In This Episode << SLIDE LEFT TO SEE ADDITIONAL SEGMENTS
Read more of Bob Abernethy’s interview with sociologist Alan Wolfe:
Q: If you stood off and looked at the whole American religious scene now, what would stand out?
A: Well, whatever you want to call the old-time religion doesn’t seem to be that much a presence in American life anymore. If you think that religion is what you saw if you watched the famous movie INHERIT THE WIND, with the born-again Christians out there demonstrating against the modern world — that’s not what religion is anymore. Even among people who would call themselves conservative Christians, it’s a very, very different way of understanding what faith is and what the Lord requires, and I think [it] influences all of America’s religious traditions.
Q: Different in what ways?
A: Well, it’s much more different in the sense that I think the individual just plays a much bigger role. It’s not that God plays a smaller role, necessarily. That can vary from one tradition to another. But the idea that religion is going to be a set of commandments that are written in stone, for which obedience is sacrosanct, and there’s going to be no questioning of what those commandments are — that’s just not a realistic picture of where Americans are these days with respect to religion.
It’s no coincidence that people in this country made a best-selling book out of something called CONVERSATIONS WITH GOD. God is someone you talk to. He’s not someone who only talks to you and you only listen.
Q: Move away from a formal idea of authority to a more personal, individual approach to religion. What are the big things going on? Everybody talks about “spirituality.” What does that mean to you?
A: I know there’s a lot of talk about it. I actually find, I have to tell you, in my own surveys, that it’s not a term that resonates very deeply. I mean, I hear about it all the time when I read magazines and so on. But when I actually go out and talk to Americans, I’ll ask them questions like this: “You know,” I’ll say, “There’s been a lot of talk about spirituality. Does that word mean something to you? It’s different from religion.” And in a few places you’ll get, “Oh, yeah. I’m into some kind of New Age thing.” But I don’t think it cuts very deep.
I think religion is religion. Spirituality is spirituality. And when people discuss their faith, I think they’re using pretty much the general idea of what we mean by that. For most Americans, that’s still Christianity. It’s still pretty much of a monotheistic idea.
Obviously, there’s more religious diversity in America now, but some of the most orthodox religious believers are recent immigrants. The notion that the country is being swept away in a kind of vacuous, empty spirituality I don’t see as really descriptive.
Now, it’s true that there’s a lot more of that on college campuses. So that may be more in our future. A lot of people have talked about this, and you certainly see it at many college campuses. But maybe it’s the kind of thing that will also be outgrown by younger people. You know, when people look to religion, they do want something there. They don’t want it to be just vacuous, I think.
Q: Do you think that there has been a softening of people’s commitment to what used to be the fundamental religious ideas?
A: I think that the notion that there are specific ideas associated with specific religions [has] been lost in American culture to a significant degree. People might say that they’re Lutherans or Calvinists or whatever, but that doesn’t mean they could tell you what Martin Luther stood for, or what John Calvin stood for. In that sense, the traditions resemble each other, I think, more. Protestantism influences Catholicism, and Catholicism influences Protestantism, and both are influenced by Judaism in return. I think that’s certainly taken place.
Q: Let’s move on to this idea you have proposed and that you call “moral freedom.” Describe that, would you?
A: I didn’t start out to write a book called MORAL FREEDOM. I started out trying to find out by interviewing ordinary Americans what their views were about some of the classic questions of virtue and vice and the role they play in trying to lead a good life. The idea of moral freedom was just not really there.
It was after I listened to people and heard SO much of what they were saying as reflecting a desire on their part to play a role in constructing their own view about morality that the term “moral freedom” really began to emerge. And I began to ask myself: we celebrate the fact that our country has economic freedom, and that’s something most people love. Conservatives love it, and liberals love it in their own way. And we celebrate the fact that we have a lot of political freedom.
But then we stop and say, well, you know, the idea that you should make money — that’s fine. The idea that you should vote for whomever you choose — that’s fine. Those are part of the American idea. But then it comes to morality, suddenly people say, “No. In the realm of morality you’ve got to obey authority, and you’ve got to receive wisdom, and essentially you’ve got to follow time-honored rules.”
And more and more Americans, whatever their faith and whatever their political views, scratch their heads. And they say, “Yeah, I know. I was told that. My grandparents believed that. But if I’m going to vote for whomever I want and, you know, start any business, why do I have to accept someone else’s morality? I want the freedom to play a role. Not to be an anarchist and say anything goes, not even to be a relativist. But I want to play a role in shaping those rules that determine what the moral structure of our country should be.” That came across pretty powerfully.
Q: Deciding for one’s self what’s good, what’s bad, and what you should do in a certain situation?
A: That’s right. The idea of moral freedom, if there’s any problem with the notion, is that it seems to suggest this idea of a kind of anarchy — that anything goes. But that’s not what it’s about. What it’s about is that there are many moral traditions. Some have good ideas, some don’t, and so on. And people want to be able to bring the best of many different moral traditions together. People believe in certain kinds of moral truths. They believe in right and wrong. They know that there are things that are good and things that are evil, and they don’t want to be told what to do. They don’t want to be told what that means in specific circumstances. When it comes down to the concrete, they want to have some role in applying these things.
Q: For many, many people morality still depends on authority — the authority of God, of Scripture. What happened?
A: Well, we are a country that to some degree has always been suspicious of authority. Remember something called “populism”? Populism was a nineteenth-century movement that believed people respected positions of authority. Bankers and industrialists were lining their own pockets, and there was a deep suspicion in some of the most conservative corners of the country of that kind of authority.
We have a kind of populism in our morality that’s very much like the populism we used to have about big trusts and monopolies and so on. There’s always been an American tradition of being somewhat skeptical about authority. It’s not that we’re against authority. It’s that we believe that authority has to PROVE itself.
So when it comes to religious authority, the question people are going to ask is, “Well, have those in positions of authority in religious traditions proven themselves well?” And to some degree they have, but to some degree they haven’t. We have had evangelical ministers who’ve been engaged in various kinds of scandals. We’ve had Catholic priests who’ve done horrible, horrible things in terms of sexual abuse. I could go on with rabbis and so on. But I think there IS a sense in which there’s a certain basis for WONDERING about authority when people claim it.
I can’t tell you how much damage to the authority structure of religion has been done by the Jimmy Swaggarts and the Jim Bakkers and so on, one after another. It’s damage. There’s damage there.
Q: You were talking about people wanting to be able to choose among different moral traditions. Does the same individualism apply when it comes to religions?
A: More and more people ARE choosing their own faith. And when I say that, I make reference to the fact that increasingly we have the phenomenon of switching from one faith to another. But I even mean that for people who STAY in the same faith. More and more people will be “cradle Catholics,” as they’re called, who remain Catholic. But they will SAY that they have CHOSEN to remain Catholic, that it’s not just something that they inherit in a certain sense.
You have to ask the question: Are religions stronger for that or weaker? There’s a kind of person who thinks that religions are weaker, because they should have all of this tradition and authority behind them. And consequently, something’s wrong if people think that they can be cafeteria shoppers.
But I really stand with people like Father Andrew Greeley, for example, who said that when people CHOOSE Catholicism — even if they’re born Catholic — it actually makes the tradition stronger; that they’re BRINGING something to it. They’ve chosen it. It MEANS something to them. He finds that for a number of Catholics the symbolism and the rituals of the Church are enormously meaningful, and they’re enormously meaningful because they speak to the individual.
Q: I have heard it said that, in general, for a lot of people, specific beliefs, doctrines, and creeds have become much less important as far as finding meaning there is concerned. Practices and things people do have become much MORE important. Can you talk about that a little bit?
A: Some churches make the creed very important to what they do. The Reformed Church, for example, which has a strong influence in states like Michigan and places like Grand Rapids — there are credo statements that people are expected to sign. I’m sure that most people who belong to that tradition have a good sense of what the creeds are and what they mean. In that sense, you could say that theology is part of their religious experience.
But I think for more and more Americans, it’s not the case. Nondenominational churches are very, very popular in the country, because people want to identify in a tradition — say, Protestantism, but in the broad sense of Protestantism and not in the narrower sense of a particular denomination within Protestantism.
The creeds themselves — people have died over the years, fighting for these creeds. We don’t do that. It’s often said that America is one of the most religious countries in the world. I think that’s true. It’s almost always added that we’re one of the least THEOLOGICAL countries in the world — which I think is equally true. We do not kill each other over creeds.
Now, if you really, really believe that your creed is right and that other creeds are wrong, you’re going to look on that with a certain amount of dismay; but I’m going to look at it by saying, “But I think it’s pretty good that people don’t kill each other over creeds.”
Q: One of the interesting things in your book is what you found when you asked people about “virtue.” Talk about that.
A: Well, the word “virtue” is big… in circles of writers and intellectuals who are constantly lamenting the lack of commitments to the virtues in our culture. William Bennett wrote THE BOOK OF VIRTUES, and it became a big best-seller. I hear about the virtues all the time, so I thought it would be a good idea to talk with people about what their virtues are.
But I met a stumbling block in doing that. I would begin by asking people about the word “virtue” itself and its opposite, “vice,” and I got a lot of blank stares. People in America don’t like to talk about abstractions. They’re happy talking about “the virtues” — such things as courage and honesty and loyalty. But the idea of virtue as an abstraction is not one that grabs people’s attention.
People weren’t saying, “Oh, virtue. That means returning books to the library on time.” And vice — actually, people know the word “vice” a lot more than they do the word “virtue.” It reminds them of MIAMI VICE or vice squads and things like that. But you have to get concrete when you talk to people and not stay at an abstract level.
Q: So in a society of more and more moral freedom, what are the virtues that people really think are important?
A: The ones that I spent a lot of time talking with people about — because people do think they’re important — are virtues like loyalty and honesty and forgiveness and self-discipline. Those are the four virtues on which I focused. They’re all important. I think everyone recognizes that there has to be loyalty. Or else, if there’s not loyalty, we’re all just self-interested people who’re running around doing whatever is best for us. I don’t expect that most Americans would know the name of Thomas Hobbes, but they understand that in a world without loyalty, we would live the way Hobbes described life — as being “nasty and brutish and short.” People understand that. They understand it’s important.
They understand honesty is enormously important — that you can’t have a society in which everyone disrespects the truth. But they also understand that these things can’t be taken as absolutes. You can’t say, “Be loyal all the time.” A lot of the Americans I talked with would add an adjective before the word “loyalty,” and that adjective was the word “blind.” They would say, “I believe in loyalty, but I don’t believe in blind loyalty.” Blind loyalty was a virtue they associated with other countries. Japan would come up — kamikaze pilots, or people falling on their swords. That may be very unfair to the Japanese culture. I don’t know. I’m not an expert on Japan. But I’m an expert on this country’s cultural views. And that kind of loyalty, where you blindly follow whoever tells you what to do — that’s not what people mean by loyalty.
Q: Is there such a thing as one virtue or characteristic that you found people in this country prize the most?
A: I really think that “niceness,” as funny as that may sound, is one of the most widely prized virtues. We have a society of people who want to be nice, and they want to be thought of as being nice. They want other people to be nice to them. It’s easy to scoff at it, and it’s easy to say, “Well, we’re actually really NOT a very nice country. After all, we have capital punishment, and that’s not very nice.” You can be skeptical of the idea. But it is something that people really value. In fact, I was constantly being told by people that if the virtue of niceness comes into conflict with another virtue — say, the virtue of honesty, and being honest means that you’re going to say something that’s not going to be nice, that’s going to be cruel — people would much rather be nice and dishonest than honest and cruel.
There was a wonderful political philosopher who died a few years ago and who had enormous influence, at least on me — a Harvard professor named Judith Sklar. She wrote that the first commandment of a liberal sensibility (not understood in a very capacious way) is avoiding cruelty. When you see cruelty in the world, of which there is an enormous amount, it really is a pretty important virtue. It’s a virtue that people often scoff at. The late Allan Bloom wrote a best-selling book called THE CLOSING OF THE AMERICAN MIND. In it he humorously put down his students at the University of Chicago. He said, “You know, all they want to do is be nice.” When I read that, I say, “Well, what’s wrong with THAT?” given how much cruelty there has been in the world and how much cruelty there still is.
Q: This idea of moral freedom seems to imply to some people a kind of “anything goes” idea. To whatever extent that’s true, is it likely that moral freedom will lead us to a time when we need more civil authority because we don’t carry around in us anymore the kinds of absolute internal direction that we used to?
A: The founders of the United States really did believe that a society that was going to have political freedom needed people to have an inner compass — that they had to be guided by their own strong sense of morality, or else they would abuse their freedom. We could say that there has been a kind of weakening of that inner moral compass in the United States. If there’s more of “Well, what’s in it for me?” then freedom is in danger. I do think that society requires commitments to certain kinds of moral ideas. It requires belief in common conceptions of right and wrong. I just wonder how we’re going to reestablish it. The question is not do we live in a situation of moral anarchy or moral authority. You have to have moral authority. I am not an anarchist. I’m not a libertarian. I’m a very strong believer in the idea that moral authority constitutes the glue that holds us together. I just think in very, very practical ways that you’re not going to reestablish this sense of authority by doing things the way institutions used to in the old days, where you basically had someone who was in charge pronounce what the authority was going to be and then expect that everyone else is going to follow. There’s a certain kind of conservative who laments the decline of moral authority and says that back at some previous time — say, the Great Generation of World War II — there was more respect for authority, and the country has lost something because it’s lost that respect for authority. To a certain degree that’s true. It would be very, very hard to imagine that if there were an Adolf Hitler in the world right now, and that [if] this country were threatened by him, that a generation of more narcissistic Americans could go out there and do what that Great Generation did to save freedom. It’s a very, very serious issue. It worries me. On the other hand, when we look back at that period, when so many people did respond to the call of authority, we also had a tremendous amount of racial segregation. We had a tremendous amount of segregation by sex, and so on. Can’t we create a new centering for authority now that deals with the way people are now? I think we need institutions. But those institutions have to transform themselves in some way to respond to what I’m calling “moral freedom.”
Q: What are the implications for religious institutions?
A: There are certainly strong implications. Maybe I can answer with an analogy here. To me, the future for religious institutions is actually based on what’s happening in an entirely different realm — the realm of medicine. I remember a time when, if you got sick, you went to the doctor or, heaven forbid, the hospital. And you were told, “This is what you do,” and “I’ve diagnosed your condition, and you follow my orders. I prescribe the medicine, and you take the medicine.” That’s not the way it works anymore, and most doctors recognize that if they try to do that, people are going to find another doctor, because we have something now called a “second opinion.” You the patient want [to] know more. You ask the doctor questions. You say, “Why should I take that, rather than that?” You look up something on the Internet to see about it. You want your doctor in there talking to you and with you, but not at you anymore. You could call what religious leaders need to do a kind of second-opinion morality, if you want to make the analogy with the medical sphere. Religious leaders have to recognize that they just can’t sit there like the doctors used [to] sit there and write a prescription for what ails people spiritually, or what ails people in the religious realm. They have to recognize that they’re dealing with free agents who have opinions of their own. I’m not a religious leader. I’m not responsible for a flock or a congregation. And it’s easy for me, perhaps, to give this advice, because I don’t have to deal with the consequences. But I would tell religious leaders that under the old model, based on the analogy with the old doctor, there was a lack of confidence in people themselves. As a doctor, or as a priest or a pastor, or as a rabbi — you knew what was best. You had a certain amount of feeling that those people out there, your parishioners, really didn’t know what was best for them, and you were going to tell them.
That attitude is one you’ve got to change now. You’ve got to work with people much more. Trust them. Maybe they’ll leave you. But maybe they’ll come back. You know, for every person who leaves a particular faith, there’s another person who comes back. And you’ve got to be prepared to recognize that, in the course of a person’s life cycle, they’re going to go through changes. One of the most interesting changes in our religious life is the life cycle itself. People’s need for religion alters as they go through the life course. [There is] a certain period of time when they don’t want to deal with religion. Then they have kids, and then they want to deal with religion. Then they get older, and they don’t. Then they get too old, and they do. If you’re a religious figure, you’ve got to recognize that when they go through one of those phases where they’re less interested in what you have to offer, they’re probably going to come back to you later.
Q: By and large, it seems to me that we have shown a remarkable acceptance of religious diversity. I’m wondering if you agree with that. And, if so, why do you think that is?
A: I very much agree. I think the history here is very, very instructive. We started out pretty much as an overwhelmingly Protestant country, although there were Catholics here, especially in Maryland, from the start. When we had the big Irish immigration and then the Polish and Italian and German immigration of Catholics to the United States in the latter part of the nineteenth century, it wasn’t well received by the Protestant majority. We had the equivalent of religious wars in this country — vicious fights. I come from Boston, where the fights were probably more vicious than anywhere else. Boston had the largest Know-Nothing party in the United States. And the Know-Nothings were as anti-Catholic as you could be. Now, we’re talking about Christians here. We’re talking about Protestants and Catholics, both of whom believe in Jesus Christ. And yet, even though they both believed in Jesus Christ, you had this tremendous amount of hostility. Then Jews came. And they don’t believe in Jesus Christ. But we got a little more tolerant here. We invented a new religion. We’re very inventive people, so we invented one called “the Judeo-Christian tradition” [that] actually never really existed, since Jews and Christians have been killing each other a lot over the years. But we called it the Judeo-Christian tradition, and we managed to stretch our boundary a little bit more. It wasn’t easy. There were acts of anti-Semitism here — serious acts of anti-Semitism. But compared to Germany, we managed to do that.
Even with all that, however, I don’t think anyone back in the 1940s and 1950s could have predicted that there would have been as much religious diversity as we’ve gotten with so little conflict and so little violence associated with it. Given our history, it is absolutely remarkable, and it testifies to probably the single biggest change in the way people think about religion. There really was a time when to say, “I’m religious,” would mean to say, “My way is the only way.” And that’s not how people speak anymore. They recognize that there are many paths and many ways. We should congratulate ourselves for doing that, because so few countries really have [done it]. Even in countries that have had a long history of having more than one religion, it’s often polarized, with each one having its own subculture. We have some of that here. It’s not that your average Christian wants to walk into a mosque and see what’s going on there. But there’s more intermarriage. Especially with younger people, you’re going to get much more of an intermixing. It’s not going to be just each religion in its own ghetto anymore.
Q: But to what extent does that suggest that at least some of us don’t cling quite so tightly as we used to to the idea of “our truth”?
A: People are not confident about their truths anymore. Truth has taken a pretty severe blow. If you are a person who believes in a kind of absolute truth, this is one of the main problems you find with America these days. You look out and you say, “No one believes in the old truths anymore.” There’s something positive to be said about being a little less confident that you have the truth and that everyone else doesn’t. There’s remarkable eclectic borrowing. Kids on college campuses these days who consider themselves religious will take a little bit of Thomas Merton, a little bit of Gandhi, a little bit of Mother Teresa, a little Elie Wiesel, Vaclav Havel, and they put it all into a mix. You say, “Hey, these are very, very different traditions.” And they’ll shrug their shoulders and say, “Well, maybe they are, but they speak to me.” That’s the important criteri[on] here.
Q: How can people who believe very strongly that they have a duty to evangelize, to try to spread the gospel of Christianity and convert non-Christians, live in a society of increasing religious diversity?
A: Well, they do, and they have to adjust. I actually think there have been big adjustments already. My research and my experience with evangelicals tells me that, while nonevangelicals have a notion that to evangelize means that you actually go out and knock on doors and say, “Hey, here I am. Here’s the good news,” that’s not quite how it works. When you actually talk to evangelicals, they’re told that they ought to evangelize, but they worry about it. Like any Americans, they’re a little bit insecure about going up to perfect strangers. They don’t want to be rebuffed, and they don’t want to be seen as telemarketers who call you in the middle of dinner. They say, “My commitment to evangelize is for me to live the best life that I can, for me to be a witness to Jesus by being exemplary in what I do.” And more and more, that’s what the duty to evangelize consists of. It’s not all that different from people who wouldn’t describe themselves as evangelicals do. They also want to lead a good life. So the idea of evangelizing from witness is, I think, much less threatening.
Q: You’ve written in the past about people not wanting to be judgmental. It has a real bearing on how to develop tolerance and respect for people who are very different.
A: Nonjudgmentalism is really a very, very powerful idea. And you find it just as powerfully in evangelical Christian communities as you do anywhere else. I have transcripts from interviews where people will say things like, “You know, I used to believe that because I’m an evangelical I have the truth. But now I realize through my experience of being born again that other people will do things in their own way.” That whole experience of being born again creates in people a sense that, “Since I’m going through a second birth, maybe there’s always a chance that someone else will do that, as well.” I think the metaphor works as a kind of insurance policy. So many people will change their religions, and so many people who don’t change their religions will have their children marry someone outside the faith, that if you want to make sure that you haven’t offended a future husband for your daughter, you’d better not say anything intolerant about any religion, because you don’t know what religion she’s going to take somebody home with — right? Tolerance, nonjudgmentalism becomes an insurance policy in that sense. More and more people come into contact with people of different faiths. That’s a new reality about American religion, as well.
Q: If more and more people in a specific religion feel uncertain about the bedrock truths of that tradition, doesn’t that imply a not very healthy future for that particular faith?
A: It implies a very, very different kind of future. I think that’s true. It’s a future that can’t be based on a creed that claims to speak to a particular kind of truth. So the question for its future is, what will it base itself on? Can it base itself on something else? Judaism, for example, is a religion that bases itself on observance and on ritual and, I think, flourishes because of that. It doesn’t necessarily require a particular commitment to a particular truth. Many Jews would say that what’s most attractive to them in Judaism are the commandments to keep kosher and to obey the Sabbath, and not necessarily to think that God commanded them. The observance comes even before the belief, to a certain degree. For many Catholics in America what they identify with as Catholic are the observances, the rituals, the wonderful images that they associate with the tradition. If faith in God is part of that, fine. But if it’s not … the interesting thing for me about American Catholics is the surveys are absolutely clear: 75, 80, 90 percent say that you can be a good Catholic and practice birth control; you can be a good Catholic if you’re divorced. Even 50 or 60 percent say you can be a good Catholic and be gay. Now, these are contrary to the Church teachings. You would think that if people really disagree with the Vatican on something that John Paul himself considers so important, and the Vatican considers so important that it puts it in an encyclical and codifies it and says it’s a universal truth — you would think that a person who says, “No, I don’t think that’s true” would then say, “therefore, I can’t be Catholic.” But no. That’s not what they say. They say, “I disagree with the pope, but I’m as Catholic as I can be.” That, again, raises the question of what makes a religious tradition strong. Catholicism is strong because people want to identify with it. It means something to them that they want to be Catholic. It’s not strong because it says, “Here’s the truth. And if you don’t obey it, we’re going to excommunicate you.” The Catholic Church used to excommunicate lots of people — [that's] not the way you make a strong church.
Q: This climate of freedom to choose for myself what I think is right and wrong and how I want to worship — where does that leave Protestants?
A: Protestants have a big advantage in all this, I think, because it’s always been a church that’s emphasized the individual and the voluntary character of faith — the individual as his own priest. American religion has been colored by Protestantism from the beginning. In fact, Protestantism and its voluntary character, its emphasis on freedom, has influenced all the other religions in America. Catholics and Jews have both been Protestantized. They’ve had to adapt to a Protestant environment. It’s often said, but it bears repeating, that to be Catholic in America is not the same as to be Catholic in Europe. And, certainly, to be Jewish in America is not the same as being Jewish in Israel. There is an American version of Judaism and an American version of Catholicism that are distinct because of our commitment to freedom. Much the same is going to happen to Islam and any other religion that comes here. Already, Muslims who come here from very, very traditional religious environments are changing their religion. You cannot have the traditional Islamic attitude toward women that you might have had [in] Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, come to this country, and keep it up. It’s not going to last. The culture’s going to influence you, and you’re going to change. That’s very much what happened to Catholics, and it’s very much what happened to Jews.
Q: There’s a school of thought that says, at least for Protestants, it is the most conservative congregations that thrive, and the liberal ones that do not. I think that means conservative in theology as well as social ideas. That would suggest that if there is this loosening up of faith commitments, those congregations are in trouble.
A: Well, I don’t think so. I have a pretty strong disagreement with that line of thought, which really can be traced back to a book written by Dean Kelly in the 1970s, WHY CONSERVATIVE CHURCHES ARE GROWING. The idea was that, especially in a secular environment, if you offer a strong message, a strict church, you’ll grow. People will really flock to you. That has definitely been true. But it’s not true forever. There is a cyclical course to these things. Some of our strongest churches, as they become stronger, modify themselves. They want to grow even more. The biggest growing churches in America — megachurches — are anything but strict in this conventional way. They call themselves evangelical, but they’re not strict, not demanding, and they’re growing very, very rapidly. Willow Creek, the most famous of our megachurches, doesn’t even have a cross outside the building. It wouldn’t identify itself with any specific tradition. It wants to grow. And the way you grow is by trying to be all things to all people. The strict church idea is a way to get a niche and start growing, but you can’t keep growing that way. If you stay that strict, the growth that you’ve experienced will actually decline, which is perfectly fine for some believers. Some believers would rather not grow. I actually admire them greatly for not wanting to grow. They say, “This is what we want, and we want to be faithful to it.” But past a certain point, if you want to grow, you’re not going to be that strict.
Q: If we are as religious as we say we are, we really are remarkably religious, and we believe in very traditional things. Then why do our attitudes about certain social issues and why do our politics indicate something very different?
A: A great deal, of course, depends on what we mean by “religious.” When people talk about surveys that show 95 percent of people believe in God and equally high numbers go to church regularly and so on, we know those figures are not completely to be trusted. When you actually look at church attendance, it’s considerably lower than what the surveys tell you about people who say they go to church. What the surveys are measuring is whether people think they ought to be going to church more than whether they actually do. But I won’t deny that there is a substantial element of truth to the idea that we’re certainly a much more religious country than Holland, Great Britain, and others. I personally think, and a lot of social scientists I respect would agree with me, that in an odd way it’s precisely the fact that we don’t command religion that enables it to flourish. We’ve never had a state church. We’ve never made religion a monopoly. Therefore, religions really compete with each other in the market. And that actually keeps our religions flourishing.
Q: The religions are flourishing, but why don’t they seem to have more of an influence on the larger society?
A: There’s a cost for that flourishing. This is the market model, which says that when you have a government monopoly on religion — an established church — religion becomes very lazy (say, Sweden or Scandinavia) and people drop off. It doesn’t do anything for them. We have competitive religions that have to compete for customers. Therefore, our religions really grow and flourish. But the down side of that is that they then have to appeal to people. They lose the power of their message to some degree, because they’re putting themselves behind the cart of public opinion, rather than leading public opinion. That’s why I don’t think that religion translates into public policies. We have a number of follower religions. I don’t see that much leadership in our religions. On an issue like capital punishment, for example, which is certainly an important idea in many religious traditions, I don’t see political leaders talking about raising questions from their faith traditions, whatever they may be. Not that I think people should be against it, although I personally am, but where’s the leadership raising what the questions are, raising that there are religious issues here? It’s not just a question of justice. It’s not just a question of retribution. It’s a question of life, and that does involve faith. There ought to be something there that leadership can respond to.
Q: In this global society, does what’s going on here religiously have an influence on religions abroad?
A: I think it’s not as likely as in the other direction — that when religions come here, America influences them so much. The U.S. has just been an anomaly. When it comes to religion, [Western European countries] don’t want to learn anything from us. They think we are so committed to a particular kind of religiosity they feel they’ve outgrown, that they don’t see much to learn from us at all. Some of that represents a certain kind of arrogance on their part. And a lot of it represents a real misunderstanding of what American religious life is. One of the things that I do is to try to explain to Europeans about American religion. Every time I do this, they’re absolutely fascinated. These are things they haven’t heard before. But they’re completely mystified. They just don’t understand it. I wish we had an influence there, because I think they could learn a lot, especially from our more competitive approach to religion, which makes a certain amount of sense in their context.
Q: Are there other things about what’s going on here that you find Europeans and others so wide-eyed about?
A: Capital punishment is certainly one of the big issues where the Europeans look down on us. But it’s not the only one. Whenever I go to Europe, I get the sense that they think the President of the United States is named Pat Robertson and the Vice President is named Jerry Falwell. And when I try to explain to them that Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell are actually fairly marginalized people in America, that their influence has long peaked, and they can’t pull out troops the way they once did, this is news to them. They hadn’t heard this. They don’t really understand the elements of moral freedom that go into American religion. They think conservative Christians must be censorious and puritanical and so on, and they just can’t get at the way this phenomenon of being born again influences rebirth in so many different areas. [It's a] constant, constant source of misunderstanding. [It's the same for] the influence of American Catholicism abroad and the influence of American Judaism. Jews in Israel really don’t want to hear from Jews in America about what it means to be Jewish. From their point of view, Jews in America haven’t paid the price of sacrifice, of going to live in a war-torn country and risk[ing] losing their life. Since they haven’t done that and they’re comfortably over here in America, [Israeli Jews] don’t want to hear anything from them [about] being Jewish. They want to hear other things, but they don’t want American Jews telling them — Israeli Jews — what it means to be Jewish. I think very much the same is true of Catholics in Poland and Italy about Polish-American Catholics and Italian-American Catholics. I don’t expect that American religion will have a big impact in the rest of the world. The one exception is Mormonism, which has had a strong missionary success abroad for reasons that I’m not sure I fully understand. And to some degree, there’s also been a strong influence of American evangelical Protestantism in Latin America.
Q: Then there’s the question of the relationship between religion and morality and the claim of many people that, in order to be truly moral, you need to be religious — that morality is based on religion. Many other people claim that they’re not necessarily dependent on each other, and that you can be perfectly ethical — maybe supremely so — and not be religious at all.
A: Until relatively recently, there was a strong bias registered in public opinion polls against atheism. Atheism was the one taboo. I remember President Eisenhower expressed it very, very well when he said that it didn’t matter what religion you were, so long as you were religious. That defined the general American attitude toward religion for many, many years. It was a very capacious formula, because it didn’t set off Protestant against Catholic against Jew. But it did exclude atheists. It treated atheists as the ultimate pariah. I think that’s lingered fairly long. But it is disappearing, in part because people meet other people. They come into experiences with other people. They learn about other people. It’s not that atheists are some kind of exotic tribe that lives only on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. You’ll find more and more nonbelievers spread throughout the country, and believers and nonbelievers will come to meet each other, and they’ll learn to some degree to take the fangs out. We had almost a national seminar on this issue when Joe Lieberman was nominated for vice president. He made a speech at a black Baptist church in Detroit in which he essentially equated morality and religion. And there was a considerable dressing down. The Anti-Defamation League chastised him for it. Other people said, “This is going too far.” And he immediately backtracked and said, “Oh, I didn’t mean that.” It’s much harder to get up and say that to be a moral person you have to be a religious person. You’re not likely to hear that as much anymore. You’re much more likely to hear that the country requires religion for its framework, but that it ought to make a place for everyone — even those who don’t believe.