Speaker asserts knowing about religions essential

Author Stephen Prothero told two valley audiences Saturday that learning about religious life is critical to American civics. And when it comes to world politics, it is even more important.

"Knowing about the religious life of countries overseas, like Iran and Iraq, is truly a matter of life and death," he asserted.

The Boston University professor wrote the book "Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know and Doesn't." He has been a guest on numerous TV shows, including "Oprah" and "The O'Reilly Factor," with Bill O'Reilly.

Prothero spoke at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturday at Central Valley High School in Ceres. A combined crowd of about 350 heard him speak. His appearance was sponsored by The Modesto Bee Book Club and the American Heritage Scholarship Series. The afternoon speech was part of the American Heritage essay contest. The Stanislaus County Office of Education taped the event for students unable to attend.

Citing statistics (America is 85 percent Christian) and observation (politicians couch their politics with religious appeals), Prothero said religious knowledge is indispensable for creating good, informed citizens.

In his first presentation, he talked about once having an atheistic gauntlet thrown down on him. He was challenged that Christianity had been one of the most powerful forces for evil in history.

"Has it also been a powerful force for good?" he asked rhetorically, and went on, "If it's among the most powerful forces for good and evil, doesn't that make it one of the most powerful forces (period) and shouldn't we strive to understand it?"

When asked about Thomas Jefferson's "wall of separation" between church and state, Prothero set the record straight.

"There never has been and never will be a wall between government and religion," he said. "If there's anything (between them) it's like a low picket fence in New England that a dog can keep jumping over."

When it comes to debates over civic displays such as Nativity scenes or public facilities used for religious purposes, Prothero outlined the Supreme Court's position as one "where all parties, secular and religious, have to be treated the same." Government, he said, can't be in the position of favoring either one.

While he emphasized the need for intensive religious instruction, Prothero drew his own line in the classroom.

"There's a difference between teaching art and art history." He said teaching is imperative while preaching always has been prohibited.

Further, while it might be OK to teach "intelligent creation" in a religion class or a class about the Bible, Prothero said, any teacher who taught the same in a science class should be fired.

Kate Thompson, 17, of Hughson said the speech opened her eyes to learning about other nations' religions. She also pondered the essay contest question: To what extent should religion influence politics in the United States?

"Since most people have strong feelings (on their faith), we shouldn't shut them out of politics," she said. "We also shouldn't favor one religion more than another."

Jorge Ruiz, 16, took notes throughout the presentation and said he "learned a lot about how Americans think about religion."

Ben Neptune, 17, of Johansen High School, earned praise from Prothero himself. Neptune asked Prothero if his push for more religious instruction was merely a practical matter. Would he still push the issue if religion weren't already so important in America?

Prothero said his interest was indeed purely pragmatic. "If politicians stopped making religious appeals, there would be no need for further study."

But since it's good politics to include God, Prothero said, Americans need to become literate so they can get intelligent answers on the issues. Whether it's abortion, immigration or anything else, Prothero said he wants good citizens to ask religious politicians to provide chapter and verse and meaningful dialogue on every issue.

Challenged about whether teachers could put aside personal biases, Prothero said that teacher bias always has been a problem, whether the class was in English literature or U.S. history. As long as teachers teach and don't preach, Prothero insisted, religion can be taught, even if there are deep convictions.

Bee staff writer Roger W. Hoskins can be reached at 578-2311 or rhoskins@modbee.com.