AMERICAN EVANGELICALS are frequently bewildered by the aggressively hostile responses they elicit from the ideological left. Someone offers a generic prayer before a high-school football game, asking God to give the players courage, determination, and good sportsmanship. Immediately someone becomes apoplectic, as if America was on the verge of recreating 16th-century Europe's wars of religion. Soon, a civil liberties organization files a lawsuit to halt hazardous public piety.
Okay, that's a caricature. But good caricatures have recognizable features. Anyone who reads the newspapers will recognize the way some ideologues panic in the face of public religious expression and run to the courts to check the innocuous and perhaps beneficial pieties of the majority.
Sociologist Alan Wolfe's newly published book, The Transformation of American Religion (Free Press), is addressed in part to these panicked leftists. Calm down, he says, and lay off the lawsuits. Americans may be pervasively religious, but they are not in the aggregate dangerously religious. Go to India if you want to see that kind of religion.
Evangelicals might welcome a book like this. But unfortunately, this argument, designed to calm the Left, is disturbing for believers. Liberals should relax, Wolfe says, because the conservative Christians' rhetoric of biblical inerrancy and moral stringency is belied by their actual practice. Wolfe subtitled his book How We Actually Live our Faith, and he paints a picture of a privatized religion that lacks confidence and is eager to avoid offense.
This toothless evangelicalism, Wolfe says, is the result of market forces and peculiarly American cultural habits. "Christians and Jews … have ignored doctrines, reinvented traditions, switched denominations, redefined morality, and translated their obligation to witness into a lifestyle."
Doctrinal ignorance is one feature of American religion that amazes Wolfe most. He cites familiar statistics: 58 percent of Americans cannot name five of the Ten Commandments, and just under half know that Genesis is the first book of the Bible. But he sees such egregious ignorance as a parallel to American politics, in which few voters bother to learn the details before they vote.
Likewise, Wolfe notes the way in which market forces have combined with the ethic of expressive individualism to secularize religion. Savvy pastors take what the unchurched want most and offer a religious path to their desires. After interviewing a prominent Cincinnati pastor, Wolfe concluded: "Religion is [for him] not the alternative to such modern ideals as individualism, but a more effective way to realize them." And a nationally known megachurch pastor from Houston told him, "I take what is worldly and baptize it."
Indeed, the reshaping of the suburban landscape has largely erased truly public spaces for witness and has made it necessary for churches to offer incentives for people to come to them. "That process," Wolfe writes, "inevitably transforms the balance of power between institution and individual" as the unchurched "know that they have something the megachurches want." Some megachurches have made a serious attempt to reorient themselves against the prevailing cultural winds, but drifting with the current—"practicing the culture" rather than "practicing the faith" as one of Wolfe's critics put it—is surely a constant temptation.
By making religion not only attractive but easy, Wolfe says, we are experiencing "salvation inflation." The reference is to the well-known phenomenon of grade inflation, in which teachers give so many A's that top grades become meaningless. Likewise, as evangelical Christians expect less of people "to achieve salvation, the blessings of salvation are offered with fewer strings attached." Wolfe quotes another sociologist, who writes that most megachurches provde "high-intensity experiences of communality with relatively weak systems for insuring individual religious accountability—the assurance of right without the punishment of wrong."
Many features of contemporary American religion appeal to Wolfe's sensibilities: the way in which the desire to get along with others has created an ethic of tolerance and niceness; the way that Bible study has been so personalized as to effectively block its implications for radical social transformation; the way the fear of offending others has reduced most witness to "lifestyle evangelism." Wolfe also thinks the high degree of "religious switching" is "a kind of insurance policy against bigotry." It is harder to hold prejudices about Catholics or charismatics if you've spent a few years in each of those circles.
A Call to Serious Christianity
Wolfe's analysis correlates amazingly well with observations about the church in general made from different ends of the broad evangelical spectrum—from Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas to Michael Horton and David Wells. Something must be done. But what must not be done is to return to a reactionary or imperialistic evangelicalism. Rather, we must nurture an evangelicalism that is truer to its robust heritage.
That heritage includes Bible study that moves beyond personal encouragement to learning about God and his demanding vision for both individuals and society. This means reading the whole Bible and reading it on its own terms—not through the lens of the psychology of self-esteem.
That heritage includes an ethic of self-denial at the core of the gospel: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself." None of our movement's heroes—from Martin Luther to William Wilberforce—achieved what they did without sacrifice.
That heritage includes keeping salvation simple (John 3:16, Romans 10:10), but also keeping sanctification graciously rigorous. Growth in holiness is not an elective, but very much part of the core curriculum of the faith.
Evangelicals have been celebrating their growth in American society. Wolfe notes the way many features of evangelical religion (extempore prayer, small group Bible study, religion of the heart) have become common in both mainline Protestant and Catholic circles. In a sense, Wolfe argues, American religion has become largely evangelical, even where the label doesn't apply.
But success reduces religion to the lowest common denominator. And the pursuit of success often involves a Faustian bargain. Reading friendly critics like Wolfe will raise our consciousness. As Wolfe points out, "At least Faust knew the consequences of the pact he signed."
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The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith is available from ChristianBook.com and other book retailers. The Free Press website has the book's table of contents and an excerpt.
Alan Wolfe's biography is posted at the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College.
Wolfe has written several articles for Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture, including "Desperately Wicked" and "Why Separation of Church and State Is Still a Good Idea."
In 2000, Books & Culture Corner discussed Alan Wolfe's Atlantic Monthly cover story, "The Opening of the Evangelical Mind."
Another Christianity Today editorial discussed a different Alan Wolfe book.
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