A review of The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live our Faith, by Alan Wolfe;
Religious Pluralism in America: The Contentious History of a Founding Ideal, by William R. Hutchison;
Varieties of Religion Today: William James Revisited, by Charles Taylor


Those who study organized religion, like those who study macroeconomics, often find that the most straightforward questions require the most complicated answers. When asked about the Big Picture, specialists in either field must grapple with seemingly innumerable variables. Inevitably some organizations will appear to be profiting, others perishing; some sectors flourishing, others floundering; some overall trends encouraging, others dispiriting. Any attempt to connect the countless individual transactions with a bit of explanatory tissue will immediately be challenged from all sides. Amid so much flux, it takes a brave soul to claim to see some order. 

Enter Alan Wolfe, whose The Transformation of American Religion intends to survey the religious landscape of modern America. Wolfe, a distinguished sociologist of religion at Boston College, is superlatively qualified for such an undertaking. His detailed mastery of the topic is evident on every page: he has attended worship services throughout the country, conducted scores of interviews and surveys, and immersed himself in the massive secondary literature. And, on the basis of this extensive research, he concludes that "in every aspect of the religious life, American faith has met American culture—and American culture has triumphed."

In Wolfe's view, if the faithful once stood as a people set apart, they "are so no longer." Whenever contemporary mores conflict with ancient practices, the latter invariably give way to the former. Rituals and doctrine, when heeded at all, are constantly revised to accommodate modern sensibilities; whatever one thinks of, say, the invention of the bat mitzvah or the installation of an openly homosexual Episcopal bishop, it is all but impossible to legitimate these innovations by invoking the sanctity of tradition. Theological rigor in both pulpit and pew has likewise declined significantly, and the moral vocabulary of wickedness and sin has been replaced by a therapeutic idiom of sickness and recovery. Liturgical music aspires to be lite rock, and ministers often sound more like Oprah than Obadiah. "Religion," Wolfe concludes, "increasingly tell[s] Americans what they already want to hear."

An approachable and engaging writer, Wolfe has an artist's eye for the telling detail: the super-sized cup holders in the theater seating of the exurban megachurch, or the Christian graffiti adorning the inner-city mission, or the studiously non-judgmental platitudes exchanged at a divinity school seminar. But despite this exquisite brushwork, the larger portrait seems a bit off; the whole is somewhat less than the sum of its parts.

The basic problem can be traced to the book's overarching purpose. According to Wolfe, the culture wars result from a catastrophic misunderstanding; neither believers nor those suspicious of believers appreciate American religion for what it really is. The faithful needlessly hesitate to admit the extent to which their religion has accommodated itself to modern life, while staunch secularists promote a caricature of religion that tends to discriminate against those who make faith central to their lives. The reality, Wolfe proposes, is that American religion draws so deeply from the wider culture as to relieve any possible tension between the two. Once "we begin to recognize religion as it really is," we will be "less likely to see ourselves divided into implacable camps."

Wolfe's analysis of the culture wars is certainly open to dispute, but, even conceding his position, it does not follow that the misunderstanding he describes is symmetric: secularists by and large have a more distorted view of religious believers than vice versa. Why? Because secularists are disproportionately situated in the organs of culture—the entertainment business, the major media, and the academy. Believers are therefore exposed to the thinking of secularists, while secularists lack similar exposure to believers. You can catch Sex and the City most anywhere in rural Arkansas, but try to find a Pentecostal church on the Upper West Side.

This imbalance manifests itself in an even more fundamental way in Wolfe's book. As Wolfe himself candidly admits, he is not religious. Despite his indisputable expertise and undeniable sympathy, Wolfe ultimately cannot relate to the experience he describes.

That disconnect affects the book in ways both big and little. One example may be found in his treatment of fundamentalists who will open the scriptures at random, seeking a blinding flash of insight from the first passage they read. He chides such believers for playing "Bible roulette," a staggeringly simplistic exercise that treats the Bible as "something of an afterthought." And, truth be told, within the ambit of reason alone, Wolfe is absolutely right. 

But a believer may well regard the practice differently. It might evoke memories of St. Augustine, sitting in a Milanese garden, racked with sobs, when he heard distant voices softly chanting: tollelege (take upread). He immediately seized Paul's Epistle to the Romans, and in silence read the first passage on which his eyes fell. In that moment, he would later write, light flooded his heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled. Now, this is certainly not to suggest that contemporary believers are as anguished or thoughtful as Augustine, but merely to note that certain convictions about the nature of revelation bind together the actions of ancients and moderns. 

Yet precisely these convictions separate Wolfe from the objects of his study. Though he is wonderfully adept at presenting the incidents of modern religion, he cannot quite distill its essence. This is less the fault of the author than a result of the fact that those who lack religious devotion can never adequately describe, in the words of the book's subtitle, "how we actually live our faith." 

Most readers will nevertheless recognize Wolfe's central claim: religious life in the United States certainly seems to be changing. The question left unaddressed, however, is why. What sequence of events led to this profound transformation? As a sociologist concerned with present-day descriptive analysis, Wolfe offers few clues.

* * *

To get a sense of what brought about the current state of American religion, one might turn to William R. Hutchison's Religious Pluralism in America. Hutchison, a senior scholar at the Harvard Divinity School, does not take a general approach to the topic. Instead, he concentrates on what many consider a—perhaps the—crucial development of modern-day religious life: pluralism.

Pluralism has a very specific meaning for Hutchison; it refers to "the acceptance and encouragement of diversity." Diversity is a social condition; pluralism, an ideal that embraces and celebrates that condition. This interplay of ideal and reality fascinates Hutchison, and it is this dynamic that he traces across two centuries. He certainly deserves credit for trying to reframe American religious history along these lines. It is an original approach, not least because it avoids treating religious history as the story of denominations and institutions. It is, moreover, a controversial approach, given that the strongest advocates of diversity tend to be the loudest critics of traditional narrative history, which, they claim, illicitly deprives marginal groups of their own, distinct particularity. 

Hutchison finds three attitudes towards religious pluralism in American history: pluralism as toleration, as inclusion, and as participation. Although he warns against any sort of triumphalism—such pluralism "has been a work in progress" and "it still is"—Hutchison nevertheless sees these three phases as progressively ascending.

Hutchison contends that, even in the absence of genuine religious diversity, the founders espoused the pluralist ideal. Prior to the 19th century, practically all of the churches shared a common, Protestant heritage. Not until the first decades of the 19th century—with the emergence of Unitarianism, the irruption of Mormonism, and, especially, the deluge of Catholicism—did genuine diversity become a reality. Contingent upon their good behavior, such heterodox believers could expect legal and social toleration—but not much more. Though far from the robust pluralism that Hutchison champions, this arrangement was nevertheless far more accommodating than anything else on earth. 

By the close of the 19th century, the pluralist ideal gradually shifted towards an ethic of inclusion. Once again, facts on the ground—this time, the massive influx of Catholics and Jews from southern and eastern Europe—presaged the change in attitude. Inclusive pluralism found its most successful metaphor in the melting-pot, an analogy that honored (past) diversity while celebrating (present) commonality. It was a tremendously successful notion; at the outbreak of the Second World War, the nation's religious DNA was widely thought to consist of interlocking Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish strands. 

In the postwar period, however, still another understanding of pluralism came to the fore. Participation was the keynote of this refined pluralist sensibility; diversity was to be celebrated in the present, not the past, tense. This, Hutchison maintains, is pluralism proper, and he holds that it came about not a moment too soon: there are now in the United States more Hindus than Quakers, more Buddhists than Unitarians. In light of current trends, Hutchison closes the book with practical, moral, and theological arguments in defense of such religious multiculturalism. 

In both conception and execution, the entire project reflects well on Hutchison. But for all of its merits, the book may be faulted on three grounds. First, it is not clear whether the recent explosion of religious diversity has been superficial or substantive. Indeed, as Wolfe illustrates, recently-arrived religious groups are compelled to contend against the powerful undercurrents of American culture; as a matter of fact, Wolfe claims that such immigrants have more in common with American non-believers than with coreligionists overseas. 

Second, Hutchison repeatedly alludes to pluralism-as-participation as among "the true implications of the nation's founding" and the "obvious implications of the Declaration of Independence," or, more concisely, as a "founding ideal." (That Hutchison would appeal to the founders is doubly puzzling, given that he later reproaches those who invoke original intent as mistakenly believing that the "'Founding Fathers' of the revolutionary era had settled the question for all time.") The Declaration and the First Amendment mean a good many things, to be sure, but why they entail that individuals should affect a rigorous non-judgmentalism towards any religious belief is never demonstrated. 

Third, and most seriously, Hutchison does not adequately account for the specific causes that have effected such changes in the pluralist ideal. In his examination of third-stage pluralism, he cites, in general, the various "campaigns for civil rights," and in particular, the ruling in Brown v. Board and the repeal of caps on immigration from Asia and the Pacific. This description may elucidate the progress of racial and ethnic pluralism, but it seems a rather thin explanation of why specifically religious pluralism developed along its present trajectory.

Entirely absent from Hutchison's account, for example, are those factors which have increasingly tended to expunge religion from civic life. The top-down pressures to strip the public square of any religious significance have occurred almost exactly in tandem with the latest evolution of pluralism, a coincidence that Hutchison never deigns to mention. The gradual excision of religion from public life—seen in the proscription of school prayer, the removal of religious symbols from public property, and the attempts to eliminate the phrase "under God" from the Pledge—has had a chilling effect on how believers express their religious convictions. Postwar constitutional jurisprudence accords a citizen's faith the utmost deference, so long as it remains practiced behind securely closed doors. Soulcraft, the judiciary has decreed, must be entirely dissociated from statecraft; no religious proposition can ever be normative, because all are inscrutable and, in the final analysis, irrational. Such reasoning has been a major driver of advanced, non-judgmental, religious pluralism, and it is considered by Hutchison not at all.

* * *

This line of reasoning—that religious beliefs are purely idiosyncratic and therefore unfit for public consideration—is hardly restricted to the domain of constitutional jurisprudence. It has in fact grafted itself onto the faith of many contemporary believers, decisively shaping modern devotion. Charles Taylor, perhaps the most accomplished living philosopher in the Anglophonic tradition, focuses specifically on this trend in his book, The Varieties of Religion Today

Taylor takes his title and his point of departure from William James's Varieties of Religious Experience. Taylor proposes that, despite the lapse of a century since its publication, James's book has an uncanny relevance for understanding contemporary religious life. "In passage after passage," writes Taylor, it "could have been written yesterday."

What sets James apart is his unique attentiveness to the momentous decision between belief and unbelief; he is, according to Taylor, "our great philosopher of the cusp." Alone and uncertain, modern man is pushed to the brink of existential self-determination without any of the points of reference that guided his grandfathers. In underscoring that fateful moment of choice, however, James exhibits his chief theoretical limitation, a tendency to regard religious experience in thoroughly individualistic terms. And yet Taylor proposes that perhaps "one might think that James was prescient in putting things this way." 

Taylor takes this central Jamesian theme—the "bare point of choice"—and provides it with some much-needed historical texture. Its proximate origins, he claims, can be traced to the high Middle Ages, when a steadily increasing emphasis on a Christianity of personal devotion began to displace older models centered on collective ritual. Later on, the Protestant and Catholic Reformations of the 16th century further disseminated a sense of religion as primarily a matter of personal commitment.

Two crucial developments have occurred since then. The first, Taylor argues, was the signal achievement of the 18th century: the articulation of a doctrine of the rights of conscience. Proponents of that doctrine, however, never intended that religion should retreat from public life. Religious association would now take place in consensually gathered congregations. Individuals could, of their own volition, join the church they found most amenable to salvation, willingly subscribing to its creed and code. These churches would in turn explain the moral universe that made sensible the doctrine of natural right. Their shared mission of cultivating civic virtue entitled the churches to a privileged position in civil society.

The second crucial development, according to Taylor, has been the cultural revolution of the second half of the 20th century. As one of its central tenets, this cultural revolution has professed a new kind of individualism, with profound implications for social life in the Western world. Under the terms of this "culture of authenticity," the purpose of human existence is identified as living in accord with one's egoistic preferences to the greatest extent possible. Its adherents aspire above all else to be true to their innermost selves. Unencumbered by tradition, etiquette, morality, patriotism, or piety, they studiously resist the judgments of others, just as they disdain passing judgment themselves. The implications for the conditions of belief are profound. As Taylor sees it, there is no longer any "necessary embedding of our link to the sacred in any particular broader framework, whether church or state." Faith has been summarily privatized, and "the spiritual as such is no longer intrinsically related to society." One simply cannot understand contemporary religious life without accounting for this turn to solipsistic individualism.

Taylor's book neatly supplements those of Wolfe and Hutchison. Although Wolfe skillfully depicts its effects, he has little to say about the causes of this great cultural transformation. And although Hutchison adequately describes its evolution, he is inattentive to anything that would cast his preferred notion of pluralism in an unfavorable light. Taylor sidesteps both pitfalls, providing a plausible explanation of long-term trends in religious life and acknowledging both the advantages and the disadvantages of the modern religious sensibility. His is that rare achievement: an elegant theory of modern religion, succinctly and modestly presented, that amid all the flux can credibly claim to see some order.