U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Do You Know Your Bible?

sutton's new bookShould we care about the bible? Those who write for this blog and those who read it, enjoy debating books and theorists, unearthing connections between majority and minority streams of thought, and often wondering about how Americans—in all their diversity—think about their worlds. Our posts on culture wars, real wars, popular culture, cultural theory, various turns—from culture to religion—shape the blog’s analysis of American thought. However, have we given enough attention to the single most significant source of inspiration for most Americans for most of the country’s history?

I am spending the latter part of my week at a conference on the Bible in American Life, sponsored by the Center for the Study of Religion and American Life (R&AC) at IUPUI. The conference is the culminating event of a project funded by the Lilly Endowment to study the place of the bible in contemporary American life. The center’s director, Philip Goff, and his colleagues Peter Thuesen and Arthur Farnsley have published a 60-page report that summarizes and evaluates the findings of a multi-year survey they coordinated. The conference brought together scholars from around the country, as well as Germany’s Heidelberg University, to comment and present on the bible in American life. Panels have been excellent, as is typical when organizers create a conference that focuses on a topic as provocative as the bible. University of Notre Dame historian Mark Noll gave the keynote on Thursday evening at one of Indianapolis’s most beautiful and oldest churches, Christ Church Cathedral. I regard Noll as the finest American religious historian of at least the last few generations. Every work he produces, as Phil Goff remarked to a few us, is often at the time of publication the most significant thing to read on its subject.

Noll provided observations that almost comprehensively summarized the conference proceedings—no small feat. He organized his address around four themes: Catholics and the bible, race and the bible, varieties of the bible, and reasons Americans read the bible. There was one observation that Noll made that struck me as significant for this blog: intellectual historians should pay more attention to the way the bible structures thought of contemporary Americans and how and why that structure has changed. An obvious observation? Sure. And I think our colleague here, LD Burnett, has been better than most of us at making that point. But the relationship between the study Goff and his colleagues have produced and our collective understanding of what moves Americans—writ large—to think about their world in different ways seems underdeveloped. On the one hand, we can assume that much of what the report summarizes is obvious—there is a general decline in bible reading and that this decline seems linked to a growing skepticism of the role of divinity in Americans’ lives. African-Americans read the bible more consistently and closely than other groups. Catholics, (much to the surprise of Protestants?!) read the bible with some consistency and even memorize scripture almost at the same level as other Christians.

On the other hand, among the most interesting findings is how the bible relates to the culture wars. At once, the way Americans read the bible demonstrates that they use the good book to establish their views on political and cultural controversies by, in some sense, making issues controversial because of their reliance on the bible and as a way to find distance from the process that politicizes their religious views. Noll placed emphasis on that latter observation—Americans often use the bible as a way to remind themselves that there is realm that is religious but not by default part of culture wars. Such insight reminded me of a comment religious historian George Marsden used to undercut Richard John Neuhaus’s dire warning about religion being expunged from the public square, thus leaving it “naked.” Marsden contended that such a trend was not, on the face of it, a bad thing: “the naked public square…might just as easily be presented as a symbol of what is right about the American tradition of religion and politics as be used, as Neuhuas uses it, as an image for what is going wrong.”

The R&AC study suggests Americans largely confirms Marsden’s drift. For example, in one instructive chart that details reasons for individual bible reading, a preponderance of respondents relied on the bible reasons that don’t have much relationship to the culture wars. 72% said they read the bible “for prayer and devotion,” and 62% “to learn about religion,” while registering at 23%, 22%, and 21% respectively, were perennial cultural war topics such as, “to learn about poverty or war,” “to learn about obtaining wealth,” and “to learn about abortion or homosexuality.” So, people read the bible to be religious not disagreeable.

However, in the question period following Noll’s address, one person did bring up a perennial culture war issue. The audience member asked Noll to weigh in on the “persecution” of Americans who want to bring the bible back or deeper into public life, especially in regard in this instance, into schools. Noll acknowledged the sincerity of the concern expressed in the question, but gently turned our attention to the fact that persecution of Christians in America has little to do with “atheists” or the state. He pointed out that what is much more significant is how Christians have persecuted other Christians throughout American history, most tragically in the years of slavery and segregation that span the entire history of the nation. It was an interesting moment, in part because the exchange demonstrated not only how resilient Neuhaus’s popular argument has been but also how we might go about changing, as Noll suggested, the way journalists assume that bible readers and believers are certain kind of partisans in the culture wars.

There was another interested revelation, at least to me, in the R&AC report: one relatively popular reason Americans read the bible is “to learn about the future.” At 35%, the rate of this response has significance, but what does it mean? It seems to me, the item is revealing for two reasons: first, it punctuates and points up a relationship between Protestant fundamentalists and evangelicals regarding the complexity of millennialism; second, it suggests more general conclusions about the power and endurance of millennial visions in American life. Matthew Sutton spoke directly to this finding in large part because it figures into his forthcoming book, American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelism. Sutton argues that millennial thought that began relatively obscure in the early 20th century developed, over the course of post-1945 American history, into a popular, political, and ideological structure that proved to be an influential alternative to official, professional, and academic analyses of world affairs. In other words, Sutton helps us understand that while both FDR and Obama have both been seen as the anti-Christ, they are different kinds of anti-Christs.

So, yes, obviously, the bible still matters in American life and it matters for reasons that are not easily lumped into the categories of the culture wars. But there was one last observation that seemed to animate Noll’s talk, that in an age that seemingly allows many ways for Americans to grow more atomized, the bible has been surprisingly adaptable. The bible is on kindles, in apps, and used in movies, television shows, and webinars. If even if bible verses and passages no longer comprise the everyday vocabulary of Americans, there is a large number of Americans who continue to pick up the book and share that practice with a larger number of their neighbors. Half of those polled said that they had read some scripture in the past year, and of those 95% had read scripture in the bible. Is there a text as widely used as the bible? If not, what should we, intellectual historians, do with it?

14 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This is a wonderful post, and it sounds like the conference raised some great points!

    Just to consider my own work–which is coming to look more and more at Southern intellectual and political history in the 1970s–you can’t help but think about religion and the Bible. But I also have to remind myself to do that, because religious belief is often in the background even when we may not consider it.

    • Thanks Robert. There will be a volume that collects most of these papers, but if you see any that strike you as important to your work I would encourage you to contact the folks on the program. There are a couple people you will meet at the SUSIH conference who are at IUPUI and were not in the conference but who I want to meet you!

      • I’m certainly looking forward to meeting them! And I’ll definitely keep an eye out for the program and the edited collection.

  2. I can’t believe this event was going on in my own backyard (in Midwest terms, at least) and I didn’t hear about it. Do you know if they made recordings?

    • I don’t think any of the panels were recorded, though there will be an edited volume. And I don’t think Mark Noll’s address was recorded either, but I can check on that.

  3. Ray,
    Thank you so much for this post pointing us to this conference and to the excellent work coming out of it.

    Is there a fuller report than the one you linked to coming out, though? I would love to see some more transparency on the methodology of the survey and the demographics of those who were surveyed.

    If that sounds skeptical, perhaps it’s just that, as a Jew living in Utah at the moment, a word like “scripture” sounds to me more plural than this report makes it out to be.

    For instance, this sentence, “While it is important to know about all types of scripture reading in the United States, most of this report concerns those who identified the Bible as the scripture they read, which is 48% of the total U.S. population” (emphasis added), or these: “In summary, roughly half of Americans have read scripture outside of worship in the past year. For 95% of those, the Bible is the scripture they read” (emphasis added) probably misrepresents the results of the first, most important question in the survey: “Within the last year, have you read the Bible, Torah, Koran or other religious scriptures, not counting any reading that happened during a worship service?”

    As a yes or no question, that allows for the possibility that people are reading multiple scriptures (say, the Book of Mormon and the King James Bible, or the Talmud and the Koran), whereas the conclusions drawn suggest that the authors of the study think about the answers to the question as non-pluralistic–they interpret it not as, “95% of scripture readers read the Bible” but “95% of scripture readers read only the Bible as scripture.” At least that’s how it reads to me.

    It’s possible the numbers actually back the latter claim up, but I don’t see the justification for that in the graphs and tables as presented. If you could shed any more light on the survey, I’d really appreciate it.

    • Andy you raised an issue that was discussed at length. Also, check out the appendices, I think the questions and phrasing are there. A bunch of people spoke quite critically of the standardization of terms used in certain kinds of social scientific surveys of religious belief and practice. There is no doubt that problems exist with how some of these questions are phrased or asked. However, there was also a good discussion about the different kinds of surveys and qualitative research that is available to researchers to help dig into some of the findings of this (or any) report. Tell me what you think of the questions near the end of the report.

    • Andy’s question is similar to mine—-hinted at in my comment on LD’s comment above. Not only do we my varieties of “scripture” but also varying levels of “reading.” – TL

  4. Thanks! It’s definitely helpful to see the specific language of the questions. I guess I still have a couple of qualms, though, about the way the questions are framed to produce a more homogeneous outcome than may in fact have been the case.

    For instance, the second question listed, “In the past year, which scripture have you read most often, the Bible, Torah, Koran, or some other scripture?” seems to allow for the respondent having read multiple scriptures in the last year, but then the questions proceed (unless the survey was conducted in a manner not apparent from the structuring of the questions) as if only the one scripture which was read most often “counted,” as it were, because the follow-up questions all proceed to ask about that single scripture. There doesn’t appear to be a question that allows the respondent to name more than one form of scripture or talk about their use of multiple scriptures.

    I mean, this is probably a small thing since the point of the survey was to understand how the bible is being used in the US, but I just feel like that 95% number ought to be qualified a little better.

    • Andy, I think you make a very valid point and it really is one echoed by others at the conference. What you are pointing out is a kind of interior pluralism or even plurality of thought and faith and reading that surveys have trouble quantifying. That’s why we historians might just be relevant still!

  5. I sure wish I had been at that conference! What a treat. I love thinking with Noll about whatever is on his mind.

    As for my work on the history of the great books idea, “the Bible” looms in the background—at every step. The editors of the Britannica set decided, in the late 1940s, to exclude a copy from the set because of the varieties of Bible translations out there. They didn’t want to offend readers and set consumers by privileging on translation. This line of thinking extended to the 1990 set.

    On the Bible and the Culture Wars and USIH generally, I think that “sacred” and non-sacred scripture are both all over the place and nowhere. It’s assumed background that deserves to be ferreted out. – TL

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