Should 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?