Lost in the Supermarket
Alan Wolfe found Americans around the country change faiths as frequently as they change their diets. What does this mean for a 5,000-year old tradition?
In The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith, Alan Wolfe set out to observe how Americans worship today. On the way, he came across believers who preached to him and others who told him belief in God has become a footnote. Here Wolfe, a Boston College professor who runs its Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, discusses what drove him to the conclusion that in America all roads lead to religion.
What led you to explore religion in America?
I’m not looking for a reinvigoration of the faith in which I grew up, Judaism, nor am I seeking to find some other one that speaks better to me. I was bar mitzvahed, but it was a cultural thing. I’m married to a Christian, and we have raised our kids without any religion.
But I’m curious. I’m a political scientist and have been thinking a lot about American politics for many years and finally discovered that all roads in America lead to religion.
What do you mean, “All roads in America lead to religion”?
Well, you know, you get political debates these days and candidates mention God. People cross themselves after they’ve scored a touchdown. You flip through channels on the television and you see religious content. Whether we’re talking about sports, politics, entertainment, almost anything—bestseller lists—there’s religion in one form or another.
But is that really unique to the United States?
It is. There are countries in which religion plays a role similar to ours, but they tend to be poorer countries—Latin America, countries of Eastern Europe. In Canada, Holland, Great Britain, it’s very different.
What I try to show in my book, however, is while we are a very religious society, it’s a very American kind of religion. It’s not the old-time religion which implies that you’re born into a faith and it will still be there when you leave it. More and more, Americans pick and choose faith these days the way they pick and choose real estate or cars.
Then what happens to tradition?
We just don’t live in a society that pays all that much attention to tradition, even though you’ll hear the word “tradition” when candidates talk or religious leaders preach. It’s somewhat naïve to believe that religion can hold fast to tradition when the rest of the culture is tearing it up.
This question puts all Jews, whatever their denomination, into interesting dilemmas. Because either you go with the flow and decide that you’re going to be very innovative, as many Reform congregations will be. In which case, there probably comes a reaction later where you say, “Have we gone so far that there’s nothing Jewish about us anymore?” Then you reexamine—and maybe even get sort of more “traditional” than you thought you were going to be. Or, in more Conservative, Orthodox, and even ultra-Orthodox congregations, you claim to be holding fast to the tradition. But are you in fact so reacting against liberal tendencies that you yourself are modern in the way you react?
How do you think the practice of Judaism has been shaped by the American experience?
The one religion that has most influenced others is Evangelical Protestantism. It has very a personal relationship with the divine, and that plays so well in our culture of individualism. More and more faiths—even Jews—start sounding like Evangelicals, talking about their journey, their search, and discovery.
Have other religious groups been shaped by the practice of Judaism in America?
This is an overwhelmingly Christian country; it’s much more likely Christianity is going to influence Judaism than the other way around. There is the exception: Evangelicals have changed from being almost overtly anti-Semitic to having this kind of Zionism, or new respect for Zionism, that is much talked about but still contains elements I personally find disturbing. It still seems to be that they’ve got Jews on their mind. Jews are here to serve some purpose that relates to eschatological theology: before a Christian god can return to earth, Jews have to have a state.
What about Islam?
Until the creation of Israel, Jews were a minority in every society in which they lived. Now they have one society in which they’re a majority. But Muslims until the 20th century were pretty much the majority in every society in which they lived. Now, in Western Europe and the United States, they’re the minority. What that means is Muslims in the U.S. will have to learn from Jews about what it means to be a minority religion. Jews have always appreciated tolerance because they’ve always been a minority and, as more Muslims live as a minority, I hope they’ll develop, like Jews, a similar respect for religious toleration. They probably are already.
You say intermarriage could lead to a decline in anti-Semitism. Why?
It grows out of this sociological fact, so to speak, that as more people choose religions and think about religions that serve their particular needs, there’s this constant churning, switching of faiths. When you meet people who have already been through a couple of religions, the thought occurs to my mind—and it must occur to them too—that just because they’re in a particular religion now, who knows what the next one might be.
Jews are not big religious switchers. They tend to change it from one kind to another as opposed to leaving Judaism entirely. But Jews are intermarrying, and intermarriage will have the same effect. It brings a Jew and a Christian together, and Jews learn more about Christianity that way, and Christians learn more about Jews that way. And then the children come along and the same questions are there. You don’t know who your children are going to bring home when they get married and what religion they are, so you better be careful about being bigoted toward any religion if you don’t know what religion you’re going to be next week or next year or ten years down the road, or what your children are going to be.
You say Orthodoxy is countercultural. How?
The period in America which witnessed the counterculture, the hippies, and mysticism was also the period in which there was a revival of Orthodoxy. I’m very indebted to Herbert Danziger, a scholar who wonders whether there was a relationship between the two. At some level there isn’t; the counterculture was thinking about organic food and the Orthodox were thinking about kosher food. Nonetheless, those things did get caught up in people’s minds.
What I talk about in my book, it’s the way the Orthodox set themselves up to some degree to counter the culture. It’s not easy to resist culture. Culture is very powerful and attractive and if you’re going to resist it you need to do some of the things the so-called counterculture did in the 1960s and 70s. You need to withdraw from the society to some degree, you need to form likeminded affinity groups who reinforce each other.
Has your study of religion been accompanied by a personal transformation?
No. That’s the honest answer. I wondered if it would. But at a certain point in life you don’t change that much. I learned why religion is important to other people, but I still believe that when my life ends it ends. I don’t pray and I don’t think God is going to intervene. That’s all there is to it.
Celebrated author and Yiddish scion passes away at 103