- Religion in America Since 1945: A History
Any writer who has attempted to track a subject through a long stretch of time appreciates how difficult it is to balance the requirement of inclusiveness with a consistent elaboration of central themes. Patrick Allitt in his confident survey of American religion since World War II succeeds in this task far better than most and has produced a volume of immense value to university students, general readers, and scholars needing a reliable reference source.
Allitt begins with some important paradoxes. Postwar America is simultaneously highly religious and highly secular. Americans' most obvious use of the ascetic Christ figure is to generate wealth and power. Old-fashioned religious groups have become a vanguard in the employment of new forms of media. Allitt tries to follow these and other paradoxes, paying attention to what he sees as the re-division of religious energy along political rather than denominational lines, the commercial aspects of religion, and the ways in which American society has validated religious choices in a value system punctuated by relativism. In developing these themes, he generously cites his debts to Robert Wuthnow, Peter Berger, and this author.
Although Allitt's book at every point gives readers something to think about, the topics discussed in the twelve chapters sometimes appear randomly grouped. Allitt's very good discussion of women ministers and feminist theology in Chapter 6 is awkwardly posed between a section on space travel enthusiasts and one on Jesus freaks. In a similarly jarring way, Allitt places a section on homosexuality and churches in a chapter that also treats Tim LaHaye and other millennial movements. Overall, the chapter titles provide weak conceptual frameworks, and the many tales told in Allitt's book are often more intriguing in their singularity than in the way they gather interpretative coherence.
This may not matter very much because Allitt provides a good conclusion at the end of the book and because many of the subsections make excellent reading in themselves—on religious architecture, for example, or on the rise of megachurches. The tone that runs through the book is perhaps the most important unifying thread. This is far from a triumphant account of American religion or of American spirituality. Allitt is not preoccupied with assigning praise or blame, but it is almost impossible for an intelligent author not to make clear what he likes and what he does not like. With respect to the things Allitt most likes, he emphasizes the limits on what American religion has been able to accomplish. The plain fact about religious politics in the United States, whether it has come from left-leaning religious figures or right-leaning figures, is how weakly churches have influenced public policy. Religious voices have stopped no wars and have often contributed to the nationalistic rituals that sustain them. Nor, when all is [End Page 583] said and done, have they had decisive influence on the moral choices that Americans make—even those who regularly attend religious services.
I am happy to report that the book has a few errors, proving that even careful scholars like Allitt are mortal. I have two complaints about excluded material. The smaller one has to do with Scientology. Whatever one thinks of it, the survival of Scientology and the establishment of itself as a religion is surely a more important challenge for understanding American religious behavior than many movements discussed in the book that have come and gone. The larger complaint has to do with a failure to deal adequately with what has happened to the American religious landscape following the immigration reform act of 1965. Domesticated borrowings of Asian meditation techniques get space but not churches formed by Asian immigrants. Islam receives attention, but not enough attention. About the millions of Hispanic immigrants into this country, mostly but not entirely Catholic, Allitt says almost nothing beyond his coverage of the Sanctuary movement that tried to protect political refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980's.