Religion and the Social Scientist

By Mahoney, Daniel J. | The Public Interest, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Religion and the Social Scientist


Mahoney, Daniel J., The Public Interest


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.

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