The Transformation of American Religion: The Story of a Late-Twentieth-Century Awakeningby Amanda Porterfield
As recently as a few decades ago, most people would have described America as a predominantly Protestant nation. Today, we are home to a colorful mix of religious faiths and practices, from a resurgent Catholic Church and a rapidly growing Islam to all forms of Buddhism and many other non-Christian religions. How did this startling transformation take place? A great… See more details below
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As recently as a few decades ago, most people would have described America as a predominantly Protestant nation. Today, we are home to a colorful mix of religious faiths and practices, from a resurgent Catholic Church and a rapidly growing Islam to all forms of Buddhism and many other non-Christian religions. How did this startling transformation take place? A great many factors contributed to this transformation, writes Amanda Porterfield in this engaging look at religion in contemporary America. Religious activism, disillusionment with American culture stemming from the Vietnam war, the influx of Buddhist ideas, a heightened consciousness of gender, and the vastly broadened awareness of non-Christian religions arising from the growth of religious studies programs--all have served to undermine Protestant hegemony in the United States. But the single most important factor, says Porterfield, was the very success of Protestant ways of thinking: emphasis on the individual's relationship with God, tension between spiritual life and religious institutions, egalitarian ideas about spiritual life, and belief in the practical benefits of spirituality. Distrust of religious institutions, for instance, helped fuel a religious counterculture--the tendency to define spiritual truth against the dangers or inadequacies of the surrounding culture--and Protestantism's pragmatic view of spirituality played into the tendency to see the main function of religion as therapeutic. For anyone interested in how and why the American religious landscape has been so dramatically altered in the last forty years, The Transformation of Religion in America offers a coherent and persuasive analysis.
"An insightful and beautifully written account of the evolution of religious ideas and themes in a post-Protestant America. The sweep of her grasp, and the continuities she uncovers amidst so much change from the Puritan past to the spiritual ferments of the present are impressive."Wade Clark Roof, J.F. Rowny Professor of Religion and Society, University of California at Santa Barbara
"We live today in the United States on the other side of a great religious transformation, Amanda Porterfield claims in this provocative, informed, and engaging work. Where others have seen simply decline or revival, Porterfield shows how the deconstruction of fundamental religious categories by cultural turmoil in the Sixties opened the way for new religious actors, new ideas, and for the creative reconstruction of our notions of God, person, body, gender, and of religion itself. Attentive both to continutiy and rupture, surveying a wide range of topicsincluding Buddhist psychotherapy, the politics of the body, and the infusion of Catholic sacramentalism into American culturePorterfield invites a rethinking of the origins and meanings of the 'post-Protestant and even post-Christian world of contemporary American life.' This book will be widely read and discussed."Robert Orsi, Indiana University
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The Liberation of Missionary
Judith Klein called herself Jewish, but she was not observant and she was adamant about the fact that she did not believe in God. This belief did not change over the course of her heroic and ultimately losing battle against breast cancer. Nor did it stand in the way of her deep affection for Anne, whom she had known since high school and with whom she corresponded and visited for thirty years. During the last ten of these years, Anne spent most of her time living as a Catholic sister with poor people in India. Although she was sometimes called a missionary, Anne did not proselytize on behalf of the Catholic Church, nor did she provide any sophisticated technical, medical, or educational services. She simply lived with poor people in a slum, as a poor person herself. This work exposed her to a lot of human suffering, but it also deepened her experience of God and made her feel very alive. Her habit of joining up with people in need spilled over into her friendship with Judith. While in the United States on furlough, she visited Judith before she died and spent some time simply living as Judith lived, sharing ideas and experiences. Both women enjoyed the visit and felt strengthened by it. Half jokingly, Judith referred to Anne as "my missionary."
Jan Sweet is a lay minister of the United Methodist Church in a small university town. Serving as a campus minister to university students is her primary responsibility, which she fulfills by organizing programs that draw students to church and to various communityactivities. Her church considers this work an important part of its mission, and Jan herself views the work as not just a job, but an outreach to others that is very much part of her own identity as a Christian. While she respects differences in religious beliefs, she views them as relatively unimportant in light of the larger mission of developing personhood, community, and social responsibility to which most, if not all, of the religious groups on campus are committed. Thus she does not consider herself an evangelist in the sense of calling anyone to convert. And she regards those who do proselytize on campus as religious extremists. In this regard, she has been openly critical of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS, or Mormon Church) because of their active evangelism on campus and also because of their unwillingness to cooperate in programs sponsored by the interfaith campus ministry. In recent months, the Women's Relief Society of the Mormon Church opened their canning factory for members of other churches to use in preparing food for the soup kitchens they sponsor. Jan views this generosity as a hopeful sign of greater interfaith cooperation with LDS in the future.
Bernard Glassman is a Zen Buddhist roshi, or teacher, officially recognized as a spiritual descendant by his own teacher, Taizan Maezumi, whose lineage of spiritual authority descends from Dogen Zenji, the thirteenth-century founder of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism in Japan. As part of his teaching mission, Glassman founded the Greystone Bakery in Yonkers, New York, famous for its challah. The bakery also sold specialty dessert foods to Bloomingdale's, Godiva, and Ben & Jerry's. This enterprise employed not only Zen students but also homeless people, who earned a living and developed useful life skills there. Glassman's combination of spirituality, social action, and entrepreneurship has generated some controversy, as did his belief that there is nothing about Zen that prevents one from also being a practicing Catholic or Jew. But Glassman believes that being a lineage holder gives him leeway to make innovations and a mandate to teach Zen in his own way. With regard to his openness to other religions, one of Glassman's best-known students is Robert Kennedy, a Jesuit priest to whom Glassman has transmitted authority. With regard to his own spirituality, Glassman's background as a Jew and his appreciation of Jewish food, and Jewish ideas and practices involving food, contributed to his enthusiasm for the Greystone Bakery and to his appreciation of the Buddhist idea that life is a meal.
Each of these three situations and sets of people illustrates the commitment to both religious pluralism and religious activism that characterizes a good deal of American religious life today. Judith Klein benefited from the friendship and succor of a Catholic missionary who respected her atheism. Jan Sweet pursues her Christian outreach to university students through interfaith cooperation. And Bernard Glassman welcomes Jews and Christians to Zen Buddhism and focuses his spiritual insight as a Zen teacher on business programs designed to help poor people and make the world a better place.
If we think about pluralism and activism abstractly, they might seem to be opposing forcesthe more accommodating one is to many religions, the less likely it is that one might be active in the name of one's own. But in fact, by enabling difference and experimentation, on one hand, and consensus and cooperation, on the other, the coinciding forces of pluralism and activist outreach fuel a good deal of religious vitality in the United States today. And when seen in the context of how they work together in people's lives, it becomes clear that these two forces are not just coinciding but actually interdependent. Judith's friend Anne succeeds in befriending and supporting others because she does not try to convert them. Jan is enthusiastic about her work as a Methodist lay minister because she believes that the moral strength of American society depends on the efforts of many different religious communities. And Bernie encourages his students to integrate Zen practice with social action and entrepreneurship because he believes that Zen is a useful way of approaching real-life problems that is relevant to all kinds of people, including to those who also practice Judaism or Catholicism.
Religious pluralism is hardly a new phenomenon in American culture, but never before has it flourished so strongly or pervaded so thoroughly the religious ideas and practices of so many Americans. Of course, religious separatism and exclusivism have not disappeared from the American scene, as Jan Sweet's comments about the Mormon Church suggest. A number of religious minoritiesincluding Orthodox Jews, Amish, some Native American groups, and Mormonsdo separate themselves from the larger society in order to maintain their religious purity and community strength. But the economic interdependence of all sectors of American society, our sophisticated information technologies, and our generally increased tolerance and curiosity with respect to religious difference make the separatism these groups seek increasingly difficult to preserve.
Recent enthusiasm for religious inclusivity and interfaith cooperation stems partly from the widespread idea that many religious traditions in the United States share common goals and values. And commitment to active engagement with the world is one of the most visible and unifying of these now commonly recognized goals and values. In fact, increasingly widespread recognition of the need for active engagement in the world may be one of the main reasons that intellectual differences in belief and doctrine have declined in importance.
The activism of contemporary American religious life creates the expectation that religion should be beneficial to society. And this expectation, in turn, encourages the idea that religion should be respected in whatever particular form it happens to take. This expectation also contributes to the general tendency of American religions to play an active role in society, not only through collective ventures of various sorts, but also by defining personal morality in ways that encompass social responsibility.
In important respects, this pervasive endorsement of social responsibility and social activism is an outgrowth of the Protestant evangelical culture that dominated American culture and religious life in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The tradition of Protestant missionary evangelicalism that developed in the United States in the nineteenth century involved a spirit of world engagement and world reform quite different from that of many other religious traditions, and even from that of many other Christian traditions as well. While most religious traditions have been dedicated to the social support of members of their communities, few if any have been as dedicated to reforming the world. The moral athleticism and pragmatic investment in social reform that we associate with Anglo-American Protestantism still flourishes as strongly in American religious life today as it did in the nineteenth century. But now it is carried by a great variety of different religious and ethnic traditions as well as by both secular and interfaith agencies.
The inclusive and pluralistic form of world engagement and activist outreach that characterizes American religious life today would not have been possible if the Protestant missionary evangelism out of which it emerged had not been greatly subdued. The story of this great subduing is, to some extent, a story about the collapse of the grandiose and aggressive missionary programs that characterized mainstream American Protestantism from the early nineteenth century through the early decades of the twentieth century. During this long era of missionary zeal, some of those targeted for conversion complained about the disrespect that Protestant missionaries showed for their traditions, and pointing to the conflict between this disrespect and Christian ideas of brotherhood, sisterhood, and community. Inside the American evangelical tradition, missionaries themselves often led the way in bringing down the arrogance and militancy of Protestant activism and in forging new conceptions of spiritual outreach that maintained an active engagement with the world while at the same time affirming cultural and even religious pluralism.
The slow collapse of old-style Protestant missionary evangelicalism created more space in which other religious were able to develop and interact more freely. Since World War II, this American tradition of world engagement and activist outreach has been buried, reborn, and recast in a new context of religious pluralism and interreligious democratization. Moved both by the unraveling of liberal Protestant evangelicalism and by the coinciding revitalization of their own religions, representatives of these religions lowered the boundaries between their traditions and the larger world. In so doing, they have become more activist both in their commitments to social reform and in their efforts to bring the wisdom of their own traditions to the world.
The Protestant Roots of Liberation Theology
After World War II, Protestant missionary activity was dominated by fundamentalists and other conservatives who directed their main attention to preaching Protestant doctrine and soliciting conversions. Many liberal Protestants turned away from evangelicalism to support humanitarian causes or to pursue academic work or careers in public service or foreign policy. But at the same time, some men and women dedicated to education and democratic reform persisted as Protestant missionaries. Their role in the larger history of Christian missions has often been overlooked. And their importance as catalysts of the later transformation of American religion has gone almost completely unnoticed.
In important ways, humanitarian missionaries in the fifties carried forward the "modernist impulse" associated with liberal Protestantism and its tendency to define social problems and gospel values in terms of one another. But many in this group were also critics of liberal Protestantism and its idealism about social progress and tendency to cultural imperialism. They often felt more at home with cultural criticism of neo-orthodox theology and with its call to return to the iconoclasm of the Protestant Reformers. One of the most influential men in this group was the Presbyterian missionary and Princeton Theological Seminary professor M. Richard Shaull. His understanding of the relationship between Christianity and revolution developed in response of the Cold War and in the context of the crisis mentality of neo-orthodox theology. He and the teachers, theologians, and activists associated with him helped to lay the groundwork for what eventually came to be known as liberation theology.
In 1955, a time of social crisis and upheaval in many parts of the world, Shaull wrote "We can no longer think exclusively in terms of rescuing lost pagans from the imminent flames of hell." Having worked as a missionary in Brazil, Shaull was alarmed by the economic and political turmoil in Latin America in the wake of the Second World War and the collapse of colonial rule. He was troubled by the toll in human suffering that both this rule and its collapse exacted and by the inadequate interpretations of Christianity floating around in the midst of this revolutionary situation. University students in Latin American often talked to him about the seeming irrelevance of Christianity to the pressing problems of their societies. "You Protestants seem to be concerned only of about getting people to stop smoking, drinking, and dancing," the students complained. In contrast, as they pointed out, "when the Communists speak to us, they talk about feeding the starving, teaching the illiterate, and putting an end to exploitation and injustice."
"All too often," Shaull maintained, "people cannot see that Christianity makes a real difference, that it has an influence over our whole personality and over all areas of our collective life." Many Protestant missionaries contributed to this underappreciation of Christianity, Shaull argued, through narrow definitions of personal belief and morality. But Christianity was relevant to every aspect of human life, Shaull believed, because it helped to liberate people from all forms of oppression, including economic and political oppression. He defined the God of Christian faith as one whose purpose in history was to pass judgment against that oppression and to open up "new possibilities of greater freedom, order, and justice." Quoting a 1954 essay entitled "The Transforming Power of the Church" by another American Presbyterian, Paul Lehmann, Shaull argued that just as "the prison-house of fate was shattered by the liberating faith in Providence" for early Christians in the Roman Empire, so Christianity in the twentieth century continued to have power to free people from cruel from destinies imposed upon them.
It wasn't enough, Shaull maintained, to talk about justice and social change as moral imperatives. Idealism was an insufficient response to the situation in which many Latin Americans found themselves. "We should not be surprised that people who know what is happening prefer Communism to such unrealistic talk," Shaull argued, "for Communism understands the problem of power and takes it very seriously."
In his own theology, Shaull drew on Marxist theory and especially on its analysis of capitalism and its language of revolution and liberation. At the same time, he interpreted Marxism as a kind of corrupt and degenerate offshoot of Christianity. What most troubled Shaull about Communism was its lack of any principle of transcendence to counter the otherwise evitable tendency to replace one set of oppressive rulers with another. Criticizing Christians for allowing Communists to be the ones who paid attention to injustice and human suffering, Shaull implied that the Communists simply took over where Protestant missionaries failed, developing the revolutionary response to economic oppression and exploitation that was implicit in the Christian gospel. But while Shaull believed they had some reason to condemn missionary talk for its complicity with or at best irrelevance to this oppression and exploitation, he also believed that Communists completely missed the connection between personal redemption and social change that lay at the heart of the Christian gospel.
The Marxist perversion of Christianity was occurring not only in Latin America, Shaull argued, but in many other parts of the world as well. As evidence of this point, he quoted the Presbyterian Lesslie Newbigin, one of the first bishops of the ecumenical Church of South India, to the effect that "education for the past 100 years in India has been dominated by the ideas derived from Christianity and often by the figure of Jesus himself." But the ideas about Jesus introduced in India by Protestant missionaries had been only partially and inadequately developed. "Because Christianity puts into men's minds a divine discontent with things as they are," Newbigin argued, "the way is open for the tremendous appeal of Marxism."
Shaull's ideas grew out of the social gospel tradition in American Protestant theology associated with Walter Rauschenbusch, as that tradition was developed and reframed in the context of neo-orthodox theology. While building on many of the ideas and scholarly methods associated with liberal Protestant theology, neo-orthodox thinkers emphasized God's transcendence of every particular culture or social order. They were critical of people who seemed to equate Christianity with middle-class culture. In the United States during the 1930s, a sizable number of liberal Protestants in the social gospel tradition were drawn to socialism and Marxist theory. The subsequent exploitation of Communist theory by Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong had a chilling effect on liberal theology and helped to stimulate interest in neo-orthodox theology. As a liberal Protestant focused on the shortcomings of Marxist theory but also appreciative of its critical insight, Shaull was particularly influenced by the Swiss Reformed theologian Emil Brunner, who emphasized the perpetually revolutionary nature of divine justice and was one of the leading spokespersons for neo-orthodoxy.
Shaull's theology contributed to the radical Protestant group ISAL (Church and Society in Latin America). According to one commentator, this group functioned as a "trial run" for liberation theology. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, before the 1964 military coup in Brazil, Shaull worked alongside the philosopher of education Paulo Freire, whose Basic Education Movement emphasized a process of "conscientization" that taught peasant children to become conscious of their place in the social order. During the same period, Shaull included Rubem Alves and other Brazilian students in a series of conferences sponsored by the World Council of Churches entitled "Christian Responsibility Toward Areas of Rapid Social Change." Alves later published A Theology of Human Hope (1969), which celebrated Freire's pedagogy as an example of the "theology of hope" advanced by the German Lutheran Jurgen Moltmann.
In the fifties and sixties, a number of young priests from Latin America in studied in Europe with the men who played leading roles in the reconstruction of Catholic theology during Vatican II, including Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, Hans Kung, Johann Baptist Metz, Karl Rahner, and Edward Schillebeeckx. The Latin American priests were impressed by the extraordinary influence of these innovators and inspired by their example to become leaders in transforming the Church in Latin America. But while aspiring to the leadership roles of these men, the Latin American theologians rejected the political liberalism with which many of the leaders of Vatican II were associated. They were especially concerned to distinguish their emphasis on the need for a "radical change in perspective" from the "naive reformism" they associated with the French theologian Jacques Maritain, whose neo-Thomist interpretations of human society had inspired an earlier generation of Christian Democrats in Latin America.
In their development of liberation theology during the 1960s and 1970s, Gustavo Gutiérrez, Juan Luis Segundo, Leonardo Boff, Jon Sobrino, and other Catholic theologians in Latin America built a "theology of liberation" alongside the arguments about justice and social change that Shaull and his Protestant colleagues had begun to construct in the early fifties. At a meeting in Petropolis, Brazil, in 1964, Gustavo Gutiérrez first presented his argument that praxis, the Marxist term for practical experience, should be the focus of Catholic theology. Often identified as the founder of liberation theology, Gutiérrez developed this argument in his own writing over the next few years without reference to the ideas of Protestant missionaries and neo-orthodox theologians in Latin America or elsewhere. In his first book, A Theology of Liberation, published in Spanish in 1971 and then in English in 1973, Gutié rrez went further than Shaull by calling for the abolition of capitalism and the establishment of socialism. He emphasized the need for the leadership by the people rather than by a revolutionary elite, the need for an indigenous theology in Latin America, and the need for a thoroughgoing rejection of American and European models.
Meanwhile, Shaull was enthusiastic about the development of liberation theology in Latin America, but he failed to see how deeply its leaders were committed to situating that theology within the context of Catholic symbolism and church structure. Thus in the 1980s, when Shaull praised liberation theology in Latin America by describing it as a kind of second Protestant Reformation, the Catholic liberationists were emphasizing the connections between liberation theology and distinctly Catholic ideas about the centrality of the Eucharist, the need for a papal hierarchy, and the special authority of Mary. "If it was a new reformation," one historian of the movement observed, "it was very different from the one that occurred in the sixteenth century."
In their insistence on defining the movement in distinctly Catholic terms, Latin American liberationists were not simply affirming their loyalty to the Catholic Church and its traditional symbols. They were also defining themselves, and by implication Christianity as well, against the United States. Thus Gutiérrez identified the cause of the problems suffered by the people of Latin America in terms of "the domination exercised by the great capitalist countries, and especially by the most powerful, the United States of America." In defining liberation theology as a resistance movement against American influence, its spokespeople had little reason to explore its antecedents in American missionary thought.
As it developed in Latin America and then later through feminist theology in the United States, liberation theology represented the transformation of ideas about Christianity and social change that were originally developed in the context of American Protestant missionary thought. But these ideas caught on and became widely influential only as liberal Protestants lost control over them and Catholics appropriated and developed them further. Liberation theology emerged as a powerful new incarnation of the social gospel tradition. As Catholics assumed leadership of this tradition, its influence among Protestants only increased, along with their growing respect for Catholicism.
Catholic liberationists in Latin America and the United States have been strongly motivated to look for antecedents to liberation theology within Catholic rather than Protestant thought. From the perspective of those who understand the essence of Christianity in terms of liberation theology, and who want to restructure the Catholic Church in terms of that theology, any recognition of the origins of their theology in American Protestantism can only fuel opposition to it within the Catholic Church. Indeed, members of this opposition have been the first to point to the American aspects of liberation theology. Michael Novak, one of the most thoughtful American Catholic opponents of liberation theology, attempted to undermine its authenticity as a truly indigenous third-world movement. "The headquarters for liberation theology in the United States, and perhaps in the entire world," Novak claimed in 1979, "are located near the Hudson River at Maryknoll, New York, international center of America's most active missionary order, the Maryknoll Fathers and Sisters." In a related line of attack, the Belgian Jesuit Roger Vekemans attempted to discredit liberation theology by pointing to Richard Shaull as the one who introduced "the liberation theme" into Latin American theology.
Meet the Author
Amanda Porterfield is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Wyoming and president-elect of the American Society of Church History. She lives in Laramie, Wyoming.
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