Here's more from Stephen Prothero's Religious Literacy, with my thoughts on some applications to Mormonism at the end. After glowing about the good 'ole days of the religiously literate 18th century — "Colonists did not just believe in the Bible, they knew what it said" — Prothero tries to explain what went wrong. A move from head to heart, from didactic sermons to revivalism of the sort practiced in Joseph Smith's New York, was the big step. Methodists and Baptists led the emotional charge that displaced the stodgier Congregationalists and Anglicans, but newer sects such as the Mormons also appeared in this new pluralistic religious landscape.
As denominations and sects proliferated, a counter movement stressing nonsectarianism and tolerance then emerged, which eventually jettisoned theological differences in favor of common ground in ethical norms. Morality displaced theology as the public component of religious discourse. The teaching of religion was gradually squeezed out of public schools and transferred to "Sunday Schools," but even there teaching gradually shifted (well before television and video games shortened attention spans) from doctrine to storytelling. "Jesus loves me" replaced catechisms and rote memorization. This forgetting or failure to transmit religious culture accelerated after World War II, leading to the present era of faith without knowledge. Mormons are not immune from this malady, as trenchantly depicted in Hugh Nibley's classic essay "Zeal Without Knowledge." [If you haven't read it before, you should absolutely follow the link and go read it now.]
Why is this a problem? Prothero's concern revolves not around salvation or morality but rather around civics and education. Knowing about religion makes us better citizens, given the central role of religion in world affairs and public policy discourse. And big chunks of literature are hard to decipher without a working knowledge of biblical characters and metaphors, as illustrated by quotes from English professors complaining that many modern college students are unfamiliar even with references to stories like the Tower of Babel, the walls of Jericho, or the Good Samaritan. Many students can't name the first book of the Bible or the fellow who parted the Red Sea. [Maybe we underestimate the effectiveness of LDS seminary in conveying basic biblical facts and stories.]
So what is to be done? Prothero argues that public schools should re-assume the task of conveying basic knowledge about religion using a fact-based religious studies model (carefully avoiding a confessional or evangelical approach). He advocates two high school courses, one on the Bible and one on world religions. He reviews the legal context, opining that the US Supreme Court has always allowed teaching about religion while barring advocacy of particular religious beliefs or practices in public schools. He also notes how wary public schools are of anything having to do with religion, but emphasizes that hundreds of school districts manage to teach educational Bible courses without undue controversy.
The Bible is, after all, the best-selling book in the world — how can schools that bracket the Bible from the curriculum claim to be giving a quality education to students or to be preparing them for college or even for citizenship? Alas, Huckabee isn't the only Evangelical who thinks Mormons worship both Jesus and Satan. [Not that I really think Huckabee believes that's what Mormons think, but that's a problem for a different post.] Just imagine what they think of Hindus or Muslims. Or even Catholics. Prothero quotes Mark Noll, author of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, who observed that "the scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind." Still, one must try.
And what's the Mo app? First, we've avoided the lowest rungs on the ladder of religious ignorance: Mormon youth still learn the basics of LDS doctrine and don't have a hard time explaining, for example, how Mormons differ from Methodists or Baptists. Second, we ought to consider incorporating a basic knowledge of other denominations and religions into the LDS curriculum. I know BYU has electives that do this, but why not pull some of that material into Sunday School and seminary? Third, the sudden emergence of university-level Mormon Studies programs seems very much in line with Prothero's religious studies approach to reinvigorating the teaching of religion generally. Perhaps those programs will be a vehicle for change in the LDS curriculum. I doubt CES will move in that direction of its own accord, but if we really expect the rest of the world to know something about Mormonism, shouldn't we likewise make an officially sponsored effort to learn something about their beliefs?