Respond to this Article September 2003

Revival of the Fittest

Are evangelicals really dumbing down American religion?

By Amy Sullivan

I was a Jesus geek before being a Jesus geek was cool. In the Midwestern Baptist church where I grew up, we had quite a personal conception of the Lord and Savior. On Christmas, in addition to celebrating with more traditional desserts and carols, we baked a birthday cake and sang a rollicking tune called "Happy Birthday, Baby Jesus." Mrs. Crain, my Sunday School teacher, talked about getting "Jesus bumps" instead of goose bumps. And during the "praise and petitions" part of the worship service that preceded prayers, it was not unusual for someone to offer thanks to Jesus for the recovery of a purse left in a dressing room at J.C. Penney's. Catholics may have a saint for lost causes, but we had a deity for lost pocketbooks.

The Transformation of American Religion
by Alan Wolfe
Free Press, $26.00

In the days before VeggieTales, we read Christian versions of Archie comic books, in which Betty, Veronica, and the whole gang traveled the world proselytizing. We sang praise songs displayed on overhead projectors, flocked to Amy Grant concerts, and (Lord help us) performed rap songs with puppets, using the baptistery as a stage in order to recruit kids for youth groups. We listened to countless sermons that boiled down to essentially the same point: We were doomed unless we asked Jesus to save us. In his latest book on the nature of American faith, The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith, sociologist Alan Wolfe calls this kind of evangelicalism "tacky." He also says it's the future of American religion, a "religion [that] has been so transformed that we have reached the end of religion as we know it."

The cause of this transformation, according to Wolfe, is the competitive need to appeal to "switchers," those who change religious traditions and whom he compares to free-agent athletes looking for the best deal the market can offer. As Wolfe undoubtedly knows, but does not point out, competition among churches is not new. Protestant churches have angled for ways to attract parishioners ever since towns offered more than one denominational option--Max Weber described this American phenomenon at the turn of the 20th century. In addition, the rise of church potlucks in the 1950s was partly an attempt to woo potential suburban congregants by offering the best tater-tot casserole or ambrosia salad or themed "Luau Night" in town. While this trend is not new, Wolfe hones in on the fact that it has been accelerating in recent decades.

Today's religious communities face competition not only from other denominations, but also from other religious faiths and from the siren call of secular society. While a 1955 Gallup Poll found that only 4 percent of Americans had switched from the religion of their childhood, by the mid-1980s, that number had risen to over 30 percent. Even that figure does not reflect those who, while not switching religious traditions, fall away from the faith in which they were raised. It is efforts to attract these "unchurched" --or, more accurately, the religio-phobic--that have been behind the broad transformation of American religion Wolfe describes.

Americans are savvy consumers, and they behave no different when it comes to religion. Since its founding, America has always offered more religious choices to its citizens than most other countries. But the general pattern of consumerism in this society has led to an exponential growth in those choices. Americans are shoppers, they want to make their own decisions, they are increasingly comfortable with other people making different choices without passing judgment, they are more demanding that institutions cater to their needs, and they want lots of options. They don't want one kind of blue jeans; they want boot-cut, low-rise, reverse-fit, classic-cut, stretch-fit, flare, slim, cuffed, cropped, sandblasted, rinsed, or faded. Or maybe they want corduroys instead. So it's not surprising that Americans have demanded more variety in the area of religion, and that they are more comfortable switching between traditions with different offerings.

The market leader in this appeal to religious consumers has been the evangelical community. Wolfe identifies two social developments--preference for personalized faith (which has led to the Protestantization of most religions) and distrust of leadership and institutions--that have driven most of the changes in modern American religion. Evangelical churches, many of which combine Jesus-as-a-buddy theology with daycare, food courts, and concert seating, have responded most directly to those trends. Other religious traditions, in turn, have had to steadily conform to the evangelical model in order to compete for members.

Wolfe outlines the growing challenge to religious communities this way: "Attempting to attract or to keep congregations whose members have been so strongly influenced by a common American culture, all of America's religions face the same imperative: Personalize or die." Put that way, it sounds rather dire. But he's right. Many Americans are looking for user-friendly faith, a cuddly God, and comfort-fit worship options. A Presbyterian church in Memphis uses PowerPoint presentations to highlight the main points of each sermon, just in case congregants doze off for a moment in the extra-cushy pews that are all the rage now, or are otherwise distracted from closely following the message. A reform synagogue in the Bay Area offers a "synaplex" experience--"different Friday night services for different tastes, just as the nearby movie theaters offer many smaller screens instead of one large one." My old evangelist Archie comic books have been replaced by David and Jonathan adventure comics and Bobblehead versions of Moses, Samson, and Noah.

The anti-institutional bent of many Americans that is reflected by declining trust in business and political institutions has also influenced the structure of religious communities, new and old. When a Jewish havurah (the equivalent of home-fellowship worship) needed to find a new rabbi, members insisted that the ad emphasize they were seeking a "teacher and resource person," not a religious leader. Some megachurches don't display religious symbols like a cross for fear of driving away those who dislike signs of religious authority. And a small but growing trend can be found in the home-churching movement, similar to home-schooling in that both attract conservative Christians who feel alienated from public life and distrust public institutions. Unlike the Puritans in England who gathered for worship in their homes because they feared persecution if they worshipped publicly, today's home churchers choose to limit their fellowship circle to their family because they disapprove of the corruption they believe is inherent in church communities. In assessing the impact of these transformations in religious communities, Wolfe fears that we are witnessing a watering-down of religion that provides feel-good answers without requiring sacrifices of adherents. He quotes religious historian Randall Balmer, who asks, "Jesus will save your soul and your marriage, make you happy, heal your body, and even make you rich. Who wouldn't look twice at that offer?" By bending over backwards to cater to the needs of religious "consumers," Wolfe argues that religion has become no different from any other part of society. "Television, publishing, political campaigning, education, self-help advice--all increasingly tell Americans what they already want to hear," he notes. "Religion, it would seem, should now be added to that list." Well. For anyone who cares about the future of American religion, that is a fairly depressing judgment.

Wolfe correctly describes an important phenomenon that is taking place primarily in evangelical circles. To some extent, it also holds true for some Catholic and Jewish communities, although he has to stretch a bit to fit those examples--such as Catholics who make waves by meeting in small groups for Bible study--into the larger description of the "new" American religion. And if Wolfe characterized it this way, as a phenomenon strongest in evangelical circles that becomes less distinct in traditions further removed, his analysis would be precise.

He misses an important part of the picture, however, when he makes sweeping statements about the impact and scope of the trend, such as: "Religious believers increasingly live in suburbs, send their children to four-year liberal-arts colleges, work in professional capacities, enjoy contemporary music, shop in malls, raise confused and uncertain children, and relate primarily to other people with whom they share common interests." As written, this sentence is absurd--the vast majority of Americans have always been "religious believers" and did not just recently move out to the suburbs or begin listening to contemporary music. If by "religious believers," however, Wolfe means "conservative evangelicals," then he is correct. The flaw in his analysis is that he takes on-target observations about evangelicals and expands them into universal assertions about all religious Americans.

Moreover, although the American religious scene has indeed become a marketplace, user-friendly religion is not the only option on the shelves. Wolfe skips over a smaller, though crucial, countertrend--a movement toward orthodoxy that has paralleled, and is in some cases a backlash to, the rise of the religion-lite communities chronicled in the book. Most churchgoers are familiar with this phenomenon. Indeed, among my close friends are half a dozen former Baptists who became Episcopalians, a number of friends whose less-observant families are perplexed by their adherence to Orthodox Judaism, and several Catholics who seek out high-church services, often even attending Latin masses. Much has been written about this trend, including the 2002 book The New Faithful: Why Young Adults are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy, by journalist Colleen Carroll. And I can personally attest to the small but significant migration of evangelical Christians to orthodox Christianity.

Because although I grew up in a Baptist church where there was no need to worry about questions (I was shushed when I asked the pastor where all of the people came from if Adam and Eve only had sons) and where worship came in a fun, easy-to-swallow package, I left that tradition to make my home in that mustiest, most endangered of denominations, the Episcopal church. If flashy, PowerPoint-enabled, blue-jean religious services are all the rage, why would anyone join a liturgical tradition characterized by rituals, sacraments, and vestments? Wolfe would probably proclaim that my friends and I are outliers. But I think there is another reason he doesn't mention this countertrend. Wolfe is too honest to omit an example just because it doesn't fit his pattern. More likely, it's that he suffers from an ailment common to sociologists of religion since Emile Durkheim turned his anthropological eye on tribes and rituals--a heavy reliance on functionalist theories. In other words, researchers attempt to identify what function religion plays in people's lives. Are parishioners looking to create a sense of community to replace the family structure? Does religion provide an ethical mooring in these morally uncertain times? Are Bible studies and youth groups serving essentially the same purpose as bowling leagues and the Girl Scouts? These types of questions drive much of the study of religious communities, particularly for those scholars who come from non-religious backgrounds, as Wolfe notes in his book that he does.

That is unfortunate, because religious folks can be decidedly illogical. After all, they believe in things like reincarnation and the transubstantiation of body and blood into bread and wine (or Welch's grape juice, if you're Baptist). I left the Baptist church not because the music and food weren't up to snuff or because it failed to provide a sense of community. In fact, I have yet to find a church that meets those criteria as well as the church of my childhood. I left because I ultimately found the tradition theologically unsatisfying. Evangelicals place such unswerving emphasis on converting the "unsaved" that life, once I was saved, was pretty anticlimactic. The one-note "come to Jesus" sermons that brought me to the altar failed to provide any guidance for how to live as a Christian in a morally and ethically complex world. Most Sundays, I sat in the pews with an "I gave my soul to Jesus and all I got was this lousy t-shirt" feeling.

Orthodox traditions offer more applicable lessons for the religious life--the peerless sermons of Harvard Memorial Church's Rev. Peter Gomes are my standard for practical religious instruction--but they often require sacrifices that are at odds with self-interest. Being a religious individual in this modern world is a more complicated and challenging task than perhaps ever before. And it is exactly this kind of behavior that can't be understood by relying on traditional sociological explanations.

Years before George W. Bush gave a shout-out to Jesus in a presidential debate and officially brought evangelicalism into the mainstream, I was on the cutting-edge of American faith. Although I didn't realize it at the time, my Baptist church offered what the people are looking for: a personal God, informal worship, practical prayers, and pop-culture tie-ins. Those characteristics have shaped much of modern American religion, and Wolfe's observations about this wide-ranging development are spot-on. But it is going too far to claim that, "In every aspect of the religious life, American faith has met American culture--and American culture has triumphed." American faith has more varieties than Baskin Robbins has flavors; some have met the onslaught of culture by co-opting certain aspects, others have capitulated, and still more have firmly retained their sacred separateness. And the American faithful defy generalizations as well. I may look for all the world like an Episcopalian now, but I can still perform a puppet version of the Parable of the Prodigal Son that would knock your socks off.

Amy Sullivan is a doctoral student in sociology at Princeton University and the author of Political Aims, www.politicalaims.com.


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