Published March 1, 2004
Alan Wolfe is professor of political science and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and Public Life at Boston College. He is the author most recently of An Intellectual in Public (Univ. of Michigan Press), a collection of his essays and reviews from The New Republic and elsewhere, and The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith (Free Press). Many readers of Books & Culture will have seen his October 2000 Atlantic Monthly cover story, “The Opening of the Evangelical Mind.” Michael Cromartie spoke with Wolfe in Washington, D.C, last November; John Wilson joined the conversation.
Alan, you say that “in the United States culture has transformed Christ, as well as all other religions found within these shores. In every aspect of the religious life, American faith has met American culture—and American culture has triumphed.” Why is this?
Religion is an enormously overpowering force that influences how people think and how they act, what they do, what they think is ethically right and wrong, and so on. But culture has very much the same kind of impact as well. It also shapes who we are and how we act. The question that preoccupies me is what happens when these two gigantic forces clash, as they do in the United States. And I argue in the book that culture tends to win in most such clashes. And so religion finds itself adapting to some characteristic features of American culture that are antithetical to what, for lack of a better term, we call “the old-time religion.”
What would be some examples of those adaptations?
The individualism of our culture, the populist quality of our culture, its short attention span, and its anti-intellectualism. All those things influence all the other kinds of institutions we have: they influence sports, they influence politics. Politics today doesn’t resemble what it was 50 or 70 years ago; the same is true of sports. How could religion be immune to these cultural forces? It too will take new forms—what some people might call “mutations.” I was looking for neutral terms, so I called them “transformations.”
I wonder if someone from a megachurch might say in response to your book, “Well, it’s true that our services have been influenced by trends in secular entertainment, but look what we’ve done: we’ve grown, many people have had their lives transformed by Christ. There are former alcoholics attending our AA groups. People with broken marriages are now healing their lives.”
I am very sympathetic to that. I’m not sitting here saying these changes are horrible things. First, I am in no position to do that; I’m not religious myself. I see it more as a dilemma, and I wouldn’t want to be in the shoes of the person who has to respond to that dilemma. What do you do if you’re strongly convinced that the truth you want to communicate should be expressed in a certain way, yet you recognize that this approach simply isn’t drawing many people to it? I’m enormously impressed by Rick Warren at Saddleback and his homiletic style, which I think is extraordinary. I describe him not only as the best preacher, but as simply the best public speaker I have ever heard. As I was sitting there listening to him say, “Avoid sin,” and making jokes, the question that occurred to me was this: are these people better off here, or are they better off watching television or a football game? And they are definitely better off in Saddleback. On the other hand, conservative critics of Rick Warren would propose a third alternative: a more old-fashioned church.
You say, “More Americans than ever proclaim themselves born again in Christ, but the lord to whom they turn rarely gets angry and frequently strengthens self-esteem.”
I find that a lot. And again, I think there’s both a positive and a negative side to that. The positive side is that this self-esteem, the sense of empowerment that so many people talk about, shows a dimension of evangelical religion that my secular friends are completely unaware of. My secular friends will tell me that evangelical Christianity is patriarchal to the core—it’s all about men oppressing women, going back to the most traditional kinds of gender roles and so on. And I see something entirely different. I see people being encouraged to develop as individuals, truly experiencing a sense of empowerment. In that sense, I think it’s an enormously positive transformation of traditional evangelical religion.
Were you surprised when you found that?
That was one of the biggest surprises. But there’s also a dangerous side to this change. There’s something wrong with too much self-confidence. I would have expected a little more doubt. Now, I’m married to a Dane, and there’s a Kierkegaardian culture in my family. Kierkegaard is largely missing in American religion. I don’t think there’s enough brooding going on.
You say: “In no other area of religious practice, especially for evangelicals, is the gap between the religion as it is supposed to be and religion as it actually is as great as it is in the area of sin. … Somehow I am not pleased with this retreat from sin.” Why is that?
I’m not a great phrasemaker, but there is one phrase in the book I like—Salvation Inflation, which I compare to grade inflation. I define grade inflation by the fact that over the 30 years I’ve been teaching, every year I assign less and less, and every year the grades get higher and higher. It’s a two-stage process. To some degree, we’ve seen that with salvation as well. People confess fewer and fewer sins, and are rewarded with more and more.
Doesn’t your book leave readers with the impression that the trend you are tracking is more pervasive than it actually is?
I do say at various times that what I’m describing has various counters to it. On the question of sin, for example, I do say that the Southern Baptist Convention—which is after all the largest of the Protestant denominations—is one church that has not given up sin. But I think in spite of those caveats, the other impression does come across, and I think that’s probably because I didn’t pay as much attention to the South as I probably should have. And of course there are seriously committed Orthodox Jews who run against much of what I’m saying.
But the logic of your argument suggests that there’s a certain inevitability to the direction of this transformation, that this is the train of American history and if you get in its way you’ll be flattened.
In the book, it’s true, that would be the main argument. But who can tell for sure? I would put my bets on “probably.” “Inevitably” is a strong word. What is inevitable, I believe, is the process by which culture shapes other forces, including religion. It’s possible that the culture could change, and in that way, we could go back to an older form of religion. But I admit that it’s hard for me to imagine how that would take place.
In some ways your book goes against the grain of what Dean Kelly wrote many years ago about why conservative churches are growing. Those churches were growing, Kelly argued, because they were committed to Christian orthodoxy and to strong doctrine. And you are finding that those same churches have capitulated to the culture.
I believe what’s going on in my re-interpretation of the Kelly thesis really has to do with the difference between quantitative and qualitative social science. If you simply look at the numbers, as Kelly did, and find that conservative churches are the ones that are growing, it’s easy to conclude that their strict teaching is the critical factor. But when you look at what’s happening qualitatively through ethnographic research, and what those churches are really doing, they don’t look so strict. They look more and more as if they are fitting the kind of patterns I’ve described.
In the book, I tell the story of one particular believer who quit her Baptist church because it was so strong on divorce and joined a Pentecostal church, which was much more welcoming. Baptists and Pentecostals are both called conservative Christians; they would not be sharply differentiated in the Kelly thesis. But for this woman, strict teaching was not the attraction. She chose the warmth and acceptance of a more “Spirit-filled” church. Pentecostalism, as you know, is growing rapidly, and yet I wouldn’t even know how to classify a Pentecostal church on the “strict vs. non-strict” dimension. Those aren’t the crucial categories.
You note that evangelicals have become theologically less combative. Let me quote you again: “Conflict over doctrine is fast becoming a phenomenon of church history. Evangelicals have exchanged orthodoxy for popularity.”
My focus is not on denominational leadership but on the ordinary churchgoer. When you see how much switching goes on, you have to wonder: how much does this have to do with doctrine? People are in a different church from the one of their birth, different from the church of their parents, even different from the one they were in five years ago. There is one person in the book who was raised Catholic but then became Baptist. The differences between Catholics and Baptists are things that people used to die for. So what does that history mean when people switch? Do they really know what John Wesley stood for and what Methodism is all about if they drop out so readily for a church with an entirely different tradition?
You comment in your book about the religious origins of non-judgmentalism. What are those?
I was fascinated by that. Again, my secular friends think the United States is filled with fundamentalist Christians who believe that the Bible contains the literal word of God and therefore know the Bible inside out. But what most people know from the Bible is “Judge not lest you be judged.” People come away with that lesson and this one: Do not throw the first stone. Especially Christians.
You’ve written that “liberals threaten to undermine their own liberalism when they write about religion. A liberal temperament ought to be disposed to respect as many points of view as possible, including those that in turn had little respect for liberalism.” How do you think this will be perceived among your liberal friends?
One of the examples I cited is actually a good friend of mine, a scholar named Stephen Macedo, who essentially says that religious believers just don’t have the right kind of qualities of mind to be good citizens in a liberal democratic society. I’m trying to say that this is not the case. How will such friends receive the book? Well, it has been better received in religious communities than in secular communities. I thought that I would be writing to both. For many secular people, religion remains terra incognita, and I can say, “It’s not what you think.”
You say “believers are full citizens of the United States, and it is time to make peace between them and the rest of America.” Why do you say that?
The “full citizens” comment grows out of a kind of anger that I feel at Stanley Hauerwas, whom I have learned from, and admire in many ways as a person. I’ve been interacting with him for a long time. But I really was offended by his concept of a resident alien. First, it’s very hard for someone who’s not a Christian to listen to a kind of Christian victimology that you sometimes get. Even people I respect enormously—George Marsden—can fall into that, or at least it sounds like that to me. I also think that when I’m not writing about religion, I write about citizenship. I am a very strong believer in the idea of citizenship. There’s a sense of mutual duty, that societies have to take citizenship very seriously. The notion of a resident alien disturbs me, because it suggests that people really aren’t being full citizens, and really shouldn’t be. What I want to say to Stanley Hauerwas is: What are you talking about? But I also want to say it to my liberal friends: you also can’t go around and talk about these people as not having the right qualities of mind. So, all the energy is focused on that conclusion.
You say, “America’s God has been domesticated, there to offer solace and to engage in dialogue with the understanding that, except under the most unusual circumstances, he will listen and commiserate.” Again, you notice a theological dilution of firmly held beliefs from the past. But you also seem to find some assurance in this domestication of belief and are not happy with those who hold to the absolute truth claims of historic Christianity. Is that right?
That’s right. These things are such a mixed bag. It’s not like I’ve gone religious. Probably some of my friends think that I’ve gone soft on religion. In fact, Judith Shulevitz wrote a piece about me: Has Alan Wolfe gone evangelical? I still retain a secular edge looking at the history of doctrinal conflict and religious sectarianism.
You know Albert Mohler. There’s a quote I’ve saved from a letter he wrote to The New York Times, where he says that Christians have one idea of the truth and Muslims have another, and the two are not reconcilable. That kind of language bothers me a lot. I prefer the religion of a pastor in Cincinnati, Steve Shogran, mentioned in the book, whose motto is “Love, love, love, truth.” I would take that. I think the single most important advantage of the softer kind of religion I found is that it has created much greater religious tolerance. Basically, I think that development is enormously positive, given the history of sectarianism and violence.
Michael Cromartie directs the Evangelical Studies Project at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.
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