WITH The Transformation of American Religion, ([dagger]) the distinguished sociologist and chronicler of the culture wars Alan Wolfe has written a curiously instructive book on the ways we Americans "actually live our faith." Wolfe writes as a social scientist who is himself an unbeliever, but who nevertheless expresses respect for the diverse religious commitments of the American people. He distrusts soi-disant liberals who deny the right of the religious-minded to bring their beliefs and "values" to bear on the pressing issues of the day. His book's argument is nicely captured in the title of its introductory chapter, "The Passing of The Old-Time Religion": informality is on the rise in worship, the nature of religious witness is changing, and doctrine is being de-emphasized. Through a series of well-crafted sociological portraits and vignettes that explore the ways in which Americans practice their religion today, Wolfe suggests that the lived reality of American religion has next to nothing to do with the stringent moral demands and doctrinal preoccupations of the religions of old.
Whether describing "megachurches" that downplay liturgy in any form, the "strange disappearance of doctrine from conservative Protestantism," as he puts it, or the omnipresence of therapeutic language in contemporary religious circles, Wolfe aims to demonstrate how religion has become an integral part of the culture of narcissism, one more avenue by which the modern self can find its way in the world. He is at his best describing the religious phenomenology behind this culture: the mix of insipid music and moral posturing that has come to be called "Kumbaya Catholicism"; the increasingly therapeutic character of American religion in which priests, ministers, and rabbis scrupulously eschew "judgmentalism" in all its forms; the relentless and uninspiring informality of contemporary religious services; the growing distrust of institutional religion even among the devout. Whether he appreciates it or not, Wolfe's descriptions serve to confirm Will Herberg's fear that Americans rest far too contented with "mancentered religion," or Jacques Maritain's warning that religious modernism finally requires "kneeling before the World."
THE problem with The Transformation of American Religion lies not with Wolfe's descriptive sociology, but rather with his view of what religion is and is not, and how it figures in a modern democracy. The truth is, Wolfe appears to have only a meager understanding of religion. He seems to view it as just another social variable that modern culture modulates according to its needs. As if to prove it, he makes clear that his true area of concern is not religion per se, but rather religion as it affects democracy. Specifically, like the Enlightenment philosophers who first put forth strains of modern antireligious thinking, he believes "old fashioned religion" is a grave danger to democracy. By affirming eternal and non-negotiable truths, it threatens the peace and freedom of the open society. Wolfe takes liberals to task for their intolerance of religion, but only because he is satisfied that religion has now been made safe--perhaps too safe--for liberal democracy. That's disappointing to readers who find Wolfe's description of American religion's drift accurate enough but seek a more nuanced understanding of religion itself.
Wolfe's view of religion, in fact, turns out to be something of a caricature. He repeatedly casts traditional religion as narrow, illiberal, and judgmental. In the worst instances, it becomes apparent that for Wolfe, the mere act of interrogating one's faith makes one a full participant in intellectual modernity. A believer who thinks--in particular, one who reasons about the nature of faith--is simply no longer a practitioner of "old time religion," by Wolfe's lights. Such a claim would surely astonish readers of Maimonides or Aquinas.
With his skewed definition of religion, it is no accident that Wolfe discovers an American religious landscape where modern culture has transformed everything, a world where the cult of the self has succeeded in transforming even the most traditional forms of religious belief, where the "necessity of choice," in Wolfe's odd locution, reigns supreme. Where he departs from conservatives is that he seems to consider this to be largely a good thing. Wolfe consistently praises the democratic flexibility of American religion: He lauds the ability of churches and synagogues to respond to the felt needs of the individual or the requirements for adjustment in a modern, dynamic society.
THIS in itself would not be so terrible, except that in his narrow sociological approach Wolfe does not even raise the most critical question, best posed by Alexis de Tocqueville: What role can religion play in restraining, moderating, and perhaps even elevating a democratic society?
In Tocqueville's judgment, democratic societies tend toward a cult of material well-being that erodes human excellence and undermines a salutary concern for the common good. Religion is something of an antidote to these tendencies, he argues in Democracy in America: it can come to the aid of democracy by broadening and deepening the horizons of democratic man. Religious faith moderates democratic man's debilitating skepticism and encourages him to take a larger view of life and of his moral and civic responsibilities. Above all, it reminds democratic man that he has a soul for which he is responsible and duties that are not exhausted by the endless pursuit of material satisfactions.
But Wolfe lacks any standard for judging the struggle between permissive individualism and traditional religion. He is content with vague affirmations about the need for religion to respond to personal whims and to be open to the changing requirements of a democratic society. So he ends up with some decidedly non-Tocquevillian endorsements. He defends religion as it is "actually lived"--that is, in watered-down versions--against what he perceives as the illiberal dogma and doctrine of more traditional religion. From this vantage point, it is impossible to pass judgment on who really speaks for the Catholic Church. Wolfe treats as equally "Catholic" a Cardinal Ratzinger who reaffirms the traditional creedal affirmations of historic Christianity and the effusions of uninformed laymen who believe that Christianity is what they say it is and have never even heard of the present Pontiff's unceasing denunciations of "the culture of death."
IT is not that Wolfe uncritically admires contemporary religion's accommodation to the modern world. He appreciates that the contemporary dismissal of dogma goes too far. Even the value-free sociologist recognizes that any religion worth its salt needs to affirm certain truths about God, man, and the world. But Wolfe's fear of "fundamentalism" and of illiberal religious self-assertion finally quells any discomfort in this regard. Wolfe remains the enlightened rationalist who can afford to be tolerant because he believes that revealed religion no longer poses any serious threat to the peace or integrity of liberal society. He even goes so far as to welcome the theological "confusion" of contemporary believers as a mark of democratic openness. In any case, he insists that churches have no alternative but to meet contemporary believers halfway. If they do not, the religious consumer will go shopping for a new church or synagogue more supportive of the value of individual choice. Strangely, the unbelieving social scientist does not hesitate to counsel churches about their sacred business.
In the end, the real problem is that Wolfe does not recognize any authoritative standards that can serve to weigh and balance the permanent requirements of faith, on the one hand, and the imperative of democratic progress, on the other. If his sociology's ultimate inspiration is the antireligious enlightenment, his inchoate theological assumptions can be traced to a fideism that denies the natural and necessary intersection of faith and reason, religious truth and natural law.
But rationally informed theological interpretation is as old as the Talmud or the reflections of the Church Fathers. It is not exclusively modern, nor does it entail genuflecting before the altar of "progress." In many cases, Wolfe simply conflates the age-old prudence of believers who must find their way in the world with the modernism of progressives who bow before no unchanging truths or standards. This tendency to equate faith with fundamentalism and orthodoxy with unreason leads Wolfe to exaggerate the "modernity" of American religion. He confuses the need for the "interpretation" of faith with an acceptance of the premises of modern individualism. Orthodox religion really cannot show up in Alan Wolfe's America, because Wolfe does not appreciate that intellectual vitality is part and parcel of any authentic religious belief.
WHAT, then, are we to make of Wolfe's take on religion in America? One can only view it as part of his larger intellectual and political project. That project was outlined with particular lucidity in Wolfe's widely discussed 1998 book One Nation, After All and informs the argument of The Transformation of American Religion from beginning to end. In his earlier book, Wolfe argued that the "culture wars" in America are really much ado about nothing. If Wolfe can show that one side has already won them, then he has well situated himself to moderate the anti-fundamentalist passions of American liberals and to call on cultural conservatives to give up their hopeless resistance to the advances of late modernity. If we are all modernists now, then there is no need to renew the old battles between secular rationalism and revealed religion or to be vigilant about the threat that believers purportedly pose to a pluralistic America. Wolfe's "moderate" stance on the culture wars is genuine enough, but it is bought at the price of discrediting an important segment of our cultural and social scene. It also closes off the most fundamental questions.
But even the latitudinarian Wolfe cannot uncritically live with his own analysis. In chapter six of The Transformation of American Religion, entitled "Sin," Wolfe provides an excellent description of religious "non-judgmentalism." He chronicles the increasing unwillingness of many religious Americans to discuss the moral life or religious obligations in terms of sin, judgment, exclusion, and the authority of God. Serious religious reflection on sin, guilt, and moral responsibility is too often replaced by a highly psychologized version of religion that Wolfe calls "God lite." This sentimental non-judgmentalism meets people halfway by telling them what they want to hear. Religious tracts are increasingly indistinguishable from self-help books and insipid diet guides. Wolfe shows how the traditional Catholic "culture of [redemptive] suffering" has been largely displaced by the new therapeutic cult of the self. A similar displacement has occurred in mainstream Protestant, Jewish, and especially evangelical circles.
All of this is finally too much for Wolfe to bear. To be sure, he never engages in anything that resembles theological or philosophical reflection about the requirements of moral character or the true nature of virtue. And throughout his discussion he displays a disturbing tendency to reduce the moral alternatives to a choice between a schematized moral fundamentalism--the world of carefully calibrated "venial" and "mortal" sins--and an out-and-out moral relativism. He nonetheless cannot help but be revolted by the moral poverty of the world of easygoing religiosity. He freely acknowledges that a human world where "psychology reigns" is a world where "sin is driven out."
In a revealing aside in One Nation, After All the usually non-judgmental Wolfe wonders aloud if Americans are in danger of taking tolerance a bit too far, by forgetting that moral imperatives are integral to a serious and dignified individual and collective life. In this passage, he pleads for a little "Kantian backbone" on the part of an America that is in danger of forgetting the demands that morality necessarily makes on decent human life. Similarly, The Transformation of American Religion muses over the incompatibility of full-fledged moral relativism with the "highest possible ideals of human conduct." But these reservations come parachuting into the discussion and never inform Wolfe's analysis as a whole. He simply cannot find it in himself to think seriously about the moral prerequisites of both liberal democracy and authentic religion.
IN the final analysis, Wolfe's ignorance of theology and his neglect of moral and political philosophy prevent him from making sense of either the phenomena he describes or his own sound moral intuitions. Sociological description is not sufficient if the social scientist cannot speak with any genuine understanding of the thing being described. A religion that simply succumbs to modernity is no religion at all. In his better moments, Wolfe somehow intuits this but cannot admit it so openly without allowing his sociological house of cards to come crashing down. And to confront the question of authority in religion and human life would be to challenge the most cherished assumptions of modern rationalism. But Wolfe cannot and will not allow himself to do this. So, in the end, he leaves us with a good deal of incoherence rather than with a serious and sustained effort to integrate sociological analysis with theological and philosophical reflection on the proper role of religion in a free society.
[dagger] Free Press. 309 pp. $26.00.…