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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Real Secularists

There’s a brief but pungent op-ed by Boston University’s Stephen Prothero in today’s LA Times that Kevin Drum brought to all our attentions, and it’s obviously catnip to me. Citing a bizarre 1997 poll that showed only a third of Americans could name the four Gospels, while 12 percent of us identified Noah’s wife as Joan of Arc, Prothero goes on to make an important if familiar point. We live in the most religiously believing and observant advanced industrial nation, but our level of actual knowledge about religious doctrines–our own and others–is significantly lower than in religiously indifferent countries elsewhere.
Prothero focuses on inter-religious ignorance, and also suggests that our very religiosity makes it difficult to dispassionately teach about religion without promoting a particular doctrine or offending a particular religious minority, in a country where, from a denominational point of view, we are all religious minorities.
But as the 1997 poll illustrates, Americans aren’t just ignorant about Muslims or Sikhs or Hindus or even Mormons–they often know little about the doctrines or history of their own faith communities.
In his deservedly acclaimed 2003 book on American Catholics, A People Adrift, Peter Steinfels notes with alarm the avid interest of his co-religionists in Dan Brown’s best-seller The Da Vinci Code, despite the fact that Brown’s theological pot-boiler implicitly treats the basic doctrines of Christianity as a fraud, and the Church as an ongoing conspiracy to conceal that fraud.
This indifference to history and doctrine definitely extends to Protestants. How many Southern Baptists know that their Convention endorsed liberalized abortion laws prior to Roe v. Wade? Or even that an ACLU-style absolutism about separation of church and state was long the most distinctive trait of their community, dating back to Roger Williams and to the early English Separatists? How many contemporary Presbyterians know that John Knox opposed the celebration of Christmas? And how many American Congregationalists really understand that the same tradition that made their community so notably progressive on issues like slavery and civil rights also made them for many decades the very fountainhead of nativist and anti-labor sentiment?
Maybe a lot of them, but I doubt it. At one point in our history, religious pluralism created a way to define ourselves distinctively within the common American civic creed. Now the arrow seems pointed in the other direction, with religious identity being less and less a matter of heritage, doctrine and liturgy, and more and more a matter of consumer choice–and of secular values.
It’s this last point that compels me to write about this subject. To be blunt about it, millions of those Americans who can’t name the four Gospels probably have no doubt that those Gospels demand that they oppose abortion, gay rights, or feminism. More than a few Catholics who thrill at Dan Brown’s bogus expose of the machinations of Opus Dei probably think the litmus test for being a “good Catholic” is pretty much the same menu of “cultural conservatism” and “moral values.” And no telling how many Americans who can’t distinguish Muslims from Hindus or Sikhs–much less Sunni from Shia or Arabs from Persians–have probably bought into the idea of George W. Bush’s foreign policy as a religiously-based effort to vindicate Western values against an undifferentiated heathen horde.
This is not an accident, and is not the fault of the religious rank-and-file, who are not historians or theologians, and have complicated lives to lead. But the rampant secularization of much of the American faith tradition in the not-so-sacred cause of cultural and political conservatism must be laid at the parsonage door of those religious leaders who have abused the prophetic function of their ministry to acquire a “seat at the table” of secular power.
In particular, Christian Right leaders in every denomination who abet and exploit the doctrinal and historical indifference of The Faithful to promote an agenda of intolerance and self-righteousness are the true Secularists of contemporary American society, and far more dangerous to the integrity of our faith communities than all the honest unbelievers in our midst or in Europe or Asia.
To quote from the Gospel According to Somebody, or perhaps it was the Epistle of Joan of Arc to the Alabamans: “None of those who cry ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father.”
This is verily, verily Word Up.

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