Evaluation of the myriad ways American religion and culture affect each other.
Wolfe (Religion/Boston College; Moral Freedom, 2001, etc.) traveled around the country attending a wide variety of religious services, interviewing religious professionals and lay persons, and reading as much as he could about American religion by historians, sociologists, psychologists, priests, puritans, and preachers. Beginning with some lines from Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” the author argues that despite such fierce words, even American religions that profess to be fundamentalist or fire-and-brimstone have been forced for survival’s sake to integrate into their services and theology some of the very aspects of the secular culture they profess to disdain. Thus so-called “megachurches” feature feel-good rather than fiery sermons, rock ’n’ roll (with Christian lyrics, of course) pumped through high-tech sound systems, comfortable seats that resemble those found at your local multiplex, and soccer and aerobics integrated with Jesus and the Gospel. Wolfe does not focus entirely on Christian churches, though his analysis of the decline of so-called “mainline” denominations like the Methodists and Disciples of Christ is most penetrating. He also demonstrates, for example, how Jews and Buddhists and Muslims have modified their religious practices to accommodate Americans and their fondness for personal freedom and for feeling good rather than thinking hard. Although Wolfe attempts to maintain a dispassionate disinterest, he cannot resist preaching himself from time to time, taking a swipe at The Prayer of Jabez (“so narcissistic that it makes prosperity theology look demanding by contrast”) and repeating the datum that ten percent of Americans think Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. He urges political liberals and religious conservatives to reconcile, seeing the latter as no real threat to American democracy.
Literate and learned revelations about how American society has painted a smiley face on the once-grim visage of old-time religion.