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Posted January 6, 2004

Book: Religion in America Since 1945: A History
Author: Patrick Allitt
Columbia University Press, New York, pp. 313

Excerpt from Jacket:

Moving far beyond the realm of traditional “Church History,” Patrick Allitt here offers a vigorous and erudite survey of the broad canvas of American religion since World War II. Identifying the major trends and telling moments within major trends and telling moments within major denominational and also in less formal religious movements, he asks how these religious movements have shaped, and been shaped by, some of the most important and divisive issues and events of the last century: The Cold War, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, feminism and the sexual revolution, abortion rights, the antinuclear and environmentalist movements, and may others.

Allitt argues that the boundaries between religion and political discourse have become increasingly blurred in the last fifty years. Having been divided along denominational lines in the early postwar period, religious Americans had come by the 1980s to be divided along political lines instead, as they grappled with the challenges of modernity and secularism. Partly because of this politicization, and partly because of the growing influence of Asian, Latino, and other ethnic groups, the United States is anomalous among the Western industrialized nations, as church membership and religious affiliation generally increased during this period. Religion in America Since 1945 is a masterful analysis of this dynamism and diversity and an ideal starting point for any exploration of the contemporary religious scene.

Excerpt from the book:

In the 1970s and 1980s a long succession of social and foreign policy issues involved religious Americans, but along new lines of alliance. Conservative Protestants and conservative Catholics repeatedly found themselves on the same side of these issues (notably those relating to education, the family, foreign policy, and sexuality), just as liberal Catholics and Protestants made a common cause on the opposite side, with each group finding Jewish allies from a third, sharply divided constituency. By then anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism, still appreciable forces in public life in 1945, had all but disappeared, and controversy within Protestantism and within Catholicism was fiercer than conflict between them.

Religion and politics mixed in countless ways, as most of the episodes examined here illustrate, and drew in tens of thousands of Americans. Religion as an intellectual preoccupation was, by contrast, the preserve of a tiny minority. Theology followed a paradoxical path. Probably more theological writing was published in America during the fifty-six years after World War II than in any other comparable period, but its cultural influence had never been slighter. Most theologians by then were academic specialists and were hermetically sealed off from the wider religious population. Their intended audience was other theologians, and they, like professors in the secular disciplines, were publishing largely to assure promotion and tenure rather than to nurture congregations and save souls. A few theological writers, notably Francis Schaeffer, achieved a wider audience, but the majority, especially those writing theology for particular identity groups — the black, feminist, womanist, liberationist, and queer theologians, for example — had negligible influence outside the universities and divinity schools. There was still a massive audience for books on religion and spirituality, but these books written in a different idiom, often with a strong self-help message. Norman Vincent Peale’s Power of Positive Thinking (1952), Marabel Morgan’s The Total Woman (1973), and Rabbi Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People (1980) were all religious best-sellers but were scarcely recognizable as theology in the traditional sense. Ministers and rabbis in most churches and synagogues found counseling and therapeutic work more important than doctrinal rigor, and the right emotions more important to their members than dogmatic exactitude.

Between Hiroshima and Ground Zero, in other words, America’s religious situation had changed to one of greater diversity and greater politicization, even though the separation between church and state was stronger. Certain tensions were built into the religious situation. Evangelicals, for example, were able simultaneously to condemn the godless modern world, to anticipate imminent crisis, and yet to operate prosperously and successfully in a high-tech environment with a large following. Liberal Christians were able simultaneously to dread what seemed to them like the threat of intolerant fundamentalism seizing the nation yet send their children to schools in which no prayer was uttered and no mention made of Christmas. Rosh Hashanah, or Ramadan, Agnostics and atheists could live daily lives from which even the mention of religion was almost totally excluded. As the sociologist Peter Berger remarked, one element of the late-twentieth-century America’s diversity was its ability to shelter many groups whose members had completely different ideas of what the world was like; what he called competing ‘plausibility structures.” The heat of religious-political disputes usually came from individuals speaking out of different plausibility structures and finding it difficult to believe that their adversaries – whose assumptions about reality were so different — were speaking and acting in good faith.

Luckily, the American taste for verbal combat continued to be tempered by a strong American faith in civility. Most religious Americans agreed to differ and accepted a situation in which they could pursue their religious lives, or their unreligious lives, without threat of external interference and far from the public spotlight. The supporters and defenders of particular religious groups, and of religion in general, could easily point to the educational, charitable, and spiritual benefits of America’s religiosity. Detractors, equally, could point to religion as a force for obfuscation and intolerance. As a historian, am less concerned with assigning praise and blame than with describing what happened and explaining why, so that readers, whatever their own views, can understand this element of the American past a little better.

Table of Contents:

1. Anxious victory: 1945-1952

The War’s end
The American religious landscape
Cold War of the spirit
Spiritual peace in the 1940s

2. Religion and Materialism: 1950-1970

Fighting Godless Communism
Religious intellectuals in the 1950s
Eisenhower Spirituality
Church buildings

3. Religion, respect, and social change: 1955-1968

African American religion
The Civil Rights Movement begins
White Christians and civil rights
Nonviolence in decline
Mormon America

4. New Frontiers and Old Boundaries: 1960-1969

The Catholic President
The Supreme Court and religion in schools
Vietnam, Part I
Radical theology
Catholic reform

5. Shaking the foundations: 1963-1972

American Judaism
Vietnam, Part II
Catholic challenges to Church discipline
African American religion after King

6. Alternative Religious Worlds: 1967-1982

Space travel
Feminism and ministry
Feminist theology
New religions, “Cults,” and their critics
Asian spirituality in American dress

7. Evangelicals and Politics: 1976-1990

Jimmy Carter and the evangelical presidency
The new Christian right and the Reagan campaign
The abortion controversy
Wives and mothers

8. The Christian Quest for Justice and Wisdom: 1980-1995

The antinuclear movement
Creationism and evolution
Christian academics and home schooling

9. Profits, Profligates, and Prophets: 1987-1995

The evangelical scandals
A minister in the White House?
American Islam

10. The New World Order: 1989-1999

End of the Cold War
Religion and violence
Environmental spirituality

11. Fears, Threats, and Promises: 1990-2000

Homosexuality and religion
Promise keepers
Millennium expectation

12. The New Millennium: 2001

Religion at Ground Zero