The Bible as America’s Book: Americans Love the Bible

I don’t care much about the Bible.  I admit it.  In my work as a historian of American conservatism and conservative Christianity, I’ve tried a couple of times to study the Bible systematically.  After all, the Bible and its phraseology play a large role in the culture of the people I’m studying.  At the very least, I need to cultivate a familiarity with it so that I can catch the references that fly around so fast and furious in Fundamentalist America.  So I’ve tried to read the Bible.  Turns out I can read it if I have to, but I admit I’ve never felt any of the spiritual power that many Christians have described.

I can take it one step further.  I don’t think the Bible can help me figure out my problems.  I don’t think it has much to say about my personal life.  I feel even more strongly that the Bible doesn’t have any answers for our common cultural or political life.  Intellectually, I agree with skeptics such as Richard Dawkins and others who have dismissed the Bible as a collection of ancient myths, trapped in the provincial traditions of one group of Middle Eastern nomads.

For most of my life, I assumed such attitudes were normal.  I thought that most Americans agreed that the Bible must not be used as the simple truth about life and eternity, but rather as a collection of moral tales from one religious tradition.

I felt confirmed that my attitudes matched those of lots of Americans by seeing hilarious religion jokes by folks like George Carlin (wait for it) and the makers of Family Guy.

I thought such irreverent attitudes about the Bible were the norm.  They still seem to be the norm among my circle of professional and personal acquaintance.  But they are not.  If we want to understand life in America, and especially if we hope to understand Fundamentalist America, we need to recognize the significant power of the Bible in the lives of most Americans.  If we can believe Gallup poll data, we must acknowledge the continuing deep reverence for the Bible among most Americans.  For instance, one 2000 poll asked respondents, “Do you believe the Bible answers all or most of the basic questions of life, or not?” 65% of respondents answered yes.  65%!  That is a significant majority.

And consider these responses to an often-repeated Gallup question:

  The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken   literally word for word The Bible is the inspired word of God but is not to be   interpreted literally The Bible is a collection of myths and fables.
1976 38 45 13
1980 40 45 9
1991 32 49 9
1993 35 48 14
1998 33 47 17

Looking at these results, especially if we combine the first two Bible-friendly categories, we see truly impressive majorities of American respondents view the Bible as the word of God.  Even when we only consider those who think of it as the literal truth, the numbers are still fairly large—certainly large enough to attract the attention of political strategists and advertisers.

Just as with similar questions about evolution, we must acknowledge that the number of Americans who don’t embrace the Bible is remarkably small.  We need to avoid the arrogance and self-importance of many Bible skeptics.  Instead of asking, Why do so many Americans seem to believe in the Bible or creationism?, we really should be asking, How have such small minorities of evolutionists and Bible skeptics been able to achieve such influence in American culture?

I know many ILYBYGTH readers will not be surprised by these statistics.  Anyone who knows much about life in Fundamentalist America recognizes the large majorities Fundamentalism can claim.  But many folks outside of Fundamentalist America’s boundaries have very little idea how isolated they are.  Like me, many people only interact with folks who tend to believe in evolution, with people who do not look to the Bible as their source of answers to life’s problems.  If we hope to understand Fundamentalist America, we need to acknowledge the continuing power of the Bible among such commanding majorities of Americans of every background.


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