Sitting in Your Own Pew: Religious Liberty and Literacy in America

Religion expert, Stephen Prothero and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published a survey of American religious literacy with humbling results.

The  December, 2010 issue of Men’s Health magazine, of all places, published a list of the most and least religious cities in the United States.  Men’s Health compiled its findings independent of other studies like the highly publicized 2009 Religious Commitment Analysis, a state by state study by the Pew Center Forum on Religion and Public Life.  Yet their conclusions were remarkably similar.

Men’s Health used three criterion: U.S. Census Bureau statistics for houses of worship per capita in a given city; religious organizations and the numbers of their volunteers in each city; and Bureau of Labor statistics on religious donations by each city’s residents.  The results were surprising only to those who hadn’t read the Pew Center study.

No one likes reading lists of statistics, but here are a few of the more interesting results:  Colorado Springs, CO was determined to be the most religious city in the U.S., followed by Greensboro, NC; Oklahoma City, OK; Wichita, KS; Indianapolis, IN; Jacksonville, FL; Portland, OR; Birmingham, AL; Charlotte, NC; and Little Rock, AR. (Texans, take heart because five Texas cities appeared in the top forty.)

On the polar end of the spectrum, Burlington, VT was the least religious city in America, followed in its religious stupor by Providence, RI; Boston, MA; Hartford, CT; Portland, ME; Jersey City, NJ; Fargo, ND; and Manchester, NH, the seat of my own Diocese. Newark and Miami rounded out the bottom ten. Sadly,  not a single New England city appeared anywhere outside of the bottom ten, the least religious cities in the country.

I wrote about the 2009 Pew Center’s Religious Commitment Analysis in my post, “In the Land of Nod, East of Eden.” The Pew Center study was far more sweeping in its scope, and more extensive than the Men’s Health report, but with remarkably similar results, especially on the bottom end of the spectrum. Surveying the importance and influence of religion in public life, the six New England states came in dead last with New Hampshire and Vermont tying for 50th place. As I wrote in “At the Twilight’s Last Gleaming,” “The Puritan founders of New England – who came here specifically to establish a religious colony free of European Catholicism – would roll in their graves.”

It’s ironic that the Puritans settled New England in 1620 desiring to build a religiously based society free from Catholic influence. The Puritans wanted religion, but not a Church. They wanted religion free of sacraments and symbols, free of any magisterial authority, a religion of the elect. Nearly 500 years later, the region they established is now the least religiously influenced region of the country.

Boston University religion professor, Stephen Prothero co-authored a 2010 survey on religious literacy also sponsored by the Pew Center Forum on Religion and Public Life. I wrote about it in “At the Twilight’s Last Gleaming,” and it’s worth revisiting.

Writing on “Faith & Values” for NewsMax magazine (“God Knows, But His Flock … Not So Much,” December 2010) Jane Blakemore described the Pew Center study results:

“Turns out that, although we’re quick to wield spirituality as sword and shield, we know surprisingly little when it comes to the details of the religions we adore or abhor.”


American Catholics as a group scored a dismal 47%  –  a solid “F” – on the survey, and the ignorance was not just about other peoples’ faiths. Only 42% of Catholics could identify the Book of Genesis as the first book of the Bible, and only 40% knew whether the Eucharist is a symbol or the Body and Blood of Christ.

Of the 32 questions in Stephen Prothero’s Pew Center study, atheists and agnostics as a group scored the highest with 66%. It’s a “D,” and there’s no reason for the atheists to gloat. My own theory is that atheists as a group are more committed to demeaning other peoples’ religious faith and tend to produce more anti-religious activists who make it a point to know the teachings of the enemy. An example is the $20,000 billboard American Atheists paid for in Manhattan at Christmas to declare Jesus a myth.

I wrote of it in “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas 17 Times.” Still, the apathy of many Catholics about the tenets of their faith has only furthered the atheist agenda, not to mention their relative score.

Before we all sign up for remedial CCD classes, it might boost our Catholic spirits to know that American Protestants fared no better than Catholics on the Pew Center study. Their score was also a solid “F.” Jews did better overall than Catholics and Protestants, but also flunked, and Mormon scores were just under the atheists’ barely passing “D.” Americans as a whole averaged a score of 50%.  There are no bragging rights anywhere.

Remember those fundamentalist Christians in Florida who set off a global firestorm over their announcement that they plan to burn the Koran? Only 54% of Americans could even identify the Koran as the Muslim holy book, according to Jane Blakemore in NewsMax. Less than half knew that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist, and only 45% could name the four Gospels.  A few days ago this was a question on “Jeopardy.”  None of the three scholarly contestants could name all four Gospels.  In the Pew Center study, a whopping 82% correctly identified Mother Teresa’s religious affiliation, but I attribute that to the news media coverage of her, not the Catholic Church’s.

Jane Blakemore in NewsMax was nice enough to provide a ten-question sampler of the Pew Survey, and I took the liberty of reproducing it so TSW readers can have a go at it themselves. The answers are at the end of this post, but resist scrolling there. Here’s the survey:

1.    Where was Jesus born?

2.    What religion was Mother Teresa?

3.    What religion was Joseph Smith?

4.    Is Ramadan (a) the Hindu Festival of Lights; (b) the Islamic Holy Month; (c) the Jewish Day of Atonement?

5.    Name the Gospels.

6.    Whose writings inspired the Reformation – (a) Wesley; (b) Luther; (c) Aquinas?

7.    Who remained loyal to God despite suffering : (a) Abraham; (b) Job; (c) Moses; (d)Elijah?

8.    When does the Jewish Sabbath begin – (a) Friday; (b) Saturday; (c) Sunday?

9.    Do Catholics teach that Communion bread and wine symbolize, or really become, the Body and Blood of Christ?

10.  What is the religion of most of the people of Indonesia?

I gave the shorter, 10-question NewsMax version to some prisoners, with interesting results. Pornchai aced it with 100%. Of course, that’s Pornchai. I once saw him in an inconsolable catatonic state because he got an A- on a history exam. My friend, Joseph (“Disperse the Gloomy Clouds of Night“) scored a 90% as did Donald, another recent Catholic convert.  Skooter (“In the Year of the Priest, the Tale of a Prisoner“) correctly stated Mother Teresa’s religious affiliation, then asked why people say she had “canyon eyes.” His answers went down hill from there. Half the prisoners I tested could answer only one or two of the questions. The other half did remarkably better than most of the country.


In the Pew Center study, there was even more confusion about the meaning of religious liberty in the Constitution. Many confused freedom of religion with freedom FROM religion. 89% of respondents knew that a teacher cannot lead her public school class in prayer, but only 23% knew that a teacher may read from the Bible as literature in a class on world religions. Most did not know that a Nativity scene may be erected in a public square along with other religious and secular symbols of the season.

In my own opinion, the controversies on Catholic campuses around the U.S. have not helped to bridge the gap in religious knowledge. As a gesture of God knows what, Boston College, a Jesuit run Catholic college, removed crucifixes from its campus classrooms a decade ago. In his book, Secular Sabotage, Catholic League president Bill Donohue wrote:

“It was left to Jews and Muslims to protest the removal of crucifixes from the classroom: they wisely accused school officials of assuming they were anti-Catholic bigots who might be offended by the Christian symbol.” (Secular Sabotage, p. 178).

It took eight years for Boston College to restore the crucifix to its Catholic campus classrooms in 2009. Only in America could a professor protest the presence of a crucifix on a Catholic campus, and be given a serious platform by the news media. One tenured Boston College professor offered this bizarre comment in a February 12, 2009 article by Michael Paulson at, the on-line version of The Boston Globe:

“I believe the display of religious signs and symbols, such as the crucifix, in the classroom is contrary to the letter and spirit of open intellectual discourse that . . . distinguishes first-rate universities from mediocre and provincial ones.”

So, to be a first-rate Catholic university requires setting aside any visible Catholic identify in favor of a cult of secularism.  It was this very thinking that caused another Catholic school, Georgetown University, to cover the crucifix before President Barack Obama arrived to speak there.  In a far more egregious example, it was also this trend toward suppressing Catholic values in favor of a secular appearance that caused the University of Notre Dame to openly dissent from the U.S. Bishops’ mandate by awarding an honorary degree to a clearly and decidedly pro-abortion president.


The issue was not the President’s commencement address.  It was Notre Dame’s decision to bestow an honorary degree.  As I wrote in “The Last Full Measure of Devotion,” one of the Catholics arrested in protest on the Notre Dame campus that day was Norma McCorvey, a Catholic convert and pro-life activist once known as Jane Roe, the plaintiff in 1973’s divided Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade.


There are several writers for The Wall Street Journal whose columns I look forward to each week, and one of them is Matt Ridley.  His weekly “Mind & Matter” column in the Weekend Journal’s “Review” section always stimulates some brain cells.  In a recent column (“Microchips are Old Hat. Can Tweets Be Far Behind?” March 5-6, 2011) Matt Ridley predicted that “In the future…the distinction between a newspaper column and a blog will dissolve.”

But for now, there is a distinction. Most of us look to the news media for the truth, but we won’t always find it there. Not all of it at least. That’s why Catholic media, and especially Catholic blogs have a stewardship responsibility to represent the truth.

That was what prompted my recent “Incendiary Blog Post on Catholic Civil Discourse.” Americans are so divided – and divisive – on religion, but the majority of Americans have little real religious knowledge to back up their strong feelings about other peoples’ religious beliefs. It’s a dangerous platform in a world divided largely along religious lines.

Catholics especially should be alarmed at Catholic religious illiteracy. There’s a dire need for Catholic blogs to represent not our divisions, but the truths of our faith. It’s one thing to address divisions and disagreements, but it’s another thing to make them a constant drumbeat as though we’re actually going to convince anyone on the right to drift left or anyone on the left to drift right. That ideological gulf is like the Continental Divide, and it isn’t going away soon.

Gordon-MacRae-Falsely-Accused-Priest-Christ-PeterRemember my post, “The Day the Earth Stood Still“? I grew up a liberal Boston Irish Catholic Democrat. I came to see the limitations of that dubious distinction, and of most other dubious political distinctions. As an adolescent of the sixties, I knew everything and had no need to defer to any authority. Then I grew up. I learned that to embrace orthodoxy is to represent what priests claim to represent: the oneness of our faith, and that requires deference to the Church’s legitimate teaching authority.  Too many priests see “orthodoxy” as caving in to authority, but the authority in question is unmistakably necessary for our faith to survive.

The answer to the question that Jesus put to Peter – “Who do you say that I am?” – requires a communal response, a response of unity, of the whole. And living in the light of that response requires deference to Peter himself. This is central to Catholicism, and should also be central to Catholic blogs.

Last August, Our Sunday Visitor included These Stone Walls on its list of “The Best of the Catholic Web” (OSV, August 15, 2010). In that same issue, OSV wrote in an editorial entitled “Internet Missionaries”:

“At a very basic level, Catholics on the Internet should serve as beacons of charity in a sea of hasty allegations, misinformation, and personal attacks.”

It’s good advice for Catholic bloggers. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all [digital] nations.

Answers to Pew Center Quiz:

1.    Bethlehem
2.    Catholic
3.    Mormon
4.    b.  Islamic holy month
5.    Matthew, Mark, Luke, John
6.    b. Luther
7.    b. Job
8.    a. Friday (Remember the Jewish feast is sundown to sundown)
9.    Actually become the Body and Blood of Christ
10.    Muslim


About Fr. Gordon J. MacRae

The late Cardinal Avery Dulles and The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus encouraged Father MacRae to write. Cardinal Dulles wrote in 2005: “Someday your story and that of your fellow sufferers will come to light and will be instrumental in a reform. Your writing, which is clear, eloquent, and spiritually sound will be a monument to your trials.” READ MORE


  1. Kathy Maxwell says:

    You are so right, Father Gordon. We need to evangelize Catholics first in this country. Unfortunately, the time to “catch” the uninformed Catholic is from the pulpit on Sundays. That simply isn’t done.

    I think that everyone is so afraid of offending someone, that the priests and deacons give mild, “can’t we all just get along?” sermons. I hope that the ads being run by Catholics Come Home will be effective -they are great!

    God bless you and everyone else there.

  2. Domingo says:

    Now that we see the shameful reality, my question is, why did it happen? I studied in a Catholic high school, did graduate studies in a Jesuit university, but for the most part, much of what I know now as a Catholic is from my own recent readings of Protestant converts like Scott Hahn, Tim Staples, Jeff Cavins, etc. I could have learned the basic tenets of the Faith in high school, but at the time, they were not applealing to me. It was my fault, more than the school’s or my teachers’. Then I would have exchanged the Religion class for any other class very easily. I went to Mass on Sundays only for the grade, as attendance was checked, and I couldn’t care less about what was happening at the altar! On hindsight, there was one priest who I thought was a holy one: Fr David Tither, CSsR. I saw him only once in a recollection but I could still see in my mind how he sang so devoutly about the crucified Christ. Now as a father to three teenagers, I make sure that they know our Faith. Whether they find it interesting or otherwise, I make sure that they know what we believe in. Hopefully, they will grow in the faith, not only in theory, but more so in living it. I think it is one’s responsibility to know the Faith, but the inspiration from the religious and the clergy should help one get engaged.

  3. Esther says:

    Interesting post Father. Every week I learn something new from you or you give me food for thought. Mahalo. Coincidentally, I am currently watching a PBS series God in America (on Netflix). Did you watch that? You made me chuckle when I read what you wrote about Pornchai. He sounds a lot like my son.

    God bless,

  4. Mary says:

    A very interesting post Father G. I think Lent is a good season for all Catholics to put some time aside to revisit the Truth of our Faith by reading the Catechism. We have such a priceless gift but run the danger of not appreciating it and as long as one has breath one is never too old to learn.
    God Bless

Speak Your Mind