U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Faithful to What?

The Time cover of April 8, 1966 became the most notorious in the magazine’s history. A Harris Poll taken around that time found that while 97% of Americans polled said they believed in God, only 27% declared themselves “deeply religious.” In the mid-1960s, a group of theologians advised churches to “accept God’s death, and get along without him. Princeton ethicist Paul Ramsey put it this way: “Ours is the first attempt in recorded history to build a culture upon the premise that God is dead.”

During this period, Harvey Cox had a best-seller with The Secular City; Robert Bellah earned academic fame with his essay “Civil Religion in America”; and the Catholic Church shook the religious landscape with declarations on religious liberty in the Second Vatican Council.

Fast-forward to the next generation to the mid-1980s. Robert Wuthnow publishes his landmark study of recent American religious history, The Restructuring of American Religion capturing the two trends that emerged from the 1960s: a religious awakening around the Religious Right and the spinning out of faiths in everything from new age spirituality to a civil religion of technology. The book that came closest to capturing this moment was Richard John Neuhaus’s The Naked Public Square. While ostensibly a collection and expansion of themes Neuhaus had been writing on in a variety of publications, the book seemed to suggest a debate that would shape the future of American politics as well as the future of America’s churches.

Recently, our moment has been punctuated by debates over health care, access to contraception, and the murky term of religious freedom. For a sliver of conflicted opinions expressed among Catholics see Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s letter and an editorial in America. We’ve had ambiguous results from the Republican primary in the bellwether state of Ohio. Only 25% of those eligible to vote actually did, and of those who voted, half supported technocratic candidate Mitt Romney and half supported Catholic fundamentalist Rick Santorum. The primary results indicated both a split among the Republican electorate and the lukewarm feelings the candidates generate.

My question for this week regards the moment we seem to be in: have we reached another impasse of faith? Is there a book or topic that might capture this moment as had Cox’s The Secular City and Neuhaus’s The Naked Public Square? What’s the new tagline?

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Side stepping your question, the “God is dead theology” of the 1960’s was a theology for the affluent middle classes. Black liberationist theologians challenged this by asking which God is dead? James Cone responded, “the white God.” For if the white racist God exist then like Camus we would have to abolish him. The question of God remained alive among millions shut out of the “American way of life.”

    So to your question,” have we reached an impasse in faith? ” I ask, who is we?

  2. The question suggests that faith might need a new sales angle just as Ford needs a new model each year to energize an apathetic consumer. The way religion is now more of a vehicle (no pun intended)for conveying a social position or a political institution defending its turf suggests that faith and worship are less important than appearances. The more churches become involved in secular conflicts the less they can stand above the fray as a symbol of pious integrity. Indeed, they are seen as just another lobbyist. If churches are lobbies for God than that diminishes God and undermines faith. I might add that pedaphile scandals don’t help a lot.

  3. The question suggests that faith might need a new sales angle just as Ford needs a new model each year to energize an apathetic consumer. The way religion is now more of a vehicle (no pun intended)for conveying a social position or a political institution defending its turf suggests that faith and worship are less important than appearances. The more churches become involved in secular conflicts the less they can stand above the fray as a symbol of pious integrity. Indeed, they are seen as just another lobbyist. If churches are lobbies for God than that diminishes God and undermines faith. I might add that pedaphile scandals don’t help a lot.

  4. While not able to answer the question regarding whether or not the U.S. has reached an “impasse of faith,” my own personal opinion is that any religious topic/book today needs to address the information explosion fostered by the internet. As it allows individuals to research the origins and development of any religious belief system, it would also seem to offer unique opportunities (particularly to younger people/adolescents) to shape their religious views in a way that is quite different from the past.

    I’m reminded, here, about books/articles that address the “self-fashioning” or “cultural construction” of one’s “religious self” (books like literary theorist Stephen Greenblatt’s “Renaissance Self-Fashioning,” for example). How does thought and practice of religion look knowing that more and more people are able to be raised Jewish, but interact with Protestants and Catholics and Muslims (and vice versa). Of course, these religous groups have always interacted in the past (although not always through a public sphere that encourages amiable conversation), so there’s nothing new here. But by “interact,” I mean, not just daily face-to-face discourse at colleges/universities, but also via online- or text-based forms of communication. Has new media changed how people experience “conversions” or ephiphanies?

    As historians (like myself) inevitably place labels on large groups of people to generalize, I would argue that identifying oneself as a “Catholic,” “Jew,” or “Protestant” today does not fully do justice to the process whereby one acquires their religious set of ideas. It may be Jewish, but with a healthy dose of Catholic or Buddhist side dishes. It may be a type of Judaism that has grappled or wrestled with differing religions extensively while growing up fully connected to “chat rooms” and online encyclopedias. One might officially call oneself a Catholic, but imbibe plenty at the well of Protestant thinkers via the web (or even, through that sometimes bane of historians: Wikipedia!)

    I know that Daniel Wickberg and Wilfred McClay have written on the “self” and related topics, so maybe I’ll read some of their works for insights. . . .

  5. Thanks to you all for the comments. To Lilian’s question: who is the we? If one group determines there is a crisis of faith, and another group–as you suggest–sees a crisis in that declaration, then we do have a check on imposing a singular definition of faith. So my question is not what are we going to do about the American Way of Life for white upper middle class college students, but whether, like earlier eras, this election cycle has revealed something about transformations or the restructuring of faith among any group. If not, then that is something to consider as well.

    As the other comments suggest, there have been changes in American religious traditions and crises among those traditions since Wuthnow’s book. Is there a book that does justice to those changes like Daniel Rodgers attempts to do with ideas in the Age of Fracture? Again, what seemed to make books like Cox’s and Wuthnow’s and Neuhuas’s especially influential was that they both observed changes at a macro level and insinuated themselves into discussions with almost immediate relevance in the political world.

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