An academic perspective on 40 years of change in America’s religious behaviors and beliefs.
When Porterfield (Religious Studies/Univ. of Wyoming) was growing up in the late 1950s, the Reformed Church and its liberal pastor were at the center of her town’s religious establishment—and of the civic observances that celebrated its middle-class, mainline Protestant culture. Forty years later, the religious landscape of “post-Protestant” America is profoundly different, with Catholics, Jews, Buddhists, pagans, Muslims, and devotees of an eclectic, syncretistic spirituality claiming a respectful hearing and a substantial following in the public square. What happened? The author examines the ways in which America’s traditional Puritan-Protestant religious culture, with its emphasis on the personal experience of grace, the equality of believers before God, and the practical benefits of religion in private and public life, prepared the way for today’s spiritual supermarket. Her project is an ambitious one, and there is a good deal of truth in her observations. But this is a deeply unsatisfying study. The focus is so heavily upon academics (and their middle-class students) that most of the variety and excitement of American religious life since 1960 gets left out. Postwar evangelicals, Mormons, Jews (except Jewish Buddhists and Orthodox women anxious about sex), blacks (except Martin Luther King Jr.), Pentecostals, Catholic charismatics, Barthians—everyone, in fact, not part of the liberal/radical religious culture she celebrates—have no part of Porterfield’s “Awakening.” She writes mainly of a small and aging cohort, people now in their 50s and 60s, who seem to have little influence on religion outside the academy and the increasingly otiose mainline denominations. And along with her narrow focus goes a high level of generality, offering neither richness of detail nor theoretical perspicacity—as well as a complacent, almost self-congratulatory tone.
Badly flawed, both in its design and its execution.