Carol K. Coburn

Preaching to huge crowds in the 18th century, the highly popular theologian Jonathan Edwards did not soften his rhetoric when it came time to describe the fate of humanity and its need for divine grace. Natural men are held in the hand of God over the pit of hell. They have deserved the fiery pit, and are already sentenced to it. According to the social scientist Alan Wolfe, most contemporary American churchgoers would politely ignore Edwards’s fiery indictment of humanity and probably ask him to tone it down, lest their congregations lose membership. The director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College and author of numerous articles and books on American religious life, Wolfe focuses his latest commentary on American religion by exploring the changes and transformations of the past five decades detailing trends in worship, fellowship, doctrine, tradition, morality, sin, witness and identity.

In The Transformation of American Religion, Wolfe makes some exceedingly broad claims. He also offers much for readers to think about as they attempt to interpret and understand America’s unique brand of religious and cultural diversity. Wolfe examines Protestants (mainline, evangelicals and fundamentalists), Roman Catholics and Jews, among others, and describes how they have adapted to and been affected by American cultural influences, and in some cases one another, in the late 20th century. In short, the 20th-century American culture of individualism and consumerism has triumphed over the hellfire and brimstone God of the Old Time Religion. God has become more a friend and less an authority figure. Wolfe writes: The message of this book is that religion in the United States is being transformed to the point of nonrecognition.... It is time for Americans to stop discussing a religion that no longer exists and to concentrate their attention on the one that flourishes all around them.

Although Wolfe admits that it was impossible to discuss all the religious traditions present in America, he paints with a broad brush the contemporary religious landscape in the United States. Using recent sociological surveys, quantitative data and demographics, interviewing scholars and people in the pews, and referencing some scholarly research, Wolfe reaches some thought-provoking conclusions. He also reports in detail some self-contradictory ideas about how Americans view their faith and their churches, finding them remarkable for the ways they link their religion to their secular world.

For example, according to Wolfe some Americans, while believing in literal interpretation of the Bible or the writings of the church fathers, shun the intellectual concepts present in their own religious doctrines. Although Americans continuously define themselves by their religion, they constantly shape and reshape their distinctive religious traditions and identities to suit their sense of egalitarianism and personal identity. They want fellowship and community but tend to shun or be suspicious of religious institutions that provide it. Americans believe religion is important to moral development but are not surprised when their religious leaders prove to be immoral. They believe that God judges certain behavior as sinful, but they also believe he is not too demanding, and they avoid trying to judge each other.

Finally, Americans believe in the importance of faith as defined by their traditions but are reluctant to shove anything down anyone else’s throat. Like their approach to politics, Americans are adamant about their beliefs but show little concern for the details. Wolfe writes that, 58 percent of Americans cannot name five of the ten commandments, just under half know that Genesis is the first book of the Bible, fewer than that can tell interviewers about the meaning of the Holy Trinity, and 10 percent of them believe that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. Salvation goes to those pure in spirit, not necessarily those who can cite either the constitution or the Bible chapter and verse.

Some of Wolfe’s most interesting analysis treats the growing importance of consumerism and marketing in recruiting new membersa thoroughly American tradition. This is particularly significant in the fast-growing megachurches, which compete with one another to provide fitness centers, singles clubs, movie nights, sports leagues, Christian rock concerts, charismatic and telegenic preachers and an opportunity to worship with thousands in a huge auditorium with video screens adorning the walls and ceilings, mirroring the action in the sanctuary and in some cases broadcasting it to a local or regional television audience.

The last chapter of the book provides an interesting discussion of the balance between American democracy and religious expression and institutions. In Is Democracy Safe from Religion? Wolfe examines the dilemmas present in both liberal and conservative traditions. Comparing biblical literalists to religious liberals, he sees problems with both approaches, particularly as they attack and attempt to define each other. Optimistic but cautious about the so-called culture wars and religious wars, Wolfe cites recent events (for example, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, crises in the Middle East, pedophilia scandals) as further proof that we should respond to all these events by strengthening the wall between church and state and by keeping the public square free of religious proselytizing so that we are not swept up in the new religious wars that threaten societies outside the United States and can easily spill over into our own society as well. Additionally, he eschews the headline-grabbing events as inappropriate determiners of American religion. He states, American religion had already become more personalized and individualistic, less doctrinal and devotional, more practical and purposeful, and increasingly at home with the culture surrounding it long before September 11, suicide bombings, and the trials and tribulations of Bernard Cardinal Law.

Although Wolfe tells us that religion in the United States has been forever transformed, he firmly believes religion continues to have an important and powerful meaning for Americans; but we have to know it in new ways, less formulaic and more comfortably embedded in secular culture, ways that would be incomprehensible to Jonathan Edwards.

Carol K. Coburn is an associate professor of American religious history and women’s studies at Avila University in Kansas City, Mo.