have been declining since the 1980s. With religious instruction also prohibited in public schools, where would people learn the Bible stories, Biblical history, and Biblical doctrine?

According to one source, for more than two centuries about 80 percent of new church members came through Sunday School — a place where small groups enabled people to make friends, socialize and learn together as they deepened their understanding of the Bible and Christian faith. Even in the early 1990s, George Barna reported that one in four adults (23%) received religious instruction at a church on weekends, though Sunday School was even then declining around four percent a year.

Educated Persons Need Biblical Knowledge
Conventional wisdom in the U.S. is that the more educated the person, the more likely they are to disdain religion; popular culture has successfully dismissed Evangelicalism as a crutch for “bitter clingers,” that is those who, according to President Obama, still “cling to their guns and religion.” Then there are others who continue to push the idea that religion is “most useful when life is most difficult” and less useful “when the quality of life is good.” In an infamous article, the Washington Post characterized Evangelicals as “poor, ignorant, and easily led.”

In contrast, according to D. Michael Lindsay, a strong case can be made that Evangelicals are “a powerful force to be reckoned with.” Similarly, veteran journalist Naomi Schaefer Riley, in her upcoming book, Got Religion, writes about successful programs that are effectively reaching Millennials in many different faith traditions and are successfully competing against “modern-day entertainment” by establishing small groups that are “reinvigorating faith communities.”

Evangelical Beliefs are Mainstream Christianity
In 2009, an English major from Brown University went undercover for a semester at Liberty University, a religiously oriented university of about 13,000 residential students and over 90,000 enrolled online. Kevin Roose didn’t find “hostile demagogues,” instead he “was surprised at the level of critical thinking, the refreshing lack of distractions that the ‘rules’ provided, and how hard the coursework is.” Many pseudo-sophisticates would be similarly surprised if they made an opportunity to get to know some actual people who are Evangelical Christians. Only in recent years have Evangelicals been portrayed as ignorant, backwoods bigots. Throughout much of the nation’s history, Evangelical beliefs — basic Judeo-Christian values — have been the prevailing morality and dominant belief system, worldview, of the American people.

Several years ago, I came across a picture of my grandfather at his “Men’s Bible Study Class.” I was surprised to see that this small-mill-town Methodist Church had a class of about 25 men, a cross-section of all strata of small-town society, all in suits and ties. Not surprisingly, these are the men who produced the “Greatest Generation.” Along with that picture was a snapshot of a Sunday Dinner-on-the-Grounds with more than a hundred people gathered around the tables laden with potluck dishes. Those two pictures reminded me of those lost days when a large segment of the population’s lives centered around the local churches and close communities like the ones of my childhood which became the backbone of a great nation.

If someone like Nick Kristof recognizes the need for reestablishing respect for religious faith — especially Evangelical Christianity — there is hope that future generations may someday discover pictures of their grandfathers in a Men’s Bible Study Class and begin to understand how, after a long malaise, the nation recovered its spiritual mooring and, once again, its citizens prospered.

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About the Author

Janice Shaw Crouse, is the author of Children at Risk and Marriage Matters.