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 He came away convinced that the old image of religion as a fire-and-brimstone, Bible-thumping affair is obsolete.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.
Wolfe does a good job of drawing out the implications of this. While evangelicals frequently denounce sex and violence in the popular media, he observes, they themselves “flourish amidst the celebrity-drenched, lowest-common-denominator, highly sentimentalized world of romance novels, daytime soaps, NASCAR races, and Opry-knockoff music that dominates America’s entertainment industry.” This helps explain why the persistent campaigns by Christian morality groups to rein in Hollywood and the record companies so often fizzle; their constituents are major consumers of the stuff. “In every aspect of the religious life,” Wolfe writes, “American faith has met American culture–and American culture has triumphed.”
It’s at this point that Wolfe’s analysis goes badly off the tracks. Intent on showing how American culture has transformed religion, he ignores the many ways in which religion has transformed American culture. This is especially apparent in his treatment of evangelical Christianity. As some have observed, America seems in the midst of another “great awakening,” one of those outbursts of religious fervor that periodically sweep the land, with evangelicals in the lead. Evangelicals are distinguished by their belief in the need to be spiritually reborn in order to attain salvation. They support vigorous proselytizing, a literalistic approach to the Bible and warm, enthusiastic forms of worship.
Wolfe is greatly cheered by their growth. Everywhere, he sees congregations that are dynamic, energetic, optimistic. The success of evangelicalism, he writes, “is due as much to its populistic and democratic urges…its determination to find out exactly what believers want and to offer it to them…as to certainties of faith.” The evangelicals in his book all seem to be tolerant, moderate and nonjudgmental.
He is able to arrive at such a conclusion, however, only by glossing over–and sanitizing–some of the more disturbing trends in American religion. Take, for example, his discussion of Promise Keepers, the evangelical group that suddenly vaulted into public view a few years back with its mass rallies of men in football stadiums. The organization’s adamant exclusion of women and its deep antipathy toward homosexuals attracted the suspicions not only of the news media but also of such mainline Protestant groups as the Methodists and Presbyterians. Wolfe barely mentions this. Instead, he dwells on the small “accountability groups” that Promise Keepers sponsors as follow-ups to its mass rallies. These groups, he writes, “avoid discussions of any controversial topic.” He cites one attendee as warning, “You’ve got to be really careful trying to turn Christian values into political action, for if you do, you have to enter the political arena, which is full of power games and dishonesty, and so on.” For Wolfe, what’s most significant about Promise Keepers is not its conservative political leanings but its ability to attract Christians out of traditional “institutional containers” and into new, “innovative” organizational forms.
Wolfe is similarly apologetic in his discussion of the status of women in evangelical Christianity. As he notes, most conservative Christian leaders see feminism as “immoral at its core,” and women are excluded from most leadership positions. In practice, however, Wolfe insists, evangelical Christianity “encourages women to explore their own needs.” As evidence, he cites the Parkview Evangelical Free Church in Texas. Here, women are prohibited not only from serving as pastors but also from teaching Sunday school. But Parkview does allow women-only Bible study groups, and Wolfe is much taken with a group leader named Angela. “Considering her outgoing personality and rhetorical abilities,” he writes, such women “are clergy in everything but name.” Angela’s work, Wolfe adds, shows that “it is not a rebellion against the empowerment of females that has enabled conservative Christianity to grow by leaps and bounds; it is the unleashing of female power itself.” Wolfe goes so far as to maintain that conservative Protestantism is promoting “the emergence of biblical feminists, women who try to combine their commitment to evangelical faith with an equally strong commitment to women’s equality.” Thus does a movement that denies women the right to teach Sunday school become, for Wolfe, an incubator of feminism.
Nowhere is Wolfe’s selective approach more evident than in his discussion of abortion. According to opinion polls, roughly three-quarters of born-again Christians believe that abortion should be illegal in all or most circumstances, compared with fewer than half of non-born-again Americans. Wolfe makes no mention of this. In fact, he rarely mentions abortion at all. And, on the few occasions when he does, he makes it sound as if conservative Christians really don’t care all that much about it. In one passage, for instance, he cites a man at a small group meeting who “wanted to bring up the issue of abortion. He did so, not by asking the group to discuss the topic, for that might have caused controversy, but by simply leaving a petition on a table for people to sign. Faith, for these believers, means walking with God; it does not mean arguing over theological (or moral and political) details.” Thus does Wolfe obscure the huge impact that religion has had on the abortion debate in America.
The Transformation of American Religion curiously omits much key data. Nowhere, for instance, does it mention the proportion of American adults who consider themselves born-again. It’s about 40 percent, or more than 60 million men and women–a fantastic number. Nor does the book draw on the abundant survey data that exist on their political attitudes. According to most surveys, evangelical Christians have much more conservative views than mainline Protestants or Catholics. This past summer, for instance, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, in a survey on the impact of religion on American politics, found that 63 percent of white evangelical Protestants believe that the state of Israel is a fulfillment of the biblical prophecy about the Second Coming of Jesus, compared with just 21 percent of white mainline Protestants. Eighty-three percent were opposed to gay marriage, compared with 44 percent of mainline Protestants. Similarly, a far higher proportion of evangelicals supported the re-election of Bush. “Religion,” the report observed, “is a critical factor these days in the public’s thinking about contentious policy issues and political matters.”
Compare this with the conclusions in The Transformation of American Religion. Religion, Wolfe asserts, plays little role in the American public square. “Just as Americans tend to vote for politicians who move toward the middle of the road,” he writes, “they tend to be instinctive moderates when it comes to religion.” In making such statements, Wolfe seems to be pursuing his own unstated political project, which is to portray ordinary Americans as reasonable and centrist while portraying liberals as intolerant and narrow-minded.
Wolfe is no doubt correct in asserting that many academics and journalists have a distorted view of religion in America. Given the huge impact evangelical Christians are having on America, there’s an urgent need for more insight into their world. That world needs to be explored without condescension and cynicism–but also without the kind of whitewashing offered in The Transformation of American Religion.