In the past decade Stephen Prothero, Chair of the Department of Religion at Boston University, has emerged as a national expert and resource on religious education and literacy in the United States. His 2003 book, American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, also received widespread acclaim and led to appearances on CNN, NBC, FOX, PBS, “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart and Oprah Winfrey. He has commented on religion on dozens of National Public Radio programs and is a regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal.
Prothero’s latest book, Religious Literacy: What Americans Need to Know, has received high praise for its unbiased critique of American’s low religious IQ. Prothero spoke with BustedHalo to discuss a wide variety of topics—from religious education to the recent U.S. visit by Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to the evolving image of Jesus in America.
BustedHalo: As an educator, how do you think today’s youth interpret the importance and place of religion within society?
Stephen Prothero: I think students get it. Students, like the general public, are more attracted to spirituality than organized religion. It is not a hard sell for them to get the importance of religion of other cultures since they watch it on the news everyday, the question is, ‘What are they going to do about it?’
As a teacher I try to provoke them and get them to question their assumptions coming into the class. We want them to think more culturally from new perspectives after obtaining non-biased information about a variety of religions. I don’t consider it my job to get them to stop being religious. I had teachers who did that with me in college and I thought it was foolish.
BH: You are an advocate of educating citizens about religion, but not necessarily in a way that conservatives might advocate. Do you find yourself with unique allies on that issue that you usually wouldn’t agree with on other social issues?
SP: Yes I do. Recently I was on a radio program and we had a call-in from Daniel Dennis, who is in favor of the same ideas I have, and we do not share many of the same opinions. Doing something proactive in religious literature in America seems like an idea that only the secular left and religious right both agree on.
BH: Radical Muslims have changed people’s perceptions of Islam. What are your thoughts on that?
SP: There is a battle inside Islam for the soul of the religion. We in the U.S. are observing it, and in some sense are the participants and victims in that battle. Islam, like Christianity, is a religion of peace and war, but that is too simplistic to explain the complicated religion. The question is what resources are there inside of Islam for peace and for war and how can we mobilize the resources for peace.
BH: Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently visited the U.S. and received widespread scrutiny from U.S. politicians, educators and human rights activists. What did you think about his visit?
SP: Strategically for him to come here to the U.S. and get attacked by his hosts is wrong and rude. The Iranian culture has a strong ethic of host and guest, and from their perspective human beings don’t trash their guests. It made the U.S. look uncivilized and portrays a certain amount of cultural ignorance. We should be doing what we can to diffuse tensions between us and Iran and we are not doing a good job at that.
BH: In American Jesus you talk about the many resurrections of Jesus. What do you expect for the next resurrection of the image of Jesus?
SP: I’m a historian, not a futurist, but the trend is toward a Jesus who capitulates to culture, and changes regarding our fads and preoccupations in the moment. After 9/11 it was the terrorized Jesus in Mel Gibson’s movie. I don’t know what the next image will be, but it will have its roots in American culture.
BH: Do you see any irony in the fact that America has constantly reshaped Jesus, but still want Him out of their places of work and education?
SP: The irony may be wanting Him on our own terms. I make the point at the end of American Jesus that Jesus is more of a pawn than a king in American culture, and the recasting of his image is a prime example.
I’m hopeful that the naïve thinking of not talking about religion is going away because current events have made it difficult to bury our head in the ground about talking about Christianity and other religions. We can communicate and educate about religion without force feeding God to our kids in our educational system.
BH: Do you think Americans remold the image of Jesus to justify our own sins of genocide, racism and sexism? Does it make people feel less worried about their sins if we make Him look like us?
SP: Yes. That is one of the dynamics about American Jesus. You call Him in to anoint your pet project. Hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan have used Jesus to oppress blacks and women from having equal rights. Abolitionists and feminists have used him as well. Jesus has played both sides of the fence in almost every political issue in U.S. history.