In his 1998 book, One Nation, After All, Alan Wolfe chided liberals for their misapprehensions about the political attitudes of ordinary Americans. Drawing on interviews with 200 suburbanites, Wolfe argued that middle-class Americans are far more moderate in outlook than most intellectuals and journalists gave them credit for. The book–part of what Wolfe called the Middle Class Morality Project–contended that the whole notion of a “culture war” was a myth and that most Americans were instinctive pluralists with admirably tolerant positions on issues like race, homosexuality and welfare.
Now, in The Transformation of American Religion, Wolfe is extending that project into the realm of religion. By examining “how we actually live our faith,” as his subtitle puts it, he is attempting to counter what he sees as a reflexive liberal disdain for America’s faithful. A sociologist at Boston College (a Catholic institution with Jesuit leanings), Wolfe notes that while not a person of faith himself, he feels discomfort with the academic world and its “long tradition of intellectual snobbishness toward people of faith–a tradition, I have come to believe, that ends in forms of bigotry little different from religion at its worst moments.”
To research this book, Wolfe dropped in on churches, synagogues and seminaries, and read numerous ethnographic studies of congregations. He came away convinced that the old image of religion as a fire-and-brimstone, Bible-thumping affair is obsolete. “If Jonathan Edwards were alive and well,” he writes, “he would likely be appalled.” Far from living in a world apart, “the faithful in the United States are remarkably like everyone else.” Seeking to reassure those “who worry about faith’s potential fanaticism,” Wolfe argues that “we are all mainstream now.” Ordinary people “who want nothing more than to serve their God and to be modern, American,” have “more in common with you than you realize.”
At a time when George Bush claims America is guided by Providence, when “God Bless America” resounds throughout the land, and when priests and ministers are denouncing gay marriage, this is an arresting thesis. Is it correct? Do intellectuals and journalists have too jaundiced a view of religion in America? Do they exaggerate its influence and power?
Some of Wolfe’s findings are certainly eye-catching. “While more Americans than ever consider themselves born again,” he writes, “the lord to whom they turn rarely gets angry and frequently strengthens self-esteem.” Evangelical churches are warm and informal, offering programs ranging from daycare to athletic clubs; preachers deliver family-friendly sermons in which such traditional concerns as sin and damnation are rarely mentioned. Many evangelical churches feature rock music, with the lyrics projected on screens so that the uninitiated can participate. At an evangelical church outside New York, a women’s group follows Robert’s Rules of Order in the half-hour devoted to prayer, while at a Presbyterian church in Memphis the preacher delivers his sermons with the aid of PowerPoint.
In adopting such crowd-pleasing measures, Wolfe writes, churches are responding to the ever-growing restlessness among America’s devout. Rather than remain attached to the faith into which they were born, as was long the case, Americans are constantly sampling new creeds and denominations in a bid to find the one that best suits their needs. In such an environment, churches face an iron imperative: “Personalize or die.” Mainline Protestant churches that stick with stuffy old-style services are withering away; evangelical churches that “blend seamlessly with the most contemporary trends in American popular culture” are thriving.