The Transformation of American Religion: How we Actually Live Our Faith / Edition 1

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American religion—like talk of God—is omnipresent. Popular culture is awash in religious messages, from the singing cucumbers and tomatoes of the animated VeggieTales series to the bestselling "Left Behind" books to the multiplex sensation The Passion of the Christ. In The Transformation of American Religion, sociologist Alan Wolfe argues that the popularity of these cartoons, books, and movies is proof that religion has become increasingly mainstream. In fact, Wolfe argues, American culture has come to dominate American religion to such a point that, as Wolfe writes, "We are all mainstream now."

The Transformation of American Religion represents the first systematic effort in more than fifty years to bring together a wide body of literature about worship, fellowship, doctrine, tradition, identity, and sin to examine how Americans actually live their faith. Emphasizing personal stories, Wolfe takes readers to religious services across the nation-an Episcopal congregation in Massachusetts, a Catholic Mass in a suburb of Detroit, an Orthodox Jewish temple in Boston-to show that the stereotype of religion as a fire-and-brimstone affair is obsolete. Gone is the language of sin and damnation, and forgotten are the clear delineations between denominations; they have been replaced with a friendly God and a trend towards sampling new creeds and doctrines. Overall, Wolfe reveals American religion as less radical, less contentious, and less dangerous than it is generally perceived to be.

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Editorial Reviews

Wall Street Journal

"While others look at American religion and see a two-party system pitting conservatives against liberals, Mr. Wolfe sees a wide swath of theological moderates. . . .The measured tone that Mr. Wolfe strikes in this important book will be welcomed by many readers. So should his call for full citizenship for religious Americans."—Stephen Prothero, Wall Street Journal

— Stephen Prothero

Los Angeles Times

"Offering neither a cynical attack on religion
— Bernadette Murphy

Chicago Tribune

"The decline of powerful local institutions like political parties . . . or churches animated by believers with strong convictions, [can become] cause for worry, not celebration. None of this denies the importance of "The Transformation of American Religion," surely one of the best studies of the subject."

— John T. McGreevy

Dallas Morning News

"Here is a wide-ranging description of religious practices and attitudes in America, full of stories, survey data and shrewd analysis."

— Dwight A. Moody

Wall Street Journal - Stephen Prothero
"While others look at American religion and see a two-party system pitting conservatives against liberals, Mr. Wolfe sees a wide swath of theological moderates. . . .The measured tone that Mr. Wolfe strikes in this important book will be welcomed by many readers. So should his call for full citizenship for religious Americans."
Los Angeles Times - Bernadette Murphy
"Offering neither a cynical attack on religion nor a starry-eyed celebration of its triumphs, [Wolfe] presents a commendably balanced view, honoring the role religion has played in our nation's past while helping us see more clearly the present state of religious affairs."
Chicago Tribune - John T. McGreevy
"The decline of powerful local institutions like political parties . . . or churches animated by believers with strong convictions, [can become] cause for worry, not celebration. None of this denies the importance of "The Transformation of American Religion," surely one of the best studies of the subject."
Dallas Morning News - Dwight A. Moody
"Here is a wide-ranging description of religious practices and attitudes in America, full of stories, survey data and shrewd analysis."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226905181
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 4/1/2005
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 1,123,578
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Alan Wolfe is director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College as well as a contributing editor to the New Republic and the Wilson Quarterly. He is the author of One Nation, After All: What Middle-Class Americans Really Think About God, Country, Family, Racism, Welfare, Immigration, Homosexuality, Work, the Right, the Left, and Each Other, a 1999 New York Times Notable Book of the Year.

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Read an Excerpt

The Transformation of American Religion

How We Actually Live Our Faith
By Alan Wolfe

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2005 Alan Wolfe
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226905187


The Passing of the Old-Time Religion

"So ... thus it is, that natural men are held in the hand of God over the pit of hell," thundered America's most famous theologian, Jonathan Edwards, in 1741. "They have deserved the fiery pit, and are already sentenced to it; and God is dreadfully provoked, his anger is as great towards them as to those that are actually suffering the executions of the fierceness of his wrath in hell." For Edwards, God is great, humans are meek, and our only recourse is to accept the arbitrariness of his inscrutable grace.

Much ink has been spilled about whether "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" is typical of the theology of Jonathan Edwards. There is no doubt, however, that Edwards, even when he speaks in far more rapturous language about the wonders of the divine, paints a picture of religious believers as a people apart - their eyes focused not on the mundane world around them but on the ultimate judgment that awaits them. From his day to ours, that image has shaped the ways in which we argue over faith. Fed up with the sinful character of American life, evangelical Protestants, conservative Catholics, Orthodox Jews, Mormons, and other adherents to strong forms of religious faith have withdrawn from the dominant society, choosing to live in subcommunities of their own, to send their children to schools entrusted to teach the truths of their tradition, and to vote for candidates pledged to uphold and support their values. So visible are they, so strong do their convictions appear to be, and (especially in recent years) so palpable has been their influence over public policy that the spirit of Jonathan Edwards, or others like him, seems very much alive in the land.

If strong religious believers view secular society as the enemy, at best to be converted and at worst to be ignored, liberal and secular Americans are only too happy to agree that the faithful are indeed a breed apart. Deeply entrenched religious truths, they routinely insist, are little more than dogmas reiterated without examination and self-criticism. When believers refuse to engage the culture, their opponents dismiss them as fanatics, frustrated people rendered insecure by the dilemmas and opportunities of modernity. When they do mix with everyone else, especially by trying to demonstrate the wonders of their faith, they are called sectarian, their efforts at witnessing requiring constitutional restraints designed to protect the privacy and dignity of their targets. Yes, Jonathan Edwards remains alive and well in America, skeptics of religion are likely to conclude, but that is cause for concern, not celebration. Like Edwards himself, who certainly had his authoritarian side, strong believers, in the skeptics' view, can easily turn into petty tyrants, invoking divine authority to limit the freedom of those they fear.

The American people, it would seem, cannot make up their minds whether religious fervor is essential for salvation or incompatible with the principles of modern liberal democracy. But what if religious belief has little in common with the images conveyed by Jonathan Edwards? American religion has never existed in practice the way it is supposed to exist in theory. Democratic in their political instincts, geographically and economically mobile, attracted to popular culture more than to the written word, Americans from the earliest times have shaped religion to account for their personal needs; even Edwards was ridden out of his pulpit by worshippers fed up with his pious sermonizing. Always in a state of transition, faith in the United States, especially in the last half century or so, has been further transformed with dazzling speed. Tracing the history of Christian thought from the New Testament to the twentieth century, the theologian H. Richard Niebuhr documented the many ways in which Christ could become a transformer of culture. But in the United States culture has transformed Christ, as well as all other religions found within these shores. In every aspect of the religious life, American faith has met American culture - and American culture has triumphed.

Whether or not the faithful ever were a people apart, they are so no longer; if they were singing the famous gospel hymn today, they would say that the old-time religion is no longer good enough for them. Talk of hell, damnation, and even sin has been replaced by a nonjudgmental language of understanding and empathy. Gone are the arguments over doctrine and theology; if most believers cannot for the life of them recall what makes Luther different from Calvin, there is no need for the disputation and schism in which those reformers, as well as other religious leaders throughout the centuries, engaged. More Americans than ever proclaim themselves born again in Christ, but the lord to whom they turn rarely gets angry and frequently strengthens self-esteem. Traditional forms of worship, from reliance on organ music to the mysteries of the liturgy, have given way to audience participation and contemporary tastes. Some believers are anxious to witness their faith to others, but they tend to avoid methods that would make them seem unfriendly or invasive. If Jonathan Edwards were alive and well, he would likely be appalled; far from living in a world elsewhere, the faithful in the United States are remarkably like everyone else.

The message of this book is that religion in the United States is being transformed in radically new directions. This conclusion is based on time spent among the faithful of many varieties, as well as engagement with the writings of ethnographers who have studied religion as it is lived by real people in real life. So diverse are American religions, however, that I have not been able to discuss each and every one of them; the reader will not find much in this book dealing with Eastern Orthodox Christians, Hindus, or many other faiths that certainly deserve mention. Still, enough religions have been examined by sufficient numbers of social scientists to establish one conclusion: The most exotic religion in the United States is also the most familiar, as strikingly similar to the society in which it flourishes as it is distant from the religion we once knew. It is time for Americans to stop discussing a religion that no longer exists and to concentrate their attention on the one that flourishes all around them.

When we begin to recognize religion as it actually is, we will, I believe, be less likely to see ourselves divided into implacable camps. Here is my advice to those who view people on the other side of the faith divide as their enemy.

To people of faith, I say this: You have shaped American culture far too much to insist that you remain countercultural. You do not want to admit the extent to which your religion has accommodated itself to modern life in the United States for fear that this would somehow detract from your piety. But is it really so awful to have moved closer to the culture around you? You could take umbrage at the descriptions I will offer in this book of the ways in which you have succumbed to the individualism, and even on occasion the narcissism, of American life. But I would urge you instead to take pride in your flexibility and adaptability. Like everyone else in the United States, you innovate and originate. You want your institutions to be responsive to your needs. You seek faiths that are authentic and alive. Sometimes you probably do go too far in the alacrity with which you borrow from American culture, and on those occasions you may - and probably should - have second thoughts. But there is nothing in the transformation of American religion in which you have been such active participants that ought to cause bitter anguish and apocalyptic rejection.

To all those who worry about faith's potential fanaticism, I also have some words: We are all mainstream now. Ordinary people who want nothing more than to serve their God and to be modern, American, and full participants in their society have more in common with you than you realize. Because they do, the time has come for you to stop using the faithful as targets to promote an understanding of religion's role in public life that discriminates against those who make belief central to the way they live. Their views may be different from yours on abortion or prayer in school, but we expect people in a democracy to have different views on major questions of public policy. As modern Americans with distinctly tolerant sensibilities, you pride yourselves on your willingness to change, yet religious believers, even the most conservative among them, have adopted themselves to modern society far more than you have changed your views about what they are really like. You have made the whole country more sensitive to the inequalities of race and gender. Now it is time to extend the same sympathy to those who are different in the sincerity of their belief.

Religions can be astonishingly different, while human beings can be surprisingly the same. Study theology, and one comes away impressed by differences. Study real people, and one is more likely to notice the similarities, not only among people of different faiths but also between those for whom religion matters greatly and those for whom it matters not at all. Believers in the United States are neither saviors nor sectarians. Once we know more about them, we will, or so I hope, be less likely to fear either the imminent establishment of a theocracy or the day of wrath in which God punishes us for our sins.


Excerpted from The Transformation of American Religion by Alan Wolfe Copyright © 2005 by Alan Wolfe.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: The Passing of the Old-Time Religion
1. Worship
2. Fellowship
3. Doctrine
4. Tradition
5. Morality
6. Sin
7. Witness
8. Identity
Conclusion: Is Democracy Safe from Religion?

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