success stories

Posted January 22, 2004

Book: The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith
Author: Alan Wolfe
Free Press, New York, pp. 309

Excerpt from Jacket:

God is not dead in America, but the way he lives and breathes has nothing in common with the old-time religion dramatized in Inherit the Wind. In this groundbreaking work, leading American social scientist Alan Wolfe demonstrates that American religion has been transformed beyond recognition. God has met and struggled fiercely against American culture — and the culture has won.

On the face of it, religion in America seems to booming. Church attendance remains high and God talk is omnipresent. Yet after traveling across the country, visiting with clergy, joining in worship services, an digesting reports from every corner of the land, Wolfe discovered that the reality of religion as we actually practice it is utterly different from the stereotype. Gone is the language of sin and damnation. Forgotten are all the doctrinal differences that were once of burning importance. Worship and prayer serve the needs of the inner self. Witnessing is another lifestyle option.

In short, American religion has been tamed, and God has become a friend rather than an authority figure. Even conservative religion has become part of the culture of narcissism. Evangelicals are more interested in planting and growing churches than they are in saving souls. People change denominations as frequently as they change jobs.

Americans continue to take their religion seriously, but as a group we have thoroughly domesticated what was once a matter of spiritual life and death. We are witnessing the end of religion as our grandparents understood it — and the start of a new religion we are just beginning to know. The Transformation of American Religion offers nothing less than a roadmap to our new national faith.

Excerpt from Book:

An Experiment in Morality

Intrigued by the question of whether religious faith can be positively associated with personal moral conduct, a sociologist tried out an experiment with one of his classes at a conservative Christian university. All 150 students were given an extra point on an exam they had taken. They were then told that some of the exams were graded in error and of those that were, some were undergraded while the others were overgraded. Since only one point was involved, the students were also informed that the exams would not be collected and regraded: instead they should just let the instructor know whether their grade was one point too high, one point too low, or just right. The teacher wanted to know whether students who were more religious would be less likely to cheat than those who were less religious. And that is exactly what he found. Although everyone’s grade was one point too high, the faithful, on every single measure of religiosity, were the ones more likely to say so.

This study was conducted to address one of the difficulties facing social scientists as they grapple with the relationship between religion and personal morality. A debate over the question can be traced to a widely cited 1069 article; expecting to find that such variables as church attendance and belief in an afterlife would be associated with low rates of juvenile delinquency, its author discovered that religious belief had little or no relationship to what society labeled as deviant behavior. Since then, hosts of studies have tried to shed further light on the subject. The results are inconsistent and puzzling, depending, as is often the case with such research, on the wording of questions in surveys or the samples chosen for analysis. Sometimes researchers confirm the hypothesis that religion makes little difference with respect to moral conduct; there is, for example, if anything, a tendency for evangelicals to divorce in greater amounts, or to have more children out of wedlock, than other religious believers. On the other hand, many studies have found that people who attend church regularly and indicate a strong belief in God are less likely to report high rates of gambling, alcohol and drug consumption, tax cheating, and domestic violence. Perhaps the fairest way to summarize the empirical data is to say that religious faith has a slight, but nonetheless positive, effect on personal morality.

Despite this emerging consensus, however, the issue is far from settled. For one thing, it may be the case that, as with the Mormons, something other than religious faith narrowly understood could have an influence on morality; it has been suggested, for example, that participation in any kind of small-group activity, whether or not individuals are themselves religious, can reduce alcohol and drug consumption, and since small groups are increasingly popular in American religion, morality effects, as they might be called, may have more to do with group psychology than with faith. For another, causality is nearly impossible to ascertain in studies like these, so that t may be that moral people are attracted to religion and not the other way around. But the single most difficult problem with the sociological literature is the one that the experiment at the conservative Christian university set out to correct. Nearly all of the associations that have been found between religion and moral conduct are based on what people say about their religiosity, not what they actually do. People do not just have a tendency to exaggerate whether or not they go to church; they also know what kinds of moral behavior are valued by their religion and by their society. Self-reporting is important, but it is clearly preferable, where possible, to observe behavior rather than to rely on secondhand accounts.

Because this experiment reported on what students actually did rather than what they said, it makes an important contribution to the literature dealing with religion and personal moral conduct. But it does not make a contribution that will please those who believe that religious faith causes people to deepen their moral sense. The true importance of this little study lies in the fact that, given a chance to cheat, the overwhelming majority of students, religious or not, in fact took it. Whatever difference there was between the more and less religious pales in the face of the fact that only forty-one of the 150 students honestly admitted receiving an extra point.

The prevalence of widespread cheating at a predominantly conservative Christian university would seem to confirm the views of those who believe that religion, far from having a positive influence on personal moral conduct, is more likely to produce hypocrisy than honesty. For all the talk of faith-based initiatives and charitable choice, they would point out, religion’s record on personal morality cannot be evaluated without considering such real-world events as the financial scandals associated with Jimmy Swaggert and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, the persistence of racism or anti-Semitism among various religious denominations, or the all-too-frequent examples of pedophilia found in the Catholic priesthood and the moral (by any standard) efforts of the Church hierarchy to keep them secret. If anything, people of this persuasion believe, faith is more likely to be associated with immorality than its opposite, since it causes so many people to close their eyes to the kind of self-examination that genuine morality requires.

Yet it is as wrong to gloat about religion’s failure to live up to the highest standards of morality as it is to believe that religious belief by itself can transform a bad person into a good one. Religion and morality interact in ways that can rarely produce a one-to-one relationship in either direction. Religion cannot be treated in so functional a manner, as if one can wind it up like a clock – or bring it to a stop – in order to cure one’s favorite social ills. We live, for better or worse, in a society in which people receive cues on how to act from many, often contradictory, sources. Against the seductions of careerism and conformism – and in the face of media-induced cynicism, the necessity of political compromise, the demands of children, and the simple human desire to live without perpetual crises of conscience – religion can play only a supporting role in transforming secular society into its own views of the good life.

None of this answers the question of whether the United States would be better off if it allowed leeway for faith-based organizations to play more of a role in public policy; my personal view is that it probably would be. But to expect that religion can serve as a corrective to any one of a number of perceived moral flaws in the United States – that, for example, it can lead individuals to repudiate the lessons of the 1960s or to transform themselves from law-breaking to law-abiding citizens – reflects an outdated conception of what religion is actually like. Long ago and far away, faith may well have been strict enough, and its capacity to win obedience strong enough, for religion to offer a panacea for the world’s miseries. But these days the world is no longer quite so miserable and religion is not quite so powerful. Most of the religious believers in the United States do not believe that God exists in order to balance the federal budget or lower the rate of recidivism. Blending religion and politics in such a manner is a temptation they have little trouble resisting.

Table of Contents:

Introduction: The passing of the old-time religion

Chapter 1: Worship

Chapter 2: Fellowship

Chapter 3: Doctrine

Chapter 4: Tradition

Chapter 5: Morality

Chapter 6: Sin

Chapter 7: Witness

Chapter 8: Identity

Conclusion: Is democracy safe from religion?