At Sightings, the publication of the The Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Martin Marty comments on the Pew “U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey.” As a good historian, Marty notes that these kinds of results should not surprise us. They reflect patterns of religious ignorance that have been around for a long time.
Here is a snippet of Marty’s article:
Should we be shocked! shocked! at this new Pew set of findings? Hardly. In 1955 Will Herberg’s Protestant-Catholic-Jew, the most quoted account of religion in our most religiously-touted modern decade, produced data that anticipates and parallels the new findings.
I recently had occasion to revisit a book from that era by (my then Ph.D. co-advisor) Daniel J. Boorstin, later Librarian of Congress. His The Genius of American Politics came out when we were trying to make sense of the religious scene in the Eisenhower years, Herberg’s prime. At chapter length he noticed that “Perhaps never before in history has a people talked so much and said so little about its basic beliefs.” He gave many illustrations of practices in the then-as-now Overclothed Public Square. The U.S. Supreme Court rulings against school prayer and devotional Bible reading had not yet come down, but, never mind, when religious propagation and worship was still allowed and sometimes practiced in public schools and other such institutions, “we” were illiterate. There was no golden age, no time of “good old days.”