Cover image for The transformation of American religion : how we actually live our faith
The transformation of American religion : how we actually live our faith
Wolfe, Alan, 1942-
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Publication Information:
New York : Free Press, [2003]

Physical Description:
ix, 309 pages ; 24 cm
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BL2525 .W65 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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American religion - like talk of God - is omnipresent. Popular culture is awash in religious messages, from the singing cucumbers and tomatoes of the animated VeggieTales series to the bestselling "Left Behind" books to the multiplex sensation The Passion of the Christ. In The Transformation of American Religion, sociologist Alan Wolfe argues that the popularity of these cartoons, books, and movies is proof that religion has become increasingly mainstream. In fact, Wolfe argues, American culture has come to dominate American religion to such a point that, as Wolfe writes, "We are all mainstream now." The Transformation of American Religion represents the first systematic effort in more than fifty years to bring together a wide body of literature about worship, fellowship, doctrine, tradition, identity, and sin to examine how Americans actually live their faith. Emphasizing personal stories, Wolfe takes readers to religious services across the nation-an Episcopal congregation in Massachusetts, a Catholic Mass in a suburb of Detroit, an Orthodox Jewish temple in Boston-to show that the stereotype of religion as a fire-and-brimstone affair is obsolete. Gone is the language of sin and damnation, and forgotten are the clear delineations between denominations; they have been replaced with a friendly God and a trend towards sampling new creeds and doctrines. Overall, Wolfe reveals American religion as less radical, less contentious, and less dangerous than it is generally perceived to be.

Author Notes

Alan Wolfe is the director of the Boisi Center for Religion & American Public Life at Boston College, & author of the best-selling "One Nation After All".

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

We have come to the end of American religion as we once knew it, proclaims sociologist Wolfe. Drawing on interviews with practicing Protestants, Catholics and Jews, Wolfe examines the ways that American religion has been so transformed over the past five decades that it is no longer recognizable. He explores every facet of American religion-worship, fellowship, doctrine, tradition, morality, sin, witness and identity-as he investigates the fading of practices or beliefs that once dominated. For example, he observes that discussion of doctrine has almost disappeared from churches as they have focused more and more on emotional response to worship or belief and less on intellectual investigations of a church's history or creed. Wolfe also points out that the increasing religious pluralism in America has altered not only the faiths traditionally practiced in America but also those of immigrants who bring their religions with them from their native countries. Over the past 40 years, Wolfe argues, American religion has become "more personalized and individualistic, less doctrinal and devotional, more practical and purposeful." Although Wolfe's study offers some lively reporting and clear prose, it provides little new information about the decline of American religion and the newly altered religious landscape. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Wolfe (Boston College) believes that American religion is not nearly as fractious as it is perceived to be. Outlining the dramatic changes in American religion over the past five decades, he demonstrates that there is much common ground among religious people of different religions. To that end, he divides his chapters thematically, as, "Worship," "Fellowship," "Doctrine," "Tradition," "Morality," "Sin," "Witness," "Identity," to argue that among Protestants, Catholics, and Jews the prevailing consumer-oriented culture has marketed a kinder, gentler God, and, for the most part, the religious citizenry is buying tolerance. The stark distinctions among traditions, he claims, are less important than how people behave. Wolfe calls his readers to realize that the common perception that American religion is subdivided primarily into institutional and doctrinal separate entities--often at odds with "secular" culture--misses the reality that American religious belief and practice is mostly at home in the world. There is an optimistic tone throughout the book that urges readers to lose their fear of religious "others" by recognizing that adherents across traditions generally are closer in beliefs, morality, and practice than they think. This provocative book is a must-read for a wide variety of readers. ^BSumming Up: Highly recommended. General readers; lower-level undergraduates through professionals/practitioners. A. DeRogatis Michigan State University

Booklist Review

The egalitarian individualism that sociologist Wolfe has previously taken as his interpretive key for understanding American morality (Moral Freedom, 2001) now guides him in an exploration of contemporary American religion. In a wide-ranging survey, Wolfe finds that an indulgent individualism is radically redefining religion, undermining churches' ecclesiastical integrity. Though American pews are full, many of the worshipers now pray to a deity placidly tolerant of personal preference and lifestyle convenience. Though most advanced among liberal Protestants, this astonishing erosion of traditional orthodoxy increasingly manifests itself among Catholics and Evangelicals. (Even Old Order Amish are losing their grip on inherited beliefs.) Wolfe acknowledges and scrutinizes strategies for resistance among Orthodoxews, southern Baptists, and Mormons, but he doubts that such strategies will prevent the eventual disappearance of religion as a cultural force. Skeptics may complain that in treating all of America's diverse religions, Wolfe oversimplifies the trend he analyzes. But in his concluding call for renewed dialogue about the role of religion in democracy, Wolfe gives readers good reason to appreciate his perspective on our still-evolving national worship. --Bryce Christensen Copyright 2003 Booklist

Library Journal Review

The director of the Boise Center for Religion and American Public Life (Boston Coll.) and a widely published author, Wolfe documents how religion in the United States is becoming increasingly at home within today's culture. Through interviews, observations, and survey analyses, he provides a rare and valuable look at different religious groups. He describes the practice of mainstream Christians, Jews, Muslims, Adventists, Pentecostals, Mormons, and Buddhists with abundant examples while also taking into account their subgroups like fundamentalists and conservatives. He avoids generalities and provides specific examples that help us better understand the people around us, showing how people have become more comfortable with faith while also becoming more individualistic. One resulting trend is the formation of smaller groups within local religious communities, which encourages more individual expression and sometimes new and even deviant beliefs and practices. But to those who worry about fanaticism, Wolfe writes, "We are all mainstream now." Readers on many levels will be able to comprehend this book, which will be especially appreciated in libraries where several religious cultures live in proximity. Recommended for all libraries.-George Westerlund, formerly with Providence P.L. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Introduction: The Passing of the Old-Time Religion "So...thus it is, that natural men are held in the hand of God over the pit of hell," thundered America's most famous theologian, Jonathan Edwards, in 1741. "They have deserved the fiery pit, and are already sentenced to it; and God is dreadfully provoked, his anger is as great towards them as to those that are actually suffering the executions of the fierceness of his wrath in hell." For Edwards, God is great, humans are meek, and our only recourse is to accept the arbitrariness of his inscrutable grace. Much ink has been spilled about whether "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" is typical of the theology of Jonathan Edwards. There is no doubt, however, that Edwards, even when he speaks in far more rapturous language about the wonders of the divine, paints a picture of religious believers as a people apart -- their eyes focused not on the mundane world around them but on the ultimate judgment that awaits them. From his day to ours, that image has shaped the ways in which we argue over faith. Fed up with the sinful character of American life, evangelical Protestants, conservative Catholics, Orthodox Jews, Mormons, and other adherents to strong forms of religious faith have withdrawn from the dominant society, choosing to live in subcommunities of their own, to send their children to schools entrusted to teach the truths of their tradition, and to vote for candidates pledged to uphold and support their values. So visible are they, so strong do their convictions appear to be, and (especially in recent years) so palpable has been their influence over public policy that the spirit of Jonathan Edwards, or others like him, seems very much alive in the land. If strong religious believers view secular society as the enemy, at best to be converted and at worst to be ignored, liberal and secular Americans are only too happy to agree that the faithful are indeed a breed apart. Deeply entrenched religious truths, they routinely insist, are little more than dogmas reiterated without examination and self-criticism. When believers refuse to engage the culture, their opponents dismiss them as fanatics, frustrated people rendered insecure by the dilemmas and opportunities of modernity. When they do mix with everyone else, especially by trying to demonstrate the wonders of their faith, they are called sectarian, their efforts at witnessing requiring constitutional restraints designed to protect the privacy and dignity of their targets. Yes, Jonathan Edwards remains alive and well in America, skeptics of religion are likely to conclude, but that is cause for concern, not celebration. Like Edwards himself, who certainly had his authoritarian side, strong believers, in the skeptics' view, can easily turn into petty tyrants, invoking divine authority to limit the freedom of those they fear. The American people, it would seem, cannot make up their minds whether religious fervor is essential for salvation or incompatible with the principles of modern liberal democracy. But what if religious belief has little in common with the images conveyed by Jonathan Edwards? American religion has never existed in practice the way it is supposed to exist in theory. Democratic in their political instincts, geographically and economically mobile, attracted to popular culture more than to the written word, Americans from the earliest times have shaped religion to account for their personal needs; even Edwards was ridden out of his pulpit by worshippers fed up with his pious sermonizing. Always in a state of transition, faith in the United States, especially in the last half century or so, has been further transformed with dazzling speed. Tracing the history of Christian thought from the New Testament to the twentieth century, the theologian H. Richard Niebuhr documented the many ways in which Christ could become a transformer of culture. But 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. Whether or not the faithful ever were a people apart, they are so no longer; if they were singing the famous gospel hymn today, they would say that the old-time religion is no longer good enough for them. Talk of hell, damnation, and even sin has been replaced by a nonjudgmental language of understanding and empathy. Gone are the arguments over doctrine and theology; if most believers cannot for the life of them recall what makes Luther different from Calvin, there is no need for the disputation and schism in which those reformers, as well as other religious leaders throughout the centuries, engaged. 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. Traditional forms of worship, from reliance on organ music to the mysteries of the liturgy, have given way to audience participation and contemporary tastes. Some believers are anxious to witness their faith to others, but they tend to avoid methods that would make them seem unfriendly or invasive. If Jonathan Edwards were alive and well, he would likely be appalled; far from living in a world elsewhere, the faithful in the United States are remarkably like everyone else. The message of this book is that religion in the United States is being transformed in radically new directions. This conclusion is based on time spent among the faithful of many varieties, as well as engagement with the writings of ethnographers who have studied religion as it is lived by real people in real life. So diverse are American religions, however, that I have not been able to discuss each and every one of them; the reader will not find much in this book dealing with Eastern Orthodox Christians, Hindus, or many other faiths that certainly deserve mention. Still, enough religions have been examined by sufficient numbers of social scientists to establish one conclusion: The most exotic religion in the United States is also the most familiar, as strikingly similar to the society in which it flourishes as it is distant from the religion we once knew. 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. When we begin to recognize religion as it actually is, we will, I believe, be less likely to see ourselves divided into implacable camps. Here is my advice to those who view people on the other side of the faith divide as their enemy. To people of faith, I say this: You have shaped American culture far too much to insist that you remain countercultural. You do not want to admit the extent to which your religion has accommodated itself to modern life in the United States for fear that this would somehow detract from your piety. But is it really so awful to have moved closer to the culture around you? You could take umbrage at the descriptions I will offer in this book of the ways in which you have succumbed to the individualism, and even on occasion the narcissism, of American life. But I would urge you instead to take pride in your flexibility and adaptability. Like everyone else in the United States, you innovate and originate. You want your institutions to be responsive to your needs. You seek faiths that are authentic and alive. Sometimes you probably do go too far in the alacrity with which you borrow from American culture, and on those occasions you may -- and probably should -- have second thoughts. But there is nothing in the transformation of American religion in which you have been such active participants that ought to cause bitter anguish and apocalyptic rejection. To all those who worry about faith's potential fanaticism, I also have some words: We are all mainstream now. Ordinary people who want nothing more than to serve their God and to be modern, American, and full participants in their society have more in common with you than you realize. Because they do, the time has come for you to stop using the faithful as targets to promote an understanding of religion's role in public life that discriminates against those who make belief central to the way they live. Their views may be different from yours on abortion or prayer in school, but we expect people in a democracy to have different views on major questions of public policy. As modern Americans with distinctly tolerant sensibilities, you pride yourselves on your willingness to change, yet religious believers, even the most conservative among them, have adopted themselves to modern society far more than you have changed your views about what they are really like. You have made the whole country more sensitive to the inequalities of race and gender. Now it is time to extend the same sympathy to those who are different in the sincerity of their belief. Religions can be astonishingly different, while human beings can be surprisingly the same. Study theology, and one comes away impressed by differences. Study real people, and one is more likely to notice the similarities, not only among people of different faiths but also between those for whom religion matters greatly and those for whom it matters not at all. Believers in the United States are neither saviors nor sectarians. Once we know more about them, we will, or so I hope, be less likely to fear either the imminent establishment of a theocracy or the day of wrath in which God punishes us for our sins. Copyright © 2003 by Alan Wolfe Excerpted from The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith by Alan Wolfe All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Passing of the Old-Time Religion
1 Worship
2 Fellowship
3 Doctrine
4 Tradition
5 Morality
6 Sin
7 Witness
8 Identity
Conclusion: Is Democracy Safe from Religion?