The “Taming” of Religion in America
Alan Wolfe is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. His most recent books include The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith (2003) and An Intellectual in Public (2003). He is the author or editor of more than 10 other books including Marginalized in the Middle (1997) and One Nation, After All (1998); Moral Freedom: The Search for Virtue in a World of Choice (2001); School Choice: The Moral Debate (editor, 2002). Both One Nation, After All and Moral Freedom were selected as New York Times Notable Books of the Year.
We met with Dr. Wolfe on a cold, rainy autumn afternoon in his office at the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life in Boston. We were particularly interested in the issues he raises in his latest book, The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith. Thinking that Dr. Wolfe has a less than charitable view about how religion has changed or “thinned” over the past two generations, we began by asking him to give us his impression of the changes that have occurred in American religious life.
HOMILETICS: You say in your book that American religion has neither declined nor advanced but has been transformed. That sounds ominous. Is this a morphological change?
WOLFE: I didn’t mean anything ominous — using the term in purely a descriptive sense. But what I mean by it is that I don’t in any way challenge the conventional wisdom that we are a very religious society, especially when we compare ourselves to Great Britain, or Holland, or Canada, or countries that are like us but have essentially left religion behind. That’s not where we are. So we are a very religious society.
But it would be a mistake to say that the religion that we have is the old-time religion, or is a religion that I think exists in the minds of many people when they talk about religion — a “hell and brimstone,” sin-filled religion that exists in opposition to the culture.
HOMILETICS: So this transformation is one that has taken place from the pre-Sixties modern era, up through the present postmodern era?
WOLFE: That’s right. Here at Boston College, a Catholic school, we talk about the pre-Vatican II and post-Vatican II generations. I would say that there is a similar generational configuration in non-Catholic religions as well. There’s a fifties religion, a baby-boomer religion and a post-baby boomer religion where you can see similar kinds of patterns in all of the religious traditions.
HOMILETICS: I use the word “ominous” because, I got to tell you, you do make it sound as though what has happened has not been for the best. It’s like religion has experienced a reverse “ambush makeover” in which the victim is taken off the streets and transformed into an object of beauty. Instead we have an American religious experience in which the makeup has been stripped off, and it’s not a pretty sight.
WOLFE: Well, that’s an interesting reaction. The word “transformation” in the title was actually a heavily negotiated term in the title of the book. The editors wanted “The Taming of American Religion.” I thought “taming” was too judgmental, and I wanted something more neutral. Finally, we agreed on “transformation.” So I am comparing this experience against something explicitly more pejorative.
HOMILETICS: But still, aren’t you saying in the book that the religious experience in America today is a less attractive version of what it used to be?
WOLFE: Yes and no. I’m saying that if you’re expecting from a religious experience something that is going to cause you moments of doubt — maybe because my wife is from Denmark I think of religion in almost Kierkegaardian terms, the sense of dread associated with it, or even a sense of pause, that religion is something that should give you a moment to stop and think and situate where you are and ask very deep fundamental questions — if that’s what you think religion is, I think for more and more Americans that’s not what it is. So in that sense, the narrative is a kind of narrative of decline and would be recognizable to any kind of Jonathan Edwards-type preacher.
But I am also adverse to that kind of preaching, and I do want to see positive things as well. And I think there are a lot of positive sides to it as well. Just to take one example, I think that this transformation of American religion has led to a much greater degree of tolerance that is in a sense a by-product of the thinning out of religious content. So we have a thinner religion, but it is a much more tolerant religion, and when I want to go back to religions that were much more sectarian and conflictual, I’m not sure I would.
It’s a huge point for me in almost everything I write to never see all good or all bad in something, but to see some combination.
HOMILETICS: What are the causes of this transformation?
WOLFE: The original cause, so to speak, which has been there from the very beginning in our society is that we committed ourselves to separation of church and state. This was one of the most revolutionary things any society had ever done at the time that we did it. No other country had even thought of doing such a thing. The notion that a religion would be the official religion of the society was so ingrained in Europe at the time, that it was quite a radical step. No one had any idea of what its long-term consequences would be.
The long-term consequences to me seem pretty clear by now. Separation of church and state is very much like that other great 18th-century idea of a free market. There is a kind of overlap in that the Enlightenment view was that free markets are good because they encourage competition and entrepreneurship, and separation of church and state is good because it encourages innovation and dynamism in religion.
So ultimately the first cause is that we really took this unprecedented step. But that still doesn’t account for the changes that have occurred in the past generation or two that I think are very, very dramatic. What I try to say is that religion has always been in the process of transformation in America, but that the most recent changes are just astonishing in terms of the degree to which they have changed our faith. I see those changes as American culture finally catching up to American religion, that we have a powerful culture in the United States. It’s so powerful we don’t really think about it anymore.
HOMILETICS: Does religion play a different role in our lives today as compared to the role it played in the pre-sixties era?
WOLFE: It certainly plays a different role. I’m something of a sociologist, more than a specialist in religious studies and certainly more than a specialist in theology. And sociologists talk about roles a lot. It’s a key concept in sociology. And one of the most important distinctions sociologists use — they use it all the time — is the distinction between an ascribed role and an achieved role. An ascribed role is something you’re born with; you don’t have much choice about it. An achieved role is one you choose for yourself and work with.
For me, the single most important change in American religion is that 50 years ago, for almost all Americans it was ascribed. Now, for most Americans, it is achieved. It’s gone from something that you inherit, that you just simply take because your parents had the same religion, your grandparents had the same religion, you were born in it, the schools you went to were shaped by it, the person you married was shaped by it, the way you raised your children was shaped by it, you inherited it and you passed it on. You were a transmission belt in that process.
Whereas for more and more Americans now, religion is something that — at a certain point in your life — you decide that you’re going to choose one that works for you, that’s going to fit your personal needs, that you’re going to feel invested in and empowered by, that you’re going to recommend to others, but you can’t necessarily enforce it on others, even your children, as much as you might like to. That is the single biggest change.
HOMILETICS: So when Grandpa and Grandma walked up Main Street to First Church, they were not concerned about whether that church was “meeting their needs.”
WOLFE: It was certainly part of what was important to them, but the idea that if somehow it didn’t meet their needs, they would walk across the street and join another one was probably foreign to them.
For example, the city of Muncie, Indiana, is a city that has been studied in great depth at numerous periods throughout American history. These are the famous Middletown books written by Robert S. Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd, and they spend a lot of time talking about religion. And they very much would say that for the grandparents of the current residents of Muncie, if they went to the Methodist church, they married someone in the Methodist church, and that was their church.
Whereas now it is an entirely different religious landscape. There’s been a huge rise in the attraction of the Pentecostal faith in Muncie, in part because people find that it speaks to some emotional need in a way that a prior church didn’t speak.
HOMILETICS: So today we’re more likely to go to a church that speaks to us therapeutically, or we will shape the church in a way that meets our needs. We’ve become a country of pop psychologists.
WOLFE: There is an important psychological dimension to it. I’m struck by the fact that one of the most important books about American religion that was written in the 1950s was Will Herberg’s Protestant, Catholic and Jew. He talked about the sociological functions of religion. Religion for him was about belonging. This was the big theme in the 1950s. The Organization Man, The Feminine Mystique. There was a whole series of books that talked about how organizations, or families or religions, provided a sense of belonging, and that it was this need to be with others, this need to almost conform yourself to others that shaped religion. And you have in the ’50s a number of cultural critiques of American religion that emphasized the fact that there was just too much conformism, that people really weren’t thinking even about theology and faith. They were just joining churches like you would join a country club.
Now the language of religion is almost entirely psychological rather than sociological. Books now seem to emphasize not belonging but being. That is, what will religion make you like, and what will it contribute to your personal development or your empowerment?
HOMILETICS: If a church doesn’t empower us, we switch churches or religions. We’ve become a nation of “switchers” as you call them, or a nation of free agents, and our pastors, priests, rabbis and imams know that.
WOLFE: I use the phrase “the balance of power,” that is, the way the balance of power has shifted in the relationship between the clergy and the congregation. That the authority in many ways once lay with the clergy. They had a message, and their job was to preach the message, and the congregation was expected to sit there and absorb the message.
In many ways the power has now shifted from the clergy to the congregation. The congregation now says to the clergy, “You give us a message that we want to hear or we’re going to go elsewhere.” That’s what free agency is. We see it all the time in sports, and it certainly leads to better contracts, but whether it leads to team loyalty is another matter.
HOMILETICS: You point out that as a nation of immigrants this country was founded by people who “switched.”
WOLFE: And you certainly see that now among immigrants. They are “switchers.” Some people are surprised by the fact that immigrants from Catholic countries in Latin America become Protestants when they come here, or Buddhists from Buddhist countries in Asia become Christians when they come here —
HOMILETICS: Or Koreans are better Christians here than they were back in Korea —
WOLFE: Exactly. This is fascinating but not all that surprising because you can compare the experience of immigration to the experience of being born again. Both are processes of discovery, or a reconfiguration of identity. If you are going to switch something as powerful as your country and your language, well, maybe switch your god, too, at the same time and get it all over at once!
HOMILETICS: So now churches, synagogues or mosques are going to succeed to the extent that they can offer their members more than merely a religious experience. It might be a hiking experience, or weight loss experience, or involve fitness, book clubs and so on.
WOLFE: Just having membership itself for Islam is an interesting transformation for that religion, because mosques don’t have members in Muslim-majority countries, but they have membership here because this is part of the Tocquevillian culture of America, and if you’re going to set up a mosque here, then before you know it you’re going to be thinking of the people who come not just as people who are stopping here to pray but as members of your congregation.
HOMILETICS: You have this great line, “In American society, religions do as Americans do” speaking of the American Islam experience.
WOLFE: I certainly experienced that in my visits to mosques in the United States. I spent some time in a very large mosque in Garden Grove, California, one of the largest mosques in the United States, and I went there to visit with a group of Islamic scholars from Muslim-majority countries that I was hosting on a State Department exchange program. The imam, from Pakistan, I think, started talking about how we have membership committees and fund drives, and boards of trustees, and he went on, and you could see one of the imans scratching his head, and all at once it dawned on him that the state doesn’t pay! It’s all voluntary. You have to do it yourself.
That’s what I was getting at when I used the term Tocquevillian: The voluntary character of American life that Alexis de Tocqueville observed here, does give all American religions a “Protestant-type” of sensibility, because of all the world’s religions, Protestantism puts the most emphasis on a voluntary conception of faith. So Catholics in America are probably more like Protestants in America than they’re like Catholics in Nigeria. In fact, I would say that Muslims, Episcopalians and Catholics in America all have more in common with each other than any of them would with Muslims, Episcopalians and Catholics in Nigeria.
HOMILETICS: You note in your work that this is the work of a nonbeliever. Did you feel that this was a plus for you, or did you feel that you were sometimes rubbing the glass, looking from the outside in?
WOLFE: It’s a good question, and the answer is “both.” It was a big plus. The big plus is that in the academic world, religion was once absolutely central to the social sciences. The founders of sociology, Max Weber, Emile Burkheim, both made religion central to everything they wrote about. But it’s really gone out of fashion. The sociology of religion is a minor field these days, and if you go into that field people look at you and say, “What are you doing that for?” It’s not considered an important, cutting-edge field in any way.
So what that means is that with religion in the academy being marginalized, generally speaking, the only people who study it are people who have a religious interest in studying it. So religious people write about religion, Jewish people write about Jews, Catholics write about Catholics, Protestants write about Protestants, Assemblies of God scholars write about the Assemblies of God.
Often what happens is that people are working things out through their scholarship. I am enormously impressed, for example, by the terrific work of Jewish sociologists about the practice of Judaism in the United States. But I know these people, and they’re wrestling with faith issues in writing these works — inner demons.
I wasn’t raised particularly religious, and I’m not religious now. I can come at this without an agenda, with real, genuine curiosity and open-mindedness. I have no hostility toward religion that many secular people have; on the other hand, I am not going to be swept off my feet by any conversion in the process either.
So that’s a big advantage. There is something to be said for trying to be open-minded and objective, even though we live in a postmodern age where people say that these things are impossible.
But I also have to confess that I sometimes did feel that I was experiencing things that I was just deaf to. I think I understand the attraction of Pentecostalism, but it was hard for me to get with the Spirit. When you see a bunch of people getting the Spirit and you’re not getting the Spirit, it feels a little odd.
HOMILETICS: But that would be true of many of us mainline Protestants — stick us in a Pentecostal service and we wonder what is going on!
WOLFE: That’s good to know! I also felt that a lot of preaching I was hearing was not very good — especially in conservative Protestant churches. I tried to be fair and give some good examples [in my book]. I went to some of the churches that are widely praised as extremely dynamic, especially the Vineyard Fellowship churches, and I found a lot of the preaching predictable, and repetitive, and I came away saying, “I don’t know what this is about; I don’t understand this.”
But I also talk about one preacher, Rick Warren, who is also a best-selling author at Saddleback Community Church in California, who I thought was one of the best preachers I ever heard — fantastic, actually — and I could understand why people would resonate with him. But I wasn’t sure that I was in the right position as a nonbeliever to judge who is a good preacher and who isn’t since the whole experience was somewhat alien to me.
HOMILETICS: To cite you specifically, you say: “Generally speaking, preaching in evangelically oriented growth churches, however dynamic in delivery, has remarkably little content.” On down the page, you continue: “If religion is understood as combining reason with revelation, a substantial amount of the preaching in evangelical America has a good deal of the latter and very little of the former.” What, from your unique perspective, is a good sermon? What would you stand up and applaud and acknowledge that you’ve at least been tapped on the shoulder by the Transcendent?
WOLFE: This is a very good question, because, here again, I don’t know whether my lack of religious commitment is helping or hurting me, and I may just be imposing a more academic or more secular conception of what I would expect on something that religious people would not expect.
But I expect to be surprised. I expect to be grabbed. I expect a thought that’s going to make me think, that’s going to make me say, “I haven’t seen that before.” And to make a connection that hasn’t been there before. It’s almost like someone would get up and recite a passage, and I just knew everything that was going to come. The lesson was always there from the beginning. Again, it may be incredibly unfair to impose this expectation on anybody else, but if you know from the beginning that the message is going to be, Jesus saves, you know, it’s just not going to grab.
Now it will clearly grab other people.
HOMILETICS: So you would switch and go somewhere else? [laughter all round]
WOLFE: And they wouldn’t miss me! [more laughter]
HOMILETICS: As a nonbeliever, aren’t you just the kind of person many of these large churches would love to get their hands on? Aren’t they saying, “Okay, what kind of a worship experience would appeal to an Alan Wolfe?”
WOLFE: The book has had an extraordinary reception in the evangelical world. They’re certainly not ignoring it. Cal Thomas wrote a column saying that everyone in the conservative Protestant world needed to hear my message.
HOMILETICS: And Richard Mouw [President of Fuller Theological Seminary] referred to you as a mentor.
WOLFE: I was blown away by that. Part of this is that I take American evangelicals seriously. I think evangelicals are still insecure in America, and they like being taken seriously by someone who comes from outside their circles. It’s a kind of an acknowledgement and recognition to them that someone like me who has no particular reason to be interested in them, is interested in them, and it’s reciprocal because I find them really fascinating. But I wouldn’t want them to go after me! They need to do what they need to do.
I am of very mixed mind about the relationship between evangelicals and American culture. Cal Thomas and others at the more conservative end of the spectrum — they want people to read my book because they think that evangelicalism has sold out. It’s given up its fundamentalist heritage. It ought to go back to being a genuinely countercultural religion, a real holdout against the trends of modern America. He’s delighted that this secular Jewish intellectual comes along and is saying what he, Thomas, has been saying.
And in some ways, I, too, appreciate that. I think something’s been lost when a more strictly fundamentalist religion has given way to a more capacious but thinner form of evangelicalism. So I can understand that.
And on the other hand, I think it’s much better to have conservative Christians in the culture rather than outside attacking it. So the gains are greater when conservative Protestantism gives up its struggle to be so countercultural and really does what I think an evangelical has to do, which is to say: “Let’s engage the culture rather than reject it.” Even if the price of doing that is that evangelicals are going to be influenced by the culture. It’s a real Faustian bargain — but at least Faust knew the devil he was dealing with. I’m not sure all evangelicals do.
HOMILETICS: How has the concept of God shifted over the past couple of generations?
WOLFE: Here I don’t think I’m saying anything original. It seems to me to be fairly obvious that the notion of God as a commanding, authoritative figure has changed to a loving, friendly God with whom we can have a conversation —
HOMILETICS: — From a transcendent God who is Other to an immanent God who’s my buddy. You see this shift especially in contemporary Christian music.
WOLFE: Funny you should bring that up, because although I’m not a religious person, if I were to try to explain what a mystery is or what an inexplicable, powerful force is, I’d probably use a line from a Bach cantata or a fugue where you start with a theme, and you try to trace it, and as it develops you’re still trying to find it, but it disappears in some ineffable void.
I love music, and music is the one place where I sometimes feel that there is something outside of this world where human genius touches on something that is inspired in some way. For me it’s Bach, or a Verdi requiem, many of which have been directly inspired by religion.
So for me to go into a church and hear contemporary Christian music is just an appalling experience. I hate contemporary rock music. I am very old-fashioned in my musical tastes. When I go to the gym and work out, they have this awful music playing. And for me to have to go to church and hear the same thing, that should not be! Now I know what it is to commit a sin against the Spirit [laughter all around]. It’s a Janis Joplin imitation in one church after another in America. The music is repetitive and the lyrics put up there with the Power Point — it’s just really awful. There’s got to be something better.
HOMILETICS: Our notion of sin has shifted as well.
WOLFE: It’s hard to keep the old-fashioned notions of sin alive if you’re really engaged in a marketlike situation — trying to attract people.
HOMILETICS: So we do away with a discussion of sin?
WOLFE: We have here what I call “salvation inflation.” You can compare it to grade inflation. I’ve been a college professor for over 30 years. Grade inflation is what happens when for over 30 years you ask students to do less work and you give them a higher grade for the less work they do. [laughter all around]
Salvation inflation is what happens when people can do less and less and be rewarded for the less they do. I don’t like grade inflation. If I had my way, I’d go back to stricter grades. As a nonbeliever, it’s hard to tell clergy this, but even though I’m a nonbeliever I have an Augustinian side, a Niebuhrian side.
HOMILETICS: You seem to fault American Protestant and Catholic adherents for being doctrinally ignorant, and you cite vagueness about the Heidelberg Confession and the Canons of Dordt as examples — as though this is a new development. In fact, remove a pastor or priest three years from his seminary training and what are the chances that he can still explain the difference between the Athanasian Creed of the 4th-century and the Chalcedonian Creed of the 5th? And this doesn’t begin to address what the layperson may know about doctrine. This is nothing new. Have we ever been doctrinally aware?
WOLFE: Probably not. Although I was quite surprised to learn how little Presbyterians know about —
HOMILETICS: John Knox?
WOLFE: Well, no, but predestination, about which I would have thought people would have some familiarity, since is it associated with the historical origins of their church. Most people don’t, and don’t care, and you start to explain it to them and their eyes glaze over. Is that a difference? I think to some degree it is.
In the Catholic tradition there is a real decline in some knowledge about the faith over the generations. There was a thing called the catechism. It did give people some basic information, and while rote memorization and [the threat of] corporal punishment unless they got it right is probably not the best way to learn, older Catholics know more about some of the issues that are central to their faith than younger ones.
HOMILETICS: And that is true of Protestant confirmation classes, as well, which used to be a much more rigorous experience than they are now.
WOLFE: Yes, so while all these things are relative, there is a change, but it is becoming more so. While the historian Richard Hostetler wrote this book called Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, and tried to show that fundamentalists were on the cutting edge of anti-intellectualism, there was an intellectual side to fundamentalism that I think has also been lost to some degree. So I stick by the idea that however thin our doctrinal understandings have been, they’re even thinner now. Again, whether that is a good thing or a bad thing, is another question. Since we do talk about belief as an aspect of religion, which does mean believing in something, it would probably be better to know something about what we’re supposed to believe in.
To me, it is very interesting when I travel throughout evangelical America, I always hear “What Would Jesus Do?” I never hear, “What Would Jesus Think?” There’s an emphasis on the ethical side of religion, that religion is a way to tell us how we ought to act, rather than telling us how we ought to believe. I’m glad there’s the ethical dimension to it. I wouldn’t mind if there were a little more of the belief dimension.
HOMILETICS: Is this transformation about which you talk in the book, complete, or is it ongoing?
WOLFE: It’s definitely not complete and it will be ongoing, but it could be coming back around the other way.
One of the things I venture to predict is that we’re already past the high point of the megachurch phenomenon. They may have gone about as far as they can go.
We’re already seeing among younger evangelicals a rejection of some of the trends we’ve been talking about. I see it less among younger Catholics. I do see it among younger Jews, a kind of return to orthodoxy. So it just may be that these cycles will play themselves out and even eventually reverse themselves.
HOMILETICS: While some theologians 40 some years ago were saying “God is dead,” religion today still very much matters to most Americans.
WOLFE: It matters a lot. It certainly has become more explicit in our politics. We have a very, very religious man who is president, and his faith clearly matters to him, and I think that sends a message, too. So it matters a great deal. God certainly is not dead, but the way he lives and breathes is always open to interpretation in a lot of different ways.
HOMILETICS: Anything you’d like me to ask you that I didn’t?
WOLFE: Probably not. [laughs]
HOMILETICS: Want to close with the singing of “Jesus Loves Me“?
WOLFE: No! [laughter all round]