June 13, 2005
American Culture, American Religion
-- Martin E. Marty
Given the global decline in America's reputation in recent years and bemusement, at least among Europeans, over the public religiosity of the U.S., the press runs many stories on "how others see us." Now and then we find a piece that we might call "how others are to see us." On such a subject, no one can dictate, but some can inform and try to influence. The spring issue of the Berlin Journal features an essay called "Evangelical Entrepreneurialism: How Religion Is Shaped by American Culture." Author Alan Wolfe of Boston College, a self-described non-believer but a believer-friendly public intellectual with a reputation for fair-mindedness, even among those who disagree with him, picks out a few themes that would instruct us.
"We can start with the idea of tradition .... Evangelical Protestants are anything but traditional," claims Wolfe. They change so much and so fast that they might have done better to call themselves "Born Again" instead of conservative. That term "conveys the exact opposite of what it means to be traditional," and "almost requires a repudiation of what your parents believed in." (But, I would testify, many scholarly and liturgically minded evangelicals do stress tradition.)
Wolfe provides examples. He starts with market-oriented (and thus by definition anti-conservative, anti-traditional) churches: "First of all, there is no cross -- the great symbol of Christ's crucifixion -- on the exterior of the building" that he was visiting, typical as it was. "'Uncharted' people ... might be turned off by a particular religious identification," the prime one being Jesus Christ's cross. (A "traditional" note: see I Cor. 1:18, 21-23 etc.) "Second, there is no religious music in the traditional sense of the word. There are praise songs -- with the lyrics flashed up in Power Point," but you'll never hear the legacy of religious music.
Wolfe moves quickly to belief, which, he advises, one must ask about not in theological but in sociological terms: What do people actually believe? Goodbye to Luther, Calvin, and others whose teachings (for example, on predestination) run "counter to the quintessentially American belief that you're in charge." "What really matters is the sense that you are at one with the Lord. The specifics are not that important." Wolfe quotes the Reverend Jess Moody: "If we use the words redemption or conversion in our sermons, they think we are talking about bonds."
Readers of the internationally aimed Berlin Journal will learn from Wolfe that "there is a kind of reciprocal influence between American culture and American religion. Religion is not a countercultural force resisting the dominant culture. And our culture is not committed to the interpretation or discussion of doctrines."
Wolfe, as always, makes clear that he is not out to demolish anything; "I have enormous respect for the self-confidence and sense of empowerment that Americans gain from such churches," he says, citing his interviews with empowered and confident evangelical women. These women don't call themselves feminists, but "there is no difference statistically" in numbers of women in the work force outside the home, whether evangelical-entrepreneurial or everywoman else.
Wolfe concludes that "it is not easy to debunk the myth that religious believers in the US constitute an alternative to dominant American culture." "American religion is as American as it is religious." He finds few "resident aliens." Religious believers are entrepreneurially at home.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.