Exploring Intricacies of American Religious Diversity from 1492 to 2001
Byline: Larry Witham, THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Every generation of American religious adherents and spiritual seekers believes it lives in unprecedented times. A brisk read of "Religion in American Life" will demand second thoughts.
This story of American religious diversity spans from 1492 to 2001. It stretches from the day Franciscans, Anglicans and Puritans met the Indians to our bewildering era of moderate and radical Islamists.
The lesson? The more things change, the more they stay the same.
We thought the slogan "What Would Jesus Do?" began on teen bracelets just before the 2000 presidential campaign. It really began in the 1897 novel, "In His Steps," about how Jesus would run a business. Women in pulpits seem quintessentially modern. But now we read a quote about female preachers dominating colonial New York City. New Age spirituality and the Promise Keepers men's movement are not that new either, this history reminds us. There was widespread occultism among colonial churchgoers and "muscular Christianity" flourished in the 1800s.
To provide this perspective, "Religion in American Life" lays out three epochs of the national experience, beginning with European exploration up through the American Revolution. The second covers the yeasty 1800s, when the basic patterns of American religious life were set, and the third goes from roughly 1900 to the present.
In every era, it seems, there is a religious tension between orthodoxy and individual dissent, social action and piety, the intellect and the emotions, going back to roots and progress, North and South, urban and rural. Not everything stays the same, of course. America's first epoch was about developing as an independent society. The second was about civil war, industrialization, and world horizons. The third was the age of science, the middle class, Asian immigration, and new urban subcultures.
Novel to this book's concise and colorful narrative is a three-part authorship of leading historians. Jon Butler of Yale University, who knows the colonial period down to its religious tracts, numbers of church buildings and Indian tribes, covers the first epoch. For the second, Grant Wacker of Duke University parses out the major denominational trends of the 19th century, plus the rise of American reformist impulse, of which "health, poverty, alcohol and [foreign] missions took precedence." To tell us about Pentecostalism and America's welcome of gurus and Jesus people after the era of President Dwight Eisenhower-who said our form of government needs religion "and I don't care what it is"-is Randall Balmer, a PBS film maker and religion professor at Columbia University.
Those of us weaned on Sydney Ahlstrom's two-volume "A Religious History of the American People," Wilston Walker's dense "A History of the Christian Church," or the works of historian Henry Chadwick, will find something refreshingly new in this book. …