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Alan Wolfe, The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003/2005, $16.00, 320 pages, ISBN 0-226-90518-7)—Emmanuelle Le Texier, Université Charles de Gaulle - Lille III


The Director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, Alan Wolfe is also the author of One Nation, After All and Moral Freedom, both New York Times Notable Books of the Year. He is a contributing editor to the New Republic and the Wilson Quarterly. Lately, he has published numerous articles and books on American religious life. The Transformation of American Religion. How we actually live our faith focuses on the changes of American religion since the 1950s. The author explores in detail different aspects and trends of American religion: worship, fellowship, doctrine, tradition, morality, sin, witness, and identity, divided into their respective chapters. His main argument is that Americans transform their distinctive religious traditions and practices to fit the development of individualism and consumerism that characterizes twentieth-century American culture. In his introduction, entitled “The passing of the old-time religion,” Wolfe writes: “The message of this book is that religion in the United States is being transformed in radically new directions. […] It is time for Americans to stop discussing a religion that no longer exists and to concentrate their attention on the one that flourishes all around them” [3]. The central question of the book is the challenge that the presence of so many religions poses to American pluralism.

His message targets two distinctive readers. First, he addresses people of faith to show how they have simultaneously shaped American culture and accommodated to the modern life. People of faith “have succumbed to the individualism, and even on occasion to the narcissism, of American life” [4], as a consequence they are not countercultural any longer. Second, he addresses those worried about potential religious fanaticism to demonstrate that all Americans are mainstream, even the more conservative religious believers. Diversity must be accepted on religious grounds also, and views about religious believers should be adapted to this new reality. To develop his argument, Alan Wolfe uses an impressive amount of quantitative and qualitative data: ethnographic studies in places of worship, face-to-face interviews with religious believers and scholars, surveys and demographics, as well as classic and contemporary research on American religion. He has visited mosques, synagogues, temples and churches all over the country and relies mostly on empirical social science, being reluctant to take from Cultural Studies. He also recalls his “scientific neutrality” in relation to the object of study: he is of Jewish heritage but he is not a person of faith, and he does not “write out of the kind of hostility to religion that has characterized so many academics” [viii]. Nevertheless, as the conclusion would demonstrate, he clearly favours a strong separation between Church and State, by keeping the public sphere free of religious proselytising. Although religion poses no threat to democratic institutions, as he claims “we are all evangelicals now,” the necessary coexistence between religious and secular Americans should come from the flexibility and adaptability of American religious communities to fit society. Wolfe examines mainly evangelicals, but also Jews, Roman Catholics and Protestants (mostly mainline, evangelicals and fundamentalists), as well as Americans converted to Buddhism, and Muslim immigrants. He has chosen a variety of practices to present the transformation of American religion, especially post-Vatican II Catholic liturgies, Black Pentecostal practices, Jewish Orthodox, recruitment in megachurches, mainline churches, etc. As a consequence, American contemporary religious life appears to be extremely diverse and complex and all American religious communities seem to be actors and subjects of cultural accommodation. They all have shaped and have been shaped by American culture, that’s why Alan Wolfe observes that America is a “nation of switchers,” that is to say immigrants as well as Americans adapt to the evolving society by changing their religious denominations. The religious switch is central to suit an individualistic and consumerist culture. It symbolizes both a spirit of conformism and tolerance to diversity. Although American religion seems to be more visible and more central to the nation-building process today, the religion which is practiced is very different from the “old-time stereotype.” Worship, fellowship, doctrine, and tradition are less important than identity, individualism, and lifestyle.

In the three first chapters (Worship, Fellowship, and Doctrine), the author begins by demonstrating how American religion has been transformed beyond recognition and how the most traditional religious practices, worship, fellowship and doctrine have constantly adapted to competition from the secular world and from new approaches to faith. There is no better place to understand the ways in which American religion has changed than in activities of prayer and participation. Alan Wolfe begins with post-Vatican II Catholic liturgies and focuses on the new rites of the Mass, on the fact that even more traditionalist believers speak in the first person, on different ways of celebrating the Holy Communion, on attendance to Mass, etc. He argues that a process of “Protestantization” of American Catholicism is taking place: “Facing such a stiff competition from Technicolor worship, Catholics have been transforming the black-and-white qualities of their worship practices along more Protestant lines” [14]. Today, Catholics seek personalized forms of worship. The process seems in a way similar to Judaism, especially to Orthodox Jews who bring individual creativity to their practice of the liturgy. As far as the Protestant denominations are concerned, they differ drastically among themselves with respect to liturgical worship. Episcopal, Lutheran, and Methodist churches adhere to worship traditions whereas others de-emphasize communal forms of worship and others, such as Baptists and conservative Protestants consider themselves as non-liturgical. However, Alan Wolfe argues that they all “transform already individualistic worship styles into ones even more capable of helping believers with the mundane practicalities of modern life” [23]. For instance, worship follows routine but it is down-to-earth, narcissist in some ways—it simultaneously promotes intimacy and entertains due to the popular music and secular culture that have been incorporated into the sermons. As a consequence, Alan Wolfe concludes that there is a process of convergence of all America’s religions that face the imperative of an individualistic culture: they have to accommodate and emphasize the intimate side of faith: “Evangelicalism’s popularity is due as much to its populistic and democratic urges—its determination to find out exactly what believers want and to offer it to them—as it is to certainties of the faith” [36].

Fellowship, as worship, has been equally transformed by American popular culture. The author argues that today believers are “anti-institutional;” they are often sceptics with fellowship and denominations. “Denominationalism and pluralism are inextricably linked” [38] because it allows followers to achieve the ideal of religious pluralism and to avoid “the chaos of unchanneled religious enthusiasm” [ibid]. Alan Wolfe uses Andrew Greeley’s concept of “denominational society” (The Denominational Society: A Sociological Approach to Religion in America, 1972) to support the idea of religious switching that has increased due to socio-demographic factors, such as rising rates of intermarriage, growth of conservative churches and decline of liberal ones, geographic and social mobility, and distrust with national denominational headquarters. Religion in the United States seems today as much about a choice and personal autonomy as it is about belonging and community. Another example is the fact that: “Jews have considerably higher rates of switching within their denominations than Protestants; only 56 percent continued to belong to the Jewish denomination in which they were raised. Unlike Protestants, interdenominational switching among Jews is from conservative to liberal rather than the other way around” [47], whereas Latino Catholics switch mostly to conservative evangelicalism rather than to mainline Churches. But the main argument defended by the author is that new movements, such as the parachurch movements are more likely to challenge, rather than sustain, the denominational character of American religious life. Protestant denominations such as the Assemblies of God, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Church of God, Promise Keeper, among others, insist on the fact that they cross the existing denominational and doctrinal boundaries, but they also favour religious switching, providing a sense of membership and group belonging.

As far as tradition is concerned, Alan Wolfe focuses on the paradox that the United States is a non-traditional society where American religions constantly try to honour their past while looking to the future. For instance, Modern Orthodox Jews and Ultra-Orthodox Jews both emphasize the importance of traditions, but in different ways. The former might accommodate their religious practices (holidays, Sabbath, attendance to synagogue, kosher food) to the modern society whereas the latter, a minority, are choosing to be counter-cultural by adopting extreme positions or aspiring to be more traditional than the tradition requires: “both […] adapt to modernity, either by accepting man of its practices (as with the Modern Orthodoxy) or by engaging in deliberate choices to reject them (as with the Ultra-Orthodox)” [105]. They both search for symbols and rituals that give sense out of their lives or identities. Born-again evangelists seem to share the same process, be they more liberal or more conservative. Evangelicals, a strong heterogeneous group, is accused of suspicion towards modern science (Darwinism), of fundamentalism or of being social conservatives. Nevertheless, all groups are responsive to the environment around them: ethnic customs are recognized, entertainment and media attract more believers, etc. Many Catholic Churches also accommodate traditional Catholic teachings about marriage and family; some have accompanied this process by a decline in the practice of the sacrament or confession. Simultaneously, Latino immigration has given new life to certain forms of religious traditionalism, such as the communion during Mass, while also renewing forms of political activism and community involvement.


In the following three chapters, dealing with morality, sin, and witness, the argument remains similar, although focusing on social and moral behaviour more than on religious practices. The chapter entitled “Morality” explores the relationship between feminism and faith in order to understand whether faith is supposed to emphasize obedience or to give a sense of empowerment among women and other believers. Alan Wolfe presents in detail two organizations devoted to advancing biblical feminism (Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus and Christians for Biblical Equality) but concludes that: “the real influence of feminism on conservative Christianity can be found not in organization like CBE and EEWC but in the fact that even the most conservative Christian activists have had to alter their once patriarchal views to take account of the real-life experiences and attitudes of evangelical women” [134]. Accommodations can be found also in the adaptation of sexual roles, social control, and political involvement in different spheres, except to some extent for the Mormons.

Concerning sin, the author points out the retreat from by sin of believers who happen to adopt a nonjudgmental language and a specific understanding of wrongdoing that has distinct consequences. Among the negative instances an over-emphasis on sin is, for instance, the crusade led by Pentecostals on sexual emancipation, homosexuality, and self-esteem. Strong conceptions of sin require also the idea of a powerful God and a tempting Satan, but as Alan Wolfe recalls, “polls routinely show that while Americans frequently believe in the existence of heaven, they are not sure about the reality of hell” [161]. This dynamic has led to the development of non-judgmental theology, which can negatively impact the overall society. Examples of services in megachurches show that priority is given to a feeling of belonging, rather than to harsh judgment. Even African-American Churches try to avoid sounding too judgmental and instead favour discourses on “understanding along with empathy, warmth, and friendship, (which) is what a large number of faithful Americans seek” [176]. In fact, the main argument developed by Alan Wolfe here is that Americans consider themselves more spiritual than they do religious. The popularity of revivalist, recovery, and regeneration groups and the proliferation of therapeutic language which can be found easily in American religions bring complexity when deciding what is morally acceptable or not in the global society.

The process of reaching out to new believers differs widely depending on the religion. Missionary activities to convert others (evangelization) are quite controversial in the current U.S. climate. Proselytising can be moderate or aggressive, depending on the type of activities and on the meaning given to them, especially for Mormons and Evangelicals. This growing dynamic of converting family, friends, and neighbours is conceptualized as the “salvation inflation” that is, a phenomenon that: “has taken place as evangelical Christians carry out their duty to witness, as less becomes expected in order to achieve salvation, the blessings of salvation are offered with fewer strings attached” [196]. Witnessing has also adapted to the socio-demographic changes in the United States, and is much stronger now in the suburbs than in the inner cities. The suburbanization of America has led in part to the transformation of American religion affected by the changing nature of its believers, who have become more educated, more flexible, and more mobile. These changes imply also a tendency toward denominational switching and new forms of gathering (in schools, stadiums, hotels, restaurants, etc.). Evangelical churches can also attract people with little knowledge of the doctrine because the commitment of new members is more and more transitory. As the author was told: “The new suburban churches which rely on modern technology to streamline their message, do not want their members to feel bad because they do not know much about their faith” [201]. The use of radio, television, internet, popular music and culture, television shows, and other forms of entertainment is also an attempt to reach out the suburban population. References to “televangelism” with figures such as Robert Schuller, Jim Bakker, or Pat Robertson have been well studied, but they respond to this new urban development.

Finally, the last chapter, “Identity,” is probably the most challenging one, although the most incomplete, for two main reasons. First, it deals with relatively new forms of American religious practices (Buddhism, Islam, etc.). Second, it focuses on the role of recent immigration in shaping and reshaping religious identity. Relying mostly on his work on Korean, Taiwanese, Chinese and Latino immigrants, Alan Wolfe argues that religious switching often occurs before immigration, as an adaptive process, and during the second-generation of believers. Strict denominations seem important for the first generation of immigrants, but then their children are more attracted to parachurch movements, such as the Korean Christian Fellowship, the Korean Crusade for Christ, the Chinese Christian Church or Latino Pentecostal Churches such as Alcance Victoria or Latino versions of Calvary and Harvests Chapels and the Vineyard Fellowship churches. The adaptation of Islam to the American individualistic and materialistic society is also quite visible during the Ramadan, in the prayers, the rituals or in daily life (halal food, usury and mortgages, gender roles, etc.). Alan Wolfe states that “American values influence Muslim religious practice far more than Muslims reach out and convert Americans to their new way of life” [236], a way of reinsuring his co-nationals regarding Islam in the post 9/11 society. Lastly, the author explores quickly the popularity of Buddhism since the 1960s and stresses out of paradox: Asians rarely approached Buddhism as a religion in the western sense, but more as a spiritual and cultural specificity. Buddhist immigrants have thus tended to institutionalize Buddhist practices whereas Americans converted to Buddhism in contrast promote it for its more spiritual approach to faith. The two types of practitioners have in practice very few interactions. What is at stake in this last chapter is the challenge that the presence of so many religions poses to American pluralism. But as Alan Wolfe emphasizes: “A less appreciated aspect of the new immigration to the United States is the challenge posed to religious believers themselves” [244].

The conclusion, “Is Democracy Safe from Religion?” provides a discussion of the balance between democratic principles and religious practices and expressions. Although religion has been transformed and is being transformed in the United States, it continues to have a strong importance and meaning for Americans: “Americans are remarkable for the ways they link their religion to the secular world. Religion moves people because its ideas are powerful, yet Americans, who shun overly intellectual ideas on radio and television, are also likely to avoid faiths that ask them to take doctrine seriously” [246]. Nevertheless, all religions have accommodated and adapted themselves to the American culture of individualism and materialism, where switching of religious denominations is as easy as a choice made in a marketplace. It does not mean that religion has lost power in politics and society, because Americans who profess to have no faith at all are viewed with suspicion, nor that it has advanced. It has been transformed. Some principles still remain from the old-time religion; American religion remains “populistic, personalistic, and anti-institutional” [248]. But new principles are arising; American believers want to be full citizens, be they liberal or more conservative. That’s why they might organize themselves as interest groups or lobbies to influence public officials to adopt their point of view on a broad range of issues (abortion, gay marriage, Darwinism, prayers in public schools, etc.). Then, they should accept, Alan Wolfe states, the democratic principles of debates, discussions and negotiations. Coming back to the necessity of a clear separation between religion and state, the author concludes, “The more we refrain from treating religion as if it has some status that makes it different from everything else in the world—holier and more moral if you like it, more sectarian and divisive if you do no—the greater our chances of avoiding religion’s ugly legacies while still being able to appreciate its benefits for the individuals who practice it and for the democratic society they inhabit.” Wolfe uses a moderate and measured tone, trying to establish distance from the religious controversies between liberals and conservatives. He is calling for religious pluralism and tolerance, but also for rationalism at a time where many are evaluating the relationship between the state and American religion. This quite balanced position might, for some readers, be difficult to retain. Although interesting to notice, the transformation of religion is not specific to the American nation. Nevertheless, the contribution demonstrates that contemporary discourses on a religious revival in America are flawed; the secular society has imposed a cultural accommodation to religions. Thus, he can easily state: “we are all evangelicals now.”

Cercles2006
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