The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith

Review & Commentary

One thought on “The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith

  1. Review

    A more accurate title for this book would be The Transformation of American Religion(s.) In his introduction, the author refers to the diversity of religions in America and that he spent time “among the faithful of many varieties.” His investigation and data from the writings of ethnographers are the basis for his description and interpretation of “How We Actually Live Our Faith.” Alan Wolfe is director of the Boisi Center of Religion and American Public Life at Boston College and a contributing editor of The New Republic and The Wilson Quarterly.

     The message of his book is that “religion in the United States is being transformed in radically new directions.” Using the 18 th century theologian Jonathan Edwards as a reference point, he characterizes evangelical Protestants, conservative Catholics, Orthodox Jews and Mormons from “his day to ours” as strong forms of faith. This is manifested in the fact that they are “withdrawn from the dominant society, choosing to live in subcommunities of their own, to send their children to schools entrusted to teach the truths of their tradition, and to vote for candidates pledged to uphold and support their values.” But as a result of his investigation he has come to the conclusion that this “old time religion” has passed from the scene and that religion(s) in America are being “transformed in radically new directions.”

    He describes how Judaism, Catholicism and Protestantism are being transformed, devoting a chapter each to Worship, Fellowship, Doctrine, Tradition, Morality, Sin, Witness, and Identity. Here are some highlights from the chapters. As a result of looking at Worship he states that the dominant worship style follows an evangelical pattern as “joyful, emotional, personal, and emphatic on the one hand, impatient with liturgy and theologically broad to the point of incoherence on the other…” In the area of Fellowship, “Americans are practicing their faith in ways so personal and individualistic that their practices blend seamlessly into the culture around them.” In Doctrine, Fundamentalist and liberal churches “find themselves 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.” In the area of Tradition, America “has conservatives aplenty, but it lacks traditionalists, if for no other reason that so many religious conservatives are inventors of new forms of religious practice.” As far as Morality is concerned, “Perhaps the fairest way to summarize the empirical data is to say that religious faith has a slight, but nonetheless positive, effect on personal morality.” In regard to Sin, “Any religion that insists on the stain of human depravity, upholds a commanding and authoritative God as an alternative, and demands of ordinary believers that they look into their hearts in order to correct their sinful ways is not going to win too great a following in contemporary American culture.”

    In Witness, “The interesting question, however, is not whether evangelicals engage in spreading the word, but how they do it in a society in which religious belief so often serves private needs, few opportunities for genuinely public interaction exist, and culture is shaped by many institutions, not just those that have a religious character.” Religious Identity “can be difficult to preserve unchanged even for those who live in the most traditional of societies. But it can be especially difficult to maintain when faced with the individualism and mobility of American life.”

    He concludes that “In every aspect of the religious life, American faith has met American culture – and American culture has triumphed.” Several years ago, Lutheran theologian, Joseph Haar characterized what the author has found as “individual self-serving redemptionism.” Wolfe does not seem to be concerned that Judaism, Catholicism and Protestantism have accommodated to the culture, succumbing to the individualism and narcissism of American life. He even urges people of faith to “take pride in your flexibility and adaptability.”

    He seems to assume that the only alternatives these religions have is either to withdraw from culture into an enclave or become irrelevant by accommodating to culture. But the stance of Judaism, Catholicism and Protestantism, when they are faithful to their origins and traditions, is to “be in but not of the world.” We “live our faith” by being counter-cultural communities engaging the culture by questioning our assumptions, challenging our complacencies and proclaiming a vision of God’s justice and compassion for the transformation of the world.

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