The Restructuring of American Religion, by Robert Wuthnow: A Response
‘The Restructuring of American Religion’
Robert Wuthnow’s argument hinges on the changing nature of religious divisions, which, before WWII, were primarily inter-denominational. Jews, Catholics and Protestants were clearly defined through sweeping generalizations and stereotypes used to characterize each group. Each group battled the others for political, economic, and moral power. After WWII, the divisions became more and more intra-denominational and Wuthnow characterizes this new division as a polarization between the religious liberal and the religious conservative.
Wuthnow attributes this new division primarily to a rise in higher education, as it led to increased mobility (both spatial and social), which increased people’s interactions with other faiths and also the rate of inter-faith marriages. As argued by Peter Berger, when people come into contact with other views, they can no longer take theirs for granted and it becomes de-legitimized. As conflict became intra-denominational there was a huge rise in ‘special purpose groups’, which combined the best aspects of the church and cult in that they were both well-organized and had an element of religious fervor that people could get excited about. A main factor in the rise of ‘special purpose groups’ is the expansion of the government’s role in most aspects of life, many of which used to be strongly influenced by the churches. The special purpose groups served as a kind of ‘buffer zone’ between religion and the government, so that religion would not become ‘polluted’ through too much involvement in politics but could still have some influence over the direction of different political discussions.
The distressing aspect of Wuthnow’s argument is that he seems to believe that the rift between religious conservatives and religious liberals will never be bridged, that we will forever be a divided America. The political atmosphere is certainly a set-back, as it seems to have done little but deepen the divide by harping on a few strongly-felt issues and making it easy for people to jump on any bandwagon that goes rolling by and making it possible for nearly all discussions to be fought out on the institutional level of ‘party lines.’
What Do You Think?
Has the American religious landscape really shifted in the way Wuthnow describes? What might be the effects of this shift?
Have similar shifts happened in other countries that you know about?