Paul Greenberg

Even the Ivy League schools seem to have noticed: Their students are not only arriving biblically illiterate but leaving pretty much the same way.

So a faculty committee at Harvard has considered making a course in religion part of the school's core curriculum.

The course would deal with "reason and faith," and touch on topics like the relation between religion and American democracy. Goodness, why not just have the students read and discuss Tocqueville's "Democracy in America"? Nobody's ever done it better. Except maybe Daniel Boorstin in "The Genius of American Politics."

But that would be too much like studying history for what it can tell us instead of for what we can read into it. It's not as if the past had an existence of its own apart from what we make of it. A usable past, that's what's we need, right?

God may not matter all that much to Harvard's well-gated community, but He seems to matter a great deal to a lot of us out here in the grubby world. Therefore, if America's oldest university is going to turn out graduates who'll be able to communicate with the rest of us, even lead us, they'll need to be religiously knowledgeable. At last religion would be usable.

There's an old name for this approach: profanation.

A more tactful term for it is instrumentalism. And it's not limited to academicians. People who consider themselves defenders of the faith have been known to justify theirs by pointing out all the worldly benefits of religion, from strong families to charitable giving to the work ethic, aka the Puritan ethic.

It's all enough to bring to mind what Edward Gibbon, in his "Decline and Fall," said of religion in another empire: "The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful."

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.