Saturday, June 16, 2012

Missing the mark

Recently I reviewed American Gospel by Jon Meacham, which I found to be a good book about the place religion holds (or ought to hold) in American society. In my opinion it effectively argues for tolerance for the beliefs - or disbelief - of others, while explaining the significance of religion in our history. I don't mean to overstate the significance of the book or make it sound perfect, but it was much better than some others I've read on the topic.

In Forged in Faith: How Faith Shaped the Birth of the Nation 1607-1776, Rod Gragg writes to show the religious underpinnings of the United States of America. He says that the majority of settlers, both the Pilgrims and those at Jamestown Colony, came for religious freedom and that their charters and organizations were designed around their religious beliefs. He also discusses the "Great Awakening," the religious revival in the mid-1700s led by important but seldom remembered names as George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards, that brought the colonists back to their religious roots. Finally, he wraps things up with a look at the religious influences that crafted the Declaration of Independence.

While I don't disagree with Mr. Gragg's premise, I think he's preaching to an audience that has already made up its mind and I doubt skeptics will be impressed. I agree and believe that religious beliefs were key in forming the concepts that led to the creation of the United States (and not simply "Enlightenment philosophies"), and that most of the influential voices in establishing the nation held strong religious beliefs even when dissatisfied with the religious institutions of their day. But I also think he overstates things and was bothered with the heavy and frequent use of terms like "faith-based" and "Judeo-Christian worldview" (a term not even coined until around 1900), and the use of selective quotes and summary information on individuals (Squanto, Washington, and Jefferson, among others) that gives a very misleading view of their beliefs. And Gragg is clearly cherry-picking the stories and events he uses to support his argument. And it's the kind of argument that makes me worry as much about the "religious right" as the "secular left."

In Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--And Doesn't, Stephen Prothero argues that, despite what we may think, America is a very religious nation. He explains that our history is entwined with religion and how modern-day politicians frequently invoke religion when they speak. Furthermore, most Americans report that they regularly attend religious services and pray, but not many of those people actually have much religious knowledge (an assertion supported by many surveys). Few can name all Ten Commandments or any Apostles, not to mention even cursory knowledge about Eastern religions. Contrast this with Europeans, who have broad religious knowledge but don't attend church or pray. Mr. Prothero explains how religion factored in early American life, the affects of secularism and how America shifted away from valuing religious knowledge, and discusses the confusion over the legalities of teaching religion in public schools. He also makes a case for the need for greater religious literacy without showing favoritism.

I don't disagree with his history or even his conclusions, but the problem for me is that the title is misleading: it infers that this book will tell us what we NEED to know. It doesn't. I did better than average on the quiz in the book and it sounds like I know more about my own church than most people do about theirs, but I know very little about other churches and wanted to learn some basics. All the book has to offer is a "dictionary" with cursory information, when more in-depth essays or information on the different religions would have fulfilled the promise in the title. Mr. Prothero complains that many churches today teach only broad "touchy-feely" concepts like "love" and "Jesus" but fail to impart a deeper understanding, but I think his book is guilty of the same sin.

At any rate, just a couple of books which 'missed the mark' in my opinion, and that I can't recommend. (I received Forged in Faith from Amazon Vine.)

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