Religion in America since 1945: A History

Article excerpt

Religion in America Since 1945: A History. By Patrick Allitt. [Columbia Histories of Modern American Life.] (New York: Columbia University Press. 2004. Pp. xviii, 313. $30.00.)

Any writer who has attempted to track a subject through a long stretch of time appreciates how difficult it is to balance the requirement of inclusiveness with a consistent elaboration of central themes. Patrick Allitt in his confident survey of American religion since World War II succeeds in this task far better than most and has produced a volume of immense value to university students, general readers, and scholars needing a reliable reference source.

Allitt begins with some important paradoxes. Postwar America is simultaneously highly religious and highly secular. Americans' most obvious use of the ascetic Christ figure is to generate wealth and power. Old-fashioned religious groups have become a vanguard in the employment of new forms of media. Allitt tries to follow these and other paradoxes, paying attention to what he sees as the re-division of religious energy along political rather than denominational lines, the commercial aspects of religion, and the ways in which American society has validated religious choices in a value system punctuated by relativism. In developing these themes, he generously cites his debts to Robert Wuthnow, Peter Berger, and this author.

Although Allitt's book at every point gives readers something to think about, the topics discussed in the twelve chapters sometimes appear randomly grouped. Allitt's very good discussion of women ministers and feminist theology in Chapter 6 is awkwardly posed between a section on space travel enthusiasts and one on Jesus freaks. In a similarly jarring way, Allitt places a section on homosexuality and churches in a chapter that also treats Tim LaHaye and other millennial movements. Overall, the chapter titles provide weak conceptual frameworks, and the many tales told in Allitt's book are often more intriguing in their singularity than in the way they gather interpretative coherence.

This may not matter very much because Allitt provides a good conclusion at the end of the book and because many of the subsections make excellent reading in themselves-on religious architecture, for example, or on the rise of megachurches. The tone that runs through the book is perhaps the most important unifying thread. …


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