America may be polarized, but in one activity its social critics have achieved a rare unanimity: lambasting American "spirituality" in all its New Age quirkiness and anarchic individualism. The range of detractors is really quite impressive. James A. Herrick, an evangelical Christian author, deplores the "new spirituality" as a melange of Gnostics, goddess worshipers, and self-proclaimed UFO abductees out to usurp the place of Christianity: all told, a widespread but shallowly rooted challenge to the mighty religious inheritance of the West. The neoconservative pundit David Brooks of The New York Times thinks that a "soft-core spirituality," with its attendant "psychobabble" and "easygoing narcissism," is epidemic. Observers on the left are no less prone to alarm. One pair of such commentators warned recently that the rebranding of religion as "spirituality" is part of corporate capitalism's "silent takeover" of the interior life, the sly marketing of a private, consumerist faith in the service of global enterprise.
Even many scholars of religion have jumped on the bandwagon. Martin E. Marty, the widely esteemed historian of American Christianity and professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, published an opinion piece this past January in Christian Century in which he labeled the "spirituality" versus "religion" debate "a defining conflict of our time." He made crystal clear that he stood on the side of the old-time religion of church pews, potluck suppers, and hymnbooks, against the "banal" and "solipsistic" world of "religionless spirituality." More recently, in the July-August issue of Utne magazine, Paul R. Powers, a professor of religious studies at Lewis and Clark College, thumped the editors for reprinting a "softheaded" article on spirituality: "Why American liberals who seem so happy to embrace difference in various contexts want, when it comes to religion, to sweep it under the rug of some invented, undefined, supposedly universal 'spirituality' remains one of the true religious mysteries of our times."
Detractors of American religious seeking have been building their case for a while now. A bellwether was Habits of the Heart (1985), the best-selling, multiauthored sociological study of the corrosive effects individualism was having on American civic and religious institutions. The authors deeply lamented "liberalized versions" of morality and spirituality and argued that the old romantic ideals of self-reliance and the open road were now undermining the welfare of community, family, and congregation. "Finding oneself" and "leaving church" had, sadly enough, become complementary processes in a culture too long steeped in the expressive individualism of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and their fellow wayfarers. More and more Americans were crafting their own religious stories apart from the rich moral vocabularies and collective memories that communities of faith provided. The social costs of such disjointed spiritual quests were evident not only in the fraying of church life but in eroding commitments to public citizenship, marriage, and family.
All this criticism of the "new spirituality" has obscured and diminished what is, in fact, an important American tradition, one in which spiritual journeying has long been joined to social and political progressivism. Emerson's "endless seeker" was, as often as not, an abolitionist; Whitman's "traveling soul," a champion of women's rights; Henry David Thoreau's "hermit," a challenger of unjust war. A good sense of the continuing moral and political import of this American vocabulary of the spirit coines from Barack Obama, tim recently elected Democratic senator from Illinois. Obama has said that, despite the results of the 2004 election, it "shouldn't be hard" to reconnect progressive politics with religious vision: "Martin Luther King did it. The abolitionists did it. Dorothy Day did it.... We don't have to start from scratch."
Perhaps Obama's most telling remark came in his observations about his mother's faith: "My mother saw religion as an impediment to broader values, like tolerance and racial inclusivity. …