Pew Research’s study released this week detailing the abysmal religious literacy demonstrated by most Americans is disturbing, but not at all surprising. The smear campaign waged against Muslims over the past few months has been a painful reminder of how—especially in a country where gross ignorance of religion is the norm—opportunistic blowhards can easily manipulate matters of alleged supernatural significance. With vast majorities unable to correctly answer even the most basic questions about Islam, for example, is it any wonder that an innocuous Islamic center in Lower Manhattan could spur so much misinformation and hysteria?
The grating irony in these sorts of studies, of course, is that despite our illiteracy, America also happens to be the most pious of all major Western democracies. We are constantly hearing about the crucial electoral role of Evangelical Christians, the degree to which politicians are placating their fundamentalist base, and whether gay marriage really does spell the end of civilization. Yet when actually pressed about what they believe—even about their own religion’s central tenets—a great many Americans simply draw blank. (You can take Pew’s test for yourself.)
For one, according to Pew, Catholics do not generally understand that the communal wafers they consume on Sunday mornings are supposed to literally transubstantiate into the flesh of Christ. Only 45 percent of all respondents—the vast majority of whom must have been Christians—can name the four Gospels, and just over half are aware of which religion reveres the Koran.
So what’s the proper recourse? Consider this: Pew asked whether public school teachers may legally read from the Bible "as an example of literature." Most respondents answered incorrectly, presumably taking this to represent a violation of the separation of church and state. But, thankfully, that cherished Jeffersonian ideal mandates no such prohibition—it merely proscribes governmental sanction of any particular belief-set. Misconceptions like this one have created the impression that issues of religion are not to enter the public domain; that religion is instead to remain an intensely private matter, untouched by the cultural checks and balances applied to most every other area of human inquiry. Thus, because odious beliefs and distortions are so rarely subjected to meaningful scrutiny, they have been allowed to thrive—festering with a dangerous false sense of constitutionally afforded immunity.
What we need, then, is more religion in schools.
This remedy may seem counter-intuitive, as the removal of coerced prayer and other forms of religious endorsement from the public school system was, after all, one of the twentieth century’s hallmark progressive achievements. But in banishing the promotion of one theology over another, the Warren Court certainly did not in turn banish the whole of religion from the academic arena. Rather, when it issued a pair of rulings in 1962 and 1963 outlawing school prayer, the Court merely codified the increasingly popular notion that space in the public sphere should be made for those who do not affirm the majority’s belief in Christian creeds. And because prayer itself bore such a heavily Protestant connotation, the Court’s only feasible option was to insist that schools be strictly secular—a powerful blow to Christianity’s previously unshakable cultural hegemony.