Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

The Transformation of American Religion: The Story of a Late-Twentieth-Century Awakening

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

The Transformation of American Religion: The Story of a Late-Twentieth-Century Awakening

Article excerpt

The Transformation of American Religion: The Story of a Late-TwentiethCentury Awakening. By Amanda Porterfield. (NewYork: Oxford University Press. 2001. Pp. x, 262. $27.50.)

Casual observers acknowledge that significant change has come to American religion since World War II. Some stress demographic change; others highlight the religiosity of Baby Boomers. Nose counters lift up the membership decline among mainline Protestant denominations. Most identify the Second Vatican Council as a turning point in American Catholicism. Many recall those who wore saffron robes and chanted Sanskrit mantras on street comers, while preachers and priests marched in civil rights or anti-Vietnam war demonstrations.

As many theories emerge to explain these phenomena as there are persons who study them. Amanda Porterfield here offers her account of a"late twentiethcentury Awakening" on par with the Great Awakening of the eighteenth century. Her concern is the world of ideas, of elite theology and philosophy, of worldviews reconfigured to accommodate new realms of meaning.

She scrutinizes six intellectual currents: the abandonment of conversion as the goal of Protestant world missions with the rise of liberation theology and ecumenism, the appeal of Catholic ritual sensibilities to those who question the ultimacy of reason and science, the collapse of traditional religious authority as 1960's social protest spawned a new individualism emphasizing the inner life, the infiltration of Buddhist and other Asian modes of thought into American religious practice, the recovery of a sense of gender and body in spirituality, and the impact (and astonishing growth) of the academic study of religion on how folks think about religion in general.

Porterfield carefully argues that each of these trends has roots in American Protestantism, indeed in American Puritanism, and therefore each represents a natural outgrowth of a Protestant understanding of the world. She points to the eighteenth-century Puritan divine Jonathan Edwards, who assigned religion to the realm of the affections, as planting seeds that flowered in the contemporary tendency to elevate spirituality over religion. …

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