Can religion ever be considered in isolation?

Getting Religionby Kenneth L. Woodward

Convergent. 464p $30

Objectivity has long been prized in the academy, and especially so in my home country, England, where my university lecturers forbade the written use of the word “I,” lest bias or digression crept into our essays. Since coming to the United States for graduate school, I have learned that the value of autobiography in academia is in fact rooted in its dissuasion of bias, since it forces the writer to disclose his or her standpoint at the outset. This wisdom is upheld by many U.S. academics. For the theologian and ethicist Emilie Townes, for example, the act of knowing is “always contextual...It is never disinterested.” It is this same suspicion of objectivity that characterizes Getting Religion: Faith, Culture, and Politics from the Age of Eisenhower to the Era of Obama.

Advertisement

“All of us come from a place we mistake for universal,” Kenneth L.Woodward explains, “So you should know something of mine.” Woodward was the religion editor for Newsweek for almost 40 years, and he witnessed sweeping changes in U.S. religious history, which he argues led to the decline of institutional religion. Getting Religion surveys post-Vatican II Catholic America, Protestantism and the civil rights movement, the rise of televangelist Billy Graham and Evangelicalism, in addition to the popularity of Eastern religious practices like meditation in the United States. In the latter half of his book, Woodward delves further into religious trends in politics and describes the transformation of the Republican and Democratic parties after Roe v. Wade.

In the context of the presidential election, Woodward’s reflections on an interview with First Lady Hillary Clinton about her faith may be of particular interest to readers. Mrs. Clinton’s faith life is often neglected in conversations about her bid for the presidency (although America’s Michael O’Loughlin produced an excellent article about Mrs. Clinton’s personal faith). “Mrs. Clinton,” Woodward writes, “was one of those rare public figures whose political views cannot be separated from their religious convictions.” Woodward reveals that when Mrs. Clinton was in the White House she had an altogether different career trajectory in mind. When he asks her if she has ever considered becoming a Methodist minister she responds, “I think about it all the time,” although she also states that she would prefer to keep her faith private.

Getting Religion is a response to what Woodward sees as lackluster, hyper-objective “history at a distance.” Given that many academics draw from contemporary journalism to examine religion in the last 50 years, why not cut out the middleman? “Being there matters,” Woodward says. “How things looked and felt, used judiciously, helps the reader understand the way things were and in turn sheds light on why things are the way they are now.” Despite the memoiristic tone of the book, Getting Religion maintains an academic character. Woodward is very well read and refers to a wide range of historical, theological and sociological sources. As a student of religion, I was particularly impressed by his engagement with sociologists like Karl Weber, Robert Bellah and Christian Smith.

When defining religion Woodward does not shy away from complexity. Central to his “lived history” is an understanding of religion as embedded. Religion is “never just a matter of personal choice...religion, as a way of belonging as well as of believing and behaving, is always embedded—in institutions, yes, but also in the landscape,” he explains. Woodward goes on to describe religion as “fused” with politics and culture and recognizes that religion can never be considered in isolation.

In his ambitious attempt to combine memoir and scholarship, Woodward fails at times to live up to his own expectations. When Woodward states that his book is about “getting religion,” he really means “getting Christianity.” Catholicism comprises a significant chunk of the book and for good reason—this is Woodward’s own faith and he is describing religious history from his own perspective. However, for a book purporting to cover religion in general, Hinduism, Judaism and Islam could use more attention. As he warned us he might, Woodward thus mistakes the personal for universal. Given that there are 3.3 million Muslims and 5.3 million Jews currently living in the United States, it is disappointing that a book about U.S. religion largely ignores them. Considering Woodward’s warning that everyone, himself included, is prone to mistaking their own perspective for the universal, it is hard to hold his book title against him. It is his willingness to divulge his partisanship, after all, that allows us to pinpoint it so easily.

The value of Getting Religion remains. As a reader I felt great privilege in watching history unfold through Woodward’s eyes and in reading his summaries of contemporary religious scholarship along the way. Woodward captured the interest of his own book when he said, in a radio interview with America on SiriusXM's Catholic Channel, “I wrote the book because I had stories to tell, and the stories are really what make the book run.” Come to Getting Religion for an laudable blend of memoir and scholarship, but stay for the stories.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

Pat Conroy shares his inner self.
Jay HooksMay 18, 2018
A strong vision and mission are two keys to a distinctive university.
Jeffrey von ArxMay 18, 2018
Liam Callanan explores Paris, but also explores the existential anxieties of the writer’s life as well as the consolations that come from a life of reading.
Mark Bosco, S.J. May 17, 2018
In a new book, Helen Alvaré argues that a just society defends and protects its children from harms of all kinds.
Christopher KaczorMay 04, 2018