success stories

Posted January 23, 2004

An Often Unnoticed Success Story in Today’s Religion

Taken from The Transformation of American Religion
by Alan Wolfe [Already cited on the web site]

For all the ways in which the transformation of American religion disappoints those who long for more theologically informed faiths that take sin seriously and make the honoring of tradition obligatory, an often unnoticed success story lies behind the ways in which Americans practice their faith. In theory, religious differences ought to be more difficult to resolve than racial and ethnic ones. Faith, after all, is something that people have fought over the centuries, and even in the United States, the first society in the world to write freedom of religion into its constitution, Protestants typically treated their religion, the majority religion, as the guiding source of American values, whatever Catholics and Jews thought about the matter. Discrimination’s original sin in the United States was religious discrimination. If you believed the wrong things, and even if you believed the right things but believed them the wrong way, you were treated as if you really belonged somewhere else.

Yet at a time when the United States still experiences serious legacies of racial discrimination, its record on religious pluralism is truly remarkable. Just as the September 11 attacks were met with relatively minimal outbreaks of Muslim bashing, the scandals facing the Catholic Church produced very little rejoicing in Protestant circles, even in conservative Protestant denominations that once played a history of anti-Catholic bigotry. Even more remarkably, Americans not only welcome to their shores religious believers from non-Judeo-Christian traditions, they give them the higher compliment of converting to their traditions; nothing is more symbolic of the benefits of America’s religious transformation than the fact that Buddhists from Asia convert to Christianity at the same time that Christians and Jews from the United States convert to Buddhism. It is true that, when it comes to issues involving racial diversity, Americans tend to disagree about affirmative action or the amount of progress the society has made in progressing toward greater racial equality. Lost in the somewhat depressing story about race is the fact that we disagree much less over questions such as whether one religion should be society’s official religion, exactly the kind of issue that divides societies different from our own.

Understanding more about the ways Americans practice religion also helps put the pedophilia crisis of the Catholic church in perspective. Americans are more likely to identify with their faith, which they consider personal to them, than with the institutions, including denominations and congregations, that have historically represented their faith to them. This latent anti-institutionalization became particularly important in the pedophilia crisis because, of all religions in the United States, Catholics, in previous decades, were the most institutionally loyal — actively joining labor unions, supporting urban political machines, working for government, sponsoring their own system of schools, and sticking with their parish. All that has begun to change as Catholics become more like other religious believers in the United States. Now suburban and middle class, they work in companies in which women share power with men, CEOs are held accountable for their actions, people advance on the basis of talent rather than loyalty, and failure is punished by the marketplace. In their response to the sins of the hierarchy, American Catholics are unlikely to leave their faith behind; the most prominent organization to arise out of the crisis, on the contrary, is called the Voice of the Faithful. What they are seeking is a church that is more responsive and open, a church in short, like the rest of America. Because they are, the pedophilia scandal could turn out to be a source of replenishment for American Catholicism rather than a nail in its coffin.

Religion, like the stock market, has its ups and downs, and there may occur a time when talk of jihad dies down, peace is achieved in the Middle East, and the Catholic Church becomes more democratic. But it is not the headline-grabbing events that will determine the future of American religion. American religion had already become more personalized and individualistic, less doctrinal and devotional, more practical and purposeful, and increasingly at home with the culture surrounding it long before September 11, suicide bombings, and the trials and tribulations of Bernard Cardinal Law. The events of religion’s bad year may have sped them along, but whatever changes in religious practice they encourage would most likely have taken place in some form or other without them.

We can never predict what future decades will bring to the practice of American religion. But we can control the effects of those developments by narrowing the gap between the high expectations we often have for religion and the realities of ordinary people leading mundane lives. The more we refrain from treating religion as if it has some status that makes it different from everything else in the world — holier and more moral if you like it, more sectarian and divisive if you do no not — the greater our chances of avoiding religion’s ugly legacies while still being able to appreciate its benefits for the individuals who practice it and for the democratic society they inhabit. American religion has been so transformed that we have reached the end of religion as we have known it. This does not mean religion no longer has meaning. It means we will have to know it in new ways.