That Old Time Religion

Image from "Knocking of Heaven's Door: American Religion in the Age of the Counterculture" by Mark Oppenheimer (detail)

Image from “Knocking of Heaven’s Door: American Religion in the Age of the Counterculture” by Mark Oppenheimer (detail)

The Rise of the “Pluggies”

At the Mosaic Church in Los Angeles , “cultural creatives” worship their god to the thump-thump of a simulated heartbeat piped in through loudspeakers. Their church is a nightclub, and their liturgy includes the kind of dance routines that used to make Jesse Helms nervous in the days of the culture wars. On the Sunday Alan Wolfe attended, four mud-covered men leapt onto the stage and washed themselves off to reveal that each was of a different race. At the end of the service, a church member dressed as an electrical plug emerged after cheerleaders spelled out its name: P- L-U-G-G-I-E! Plug in to the future of faith in America .

The pluggies aren’t a fringe group; they’re Baptists, Southern Baptists, no less, and their church cleaves to the core tenets of that denomination concerning what women can and cannot do and what homosexuals should never do. Mosaic is a kind of missionary church, its field the educated elite of the entertainment business, and its method that of a chameleon, adapting the coloration of pop culture to avoid scrutiny of its theology. The transformation described by Wolfe in The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith has as much, if not more, to do with how Americans worship as with what they believe.

Americans are as religious as they ever were (which is to say, very), but the transformation of Wolfe’s title has been in the main toward tolerance and rationalism. Sacraments are out, small group worship is in. Hymns are passé, pop is hot. Most of all, theology has gone missing. We are, according to Wolfe, a nation of “switchers,” hopping from denomination to denomination, seeking not God but a community that serves our “needs.” Utility and aesthetics dominate American religion, he argues, not just in the pews but in the pulpits, where blue-jeaned “inspirational speakers” preach prosperity on stages cleared of crosses and thump not the Bible but Bruce Wilkinson’s bestselling The Prayer of Jabez. “If Jabez had worked on Wall Street,” Wolfe quotes Wilkinson as saying, “he might have prayed, ‘Lord, increase the value of my investment portfolios.'”

Wolfe finds this kind of self-serving spirituality banal, but the irony of The Transformation of American Religion is that he ventures no further into theology than do the people he writes about. Is The Prayer of Jabez snake oil or a fair interpretation of scripture that doesn’t conform to contemporary conceptions of virtue? (Does God want us to be rich?) What does it feel like to pray the Prayer of Jabez, to have faith in an interventionist God? You won’t find the answers here. Wolfe’s book meets the standards that he says rule American faith — it is a useful, intelligent exploration of the demographics of belief, and it is smoothly written — but it does not transcend them.

The author of numerous books on Americans’ civic ideas, Wolfe seems to have adopted as his long-term project a sociology of reassurance, rebuking liberals for their anti-populist hysteria and conservatives for their hijacking of the term “majority.” Wolfe writes from the reasonable center, describing the nation as if it were a kiddie pool, shallow but refreshing. “Believers who prefer a God of love to a God of truth,” he writes, “are not going to kill for their beliefs — or to give their support to those who do.” Tell that to the Jesus of Matthew’s gospel, who promised, “I came not to bring peace, but a sword.” Love isn’t so simple.

Nor is American religion, not even the kind that strives for simplicity. Wolfe argues that whenever faith and pop culture collide, it’s faith that gives way, a sign of hope to him: “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 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 the democratic society they inhabit.” Forget “everything else”; how does this vision of religion differ from a bowling league? Wolfe rightly scolds the pundits who write about American faith “as if Jonathan Edwards is still preaching and his congregation is still quaking in fear,” but he errs in his literalist reading of the loving God who has replaced Edwards’s angry one; Edwards’s intellectualism may have faded, but his thunder still echoes in maxims such as “Love the sinner, hate the sin.”

Likewise, Edwards’s insistence on the importance of the supernatural world thrives, ironically, in the growing legions of self-proclaimed pagans and in the far greater number of Christians and Jews who rely daily on magical thinking. And this is to say nothing, of course, of supernatural-minded denominations, such as the holy rollers who are stricken by the spirit and babble in tongues not for “benefits” but because God, or their fervent belief in Him, allows them no choice. So long as such strange gods survive, it’s hard to have faith in Wolfe’s depiction of American religion as simply another “stock market, [with] its ups and downs.”

The Margins of Faith

Don Lattin’s Following Our Bliss: How the Spiritual Ideals of the Sixties Shape Our Lives Today does a better job of exploring religious eclecticism in all its frightening glory, from the hocus pocus of the “human potential” movement at the chi-chi Esalen Institute in Big Sur to the “love” Jim Jones mixed with the Kool-Aid at Jonestown. There’s not much deep thinking here — much of the book is recycled from reports filed for the San Francisco Chronicle — but Lattin does not shy away from the sharp edges, the contradictions, the margins of faith that tell us as much about belief as do broad surveys.

His chapter on the children of the Hare Krishna movement reveals much about how alternative seekers often want more, not less, authoritarianism than traditional religion offers. This hunger for strong religious authority in turn offers a partial explanation for the new orthodoxy among many young Catholics, evangelical Protestants and Jews. And Lattin’s account of a Native American peyote ritual makes “small group” spirituality understandable, not simply as another strain of self-help therapy, but as an attempt to experience the divine through intense, focused discussion.

Once we see such movements in this light, it may not matter whether groups meet over peyote tea or coffee and cookies. Lattin adds the “why” to Wolfe’s investigation of “how we live our faith.” Wolfe’s is the more thoughtful book, but Lattin better captures the double vision of religion, always looking forward and backward at the same time.

The More Things Change

In Knocking on Heaven’s Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture, Mark Oppenheimer is specific about what he believes shaped the transformation of American faith: “African American struggle was the precondition, the stylistic and political inspiration.” In three of the five case studies in his book, white religious activists appropriated the language of the civil-rights movement, and more: Unitarian gay activists, Episcopalian feminist priests, and Jewish havurah hippies all described themselves as “niggers.”

This sort of hyperbole is evidence of Oppenheimer’s other major claim, that the aesthetic transformation of American religion is more closely linked to questions of individual identity than to major shifts in its theological underpinnings. In stressing the theological continuity of our worship, Oppenheimer supplies a historical view of religion in America that is worth quoting at length: “The mainline churches survived the strange, strange times of the nineteenth century… the days of latter rain, speaking in tongues, gifts of prophesying, and conversations with the dead. Somehow, the old religions survived… Catholics still believed in the Pope and Episcopalians did not. Unitarians still did not believe that Jesus was God. Baptists did not baptize their young. Jews did not baptize at all. And still, people kept coming. The 1860s couldn’t change that. And no, the 1960s couldn’t either.” That old-time religion — American faith — remains as weird as it ever was.

Jeff Sharlet is a founding editor of Killing the Buddha, coauthor with Peter Manseau of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (2004) and co-editor of Believer, Beware (2009). Sharlet is also the author of Sweet Heaven When I Die, (2011), C Street, (2010), and the New York Times bestseller The Family (2008).