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“The Daily Show” Gets Down with God

CAS Prof Prothero takes “Religious Literacy” to TV

CAS Prof. Stephen Prothero goes from Jon Stewart to Bill O’Reilly talking about religious literacy. Photo by Vernon Doucette

Monday was not a typical day for Stephen Prothero, a College of Arts and Sciences professor and chairman of the religion department. When BU Today caught up with him, he was in a taxicab in Manhattan on his way to tape an interview for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, the first of two television appearances this week about his new book, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn’t. The book has been widely — and positively — reviewed, and Prothero has been profiled in Newsweek and has appeared on numerous radio programs. Today, March 23, he’ll be back in New York, appearing live on The O’Reilly Factor on Fox.

Religious Literacy
was ranked at number nine on Amazon on Tuesday, the day after his Jon Stewart appearance, not bad for a subject that might be considered dry and academic. The book isn’t, though, and it is reaching a wide audience.

BU Today: What’s been driving all this interest in your book?

Prothero: People get the elevator pitch, which is that Americans are incredibly religious, but they don’t know anything about religion. They get it because that describes themselves. I have so many friends who say, ‘Gosh, I really don’t know what I should know about my own religion or the religions of other people.’ That’s part of it. Another part of it is that people get that the stakes are high, especially because of Iraq and the war on terror. And they understand that this isn’t a purely academic matter. The fact is that we have someone on the House Intelligence Committee, [Texas Democrat] Silvestre Reyes, who until recently really didn’t know that al-Qaeda was a Sunni group and didn’t really seem to understand the difference between Sunnis and Shi’ites. I think people understand that there’s something wrong.

Were you surprised to get the call from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart?
Yes. I was hoping we’d get some good reviews and some good publicity, but the publicity has been really crazy. I’m also doing The Tavis Smiley Show and The O’Reilly Factor, kind of all over the map in terms of left, right, and center. The book was really intended for general audiences, and I’m delighted it’s getting picked up in general media.

also did a profile of me. They talked about my teaching at BU, which is great for Boston University. The writer came to my class, and she started the piece with my teaching, which was flattering but also nice — usually these pieces about books don’t talk about teaching. They also did an online version of my quiz, which some tens of thousands of people have taken.

But it was a multiple choice version, right?

Yes, and it was a lot easier than the one in the book that I give my students. You could kind of guess your way into a D on it.

When you’re on these shows, what do they ask about most often?
They’ve been focusing on my proposals for courses for high school kids about the Bible and the world’s religions, which is the obvious public policy question. They ask, ‘Won’t this create more problems than it solves?’ I tell them no, that it’s constitutional and there are courses like this in a number of public schools, though not as many as there should be, and they are not erupting into religious chaos. There’s sort of this chaos possibility that everybody raises, but it seems to me it’s really not on the horizon.

Your Friday appearance on The O’Reilly Factor, with Bill O’Reilly (COM’75), is not your first time on the show, is it?
I’ve been on his show once before. I did an op-ed piece on this issue of religious literacy a few years ago, and he picked up on it and he had me on his show. So this is a return visit.

Stephen Prothero will speak about and sign his book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn’t at Barnes & Noble at BU on Tuesday, March 27, at 7 p.m.

See the BU Today story about Prothero’s new book.

Taylor McNeil can be reached at tmcneil@bu.edu.