SEPTEMBER 8, 2003
Wolfe's Religion Today
Martin E. Marty
"Anything anybody can say about America is true," said 60's countercultural figure Emmett Grogan. "Anything anybody can say about American religion is true," an 00's figurer about culture could also say. Whoever monitors the scene weekly, as Sightings does, could find evidence to support that thesis. This week some evidence comes from Alan Wolfe's The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith (Free Press). Wolfe is an astute observer "from without," as it were -- he professes to be non-religious but is generally friendly on American religion.
So, for example, one week we may sight the "rational choice" people, who study the "supply-side" of religion. They say that the way for religious groups to grow is to make stern doctrinal and behavioral demands, i.e., strict churches grow. They that have adapted to the culture wane. Now comes Wolfe adducing evidence that just the opposite occurs: adapt to the culture, offer much to potential converts and adherents, and they will come. He observes that stylistically "we are all evangelicals now," favoring evangelicalism's individualistic, commoditized, exuberant, compromising, offer-much style of competition. Evangelicals, supposed to have kept prophetic and critical distances from mainstream culture, have immersed themselves most in it, and their offerings match its offering. Note their worship styles, adaptation to pop culture, marketing, advertising, entertaining and all. The theological core has dropped out among all but a few of them.
Similarly, one week an author will say, "The evangelicals are coming! The evangelicals are coming!" referring to the aggression by one sector of evangelicalism, the Christian Right. Alabama Justice Roy Moore and his supporters shows how militant, powerful, and in-your-face they can be. Then the next week comes Alan Wolfe with evidence that most evangelicals are really pussycats; there is "no reason to fear that [these] faithful are a threat to liberal democratic values; . . . it is time to make peace between them and the rest of America." This is true because, as one reviewer puts it, in Wolfe's lining up of evidence, religion, including evangelicalism, is so "watered down," so "robbed of supernatural mystery and intellectual vigor" -- he points to megachurches for example -- that respectable members won't put up a fight against the mainstream.
Press members too far in their congregation or denomination and they'll simply run off to another: so Wolfe observes. Curiously, mainline churches are "marginalized" in part because they are not good at the competition game and in part because they are "holdouts for a way of life that insists on the importance of ideas written down in books meant to be read and digested." They are, ironically with hard-line fundamentalists, "among the last bastions of ideas in an American religious landscape increasingly characterized by empathic understanding on the one hand and emotional enthusiasm on the other." I find much of Wolfe's evidence and argument convincing, though his generalizations are too sweeping.
P.S. See a fine review by Baptist-turn-Episcopalian Amy Sullivan in Washington Monthly (September) for still another take on the subject. She points to other counter-trends, including the move by some like herself toward tradition.
THE RELIGION & CULTURE WEB FORUM
This month's Religion & Culture Web Forum commentary is by Thomas J. Curry, a colonial historian and Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. The essay is entitled "Religion and the Constitution Confounded: Treating the First Amendment as a Theological Statement."
Our modern problem arises from the fact that government -- the Supreme Court especially -- has determined that the free exercise of religion is something guaranteed by government, that courts are to define and protect. As a result, understanding of the First Amendment is in utter disarray. Because judges assume themselves to be the protectors of religious liberty -- rather than a threat to it, as the Amendment proclaims -- they assume that they are the judges of what comprises that religious liberty. Thus they read the Amendment as containing substantive theological statements.
Invited responses to Bishop Curry's essay from Winnifred Fallers Sullivan and W. Clark Gilpin, both of the University of Chicago Divinity School, may be found on the forum's public discussion board. We invite you to engage the materials and offer your own thoughts on the same discussion board throughout the month of September. Past forums are also always available for review in our archive.
Coming up in October, look for a web forum commentary from Professor William Schweiker of the University of Chicago Divinity School entitled "Humanity Before God: Theological Humanism from a Christian Perspective." The essay anticipates issues that will be addressed at the upcoming Divinity School conference "Humanity before God: Contemporary Faces of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Ethics," October 21-23, 2003.