The National Catholic Review

Randy Newman has a tune called God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind) that can send a shiver down the spine of all believers, even those who believe we would be better off without belief. In it a malicious God sits in his heaven, world-weary and sarcastic. Man means less to me, he says, than the lowliest cactus flower or the humblest Yucca tree. Clueless humans chase around the desert ’cause they think that’s where I’ll be, he mutters. The earth below him is a mess. People are bunglers, the world run by crooks and tarts. Brother slays brother and knows not why. A plague is on the land. No man is free. Lord, if you won’t take care of us, won’t you please, please let us be? the priests implore. But it’s no use. You all must be crazy to put your faith in me, sighs the Lord. You really need me. That’s why I love mankind. They can’t get it right and they can’t agree, but they keep on trying.

Patrick Allitt has written a very good book about religion in America over the past half century, the civilization Newman grew up in and sings about. It has been the most stressful and perplexing period in the history of the United States, and it is not over, since the culture wars ignited then continue to flare up. Most accounts of the era scant the religious life, because so much more dramatic and entertaining stuff has been going on in the foreground of the public culture. In between the scary early days of the cold war and the bewildering surprise of Sept. 11, 2001, there was the long run through the gantlet of battling social movements and cultural revolutions: civil rights and white flight, the antiwar movement, feminism and antifeminism, the sexual revolution, environmentalism and animal rights, gay liberation and all the rest of it.

A professor of history at Emory University, an authority on religion in culture and on American Catholicism, Allitt is concerned with how religious communities fared in all this and what they contributed to it. His approach to the subject is clear and straightforward. As a historian, he writes, I am less concerned with assigning praise and blame than with describing what happened and explaining why, so that readers, whatever their own views, can understand this element of the American past a little better.

He delivers. The kingdom of God in America is not what it was in 1945. At the close of the war, racial segregation had legal supports, women belonged in the home, and outings were picnics rather than rites of passage for the love that dare not speak its name. There was no television and no rock ’n’ roll. People trusted their government and believed what they heard on the radio. Anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism were weakening but still pervasive aspects of American life, shared animosities on which the Protestant majority could count. What would turn out to be the greatest sustained economic boom in the history of human society was gathering energy and about to pop. The spirits of commerce and science perked up after the war and were vigorously active. Postwar America, Allitt points out, was simultaneously a highly religious and a highly secular place. That is the paradox around which his book is organized.

If anything, that paradox has picked up strength with the passage of time. But there has been an important change in the way religion and secularity fit together, and Allitt’s book sheds light on that. Borrowing from the work of the sociologist Robert Wuthnow, he shows how the major religious groups in America have shaped and been shaped by the divisive movements and issues of the day, from civil rights and the antinuclear movement to the antiabortion campaign and the drive for gay marriages and women’s ordination. In the beginning what mattered in the religious culture pattern was the sense of unity within the denominations. People were at home with their co-religionists and suspicious of outsiders. At the end of it, after all the buffeting and militancy, they had learned to be much more at home with outsiders, especially those who shared their political views, liberal or conservative, but also much less happy with their co-religionists who differed on this score. And while they were more ecumenical than ever, they also felt less able to count on their own on matters of the common good. The shift was fundamental, and has altered both the religious and the political landscape. We end with greater diversity and greater politicization, even though the separation between church and state was stronger than ever.

While he traces what was happening in the major American groupings Protestants, Catholics, Jews and now Muslims alsoAllitt does not neglect cults and their critics and other alternative religious groups that appear on the scene from time to time (U.F.O. followers, for example, or Moonies, or the tragic story of Jim Jones and the mass suicide at his People’s Temple in Guyana in 1978). He reports, too, on the new kinds of religious writing, liberal and conservative, that grew up as part of the struggling he describesliberation theology, black, feminist and gay theology, eco-theology and others. It is something of a cliché in teaching about religion today to say that it must be tied to ordinary experience and respectful of diversity. Allitt reminds his readers just how extraordinary our shared experience has been, and how distressful our diversity.

Michael J. Lacey is director emeritus of the American program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., and an adjunct lecturer at the University of Washington in Seattle.