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The Restructuring of American Religion, by Robert Wuthnow: A Response

Updated on June 19, 2012

‘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?


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    • profile image

      Juan 2 years ago

      Love your website! If it's pobilsse to email jokes of the day, I'd greatly appreciate it! Keep up the good work! Take care and God bless! Sincerely, Terri Gilpin :-)

    • buckleupdorothy profile image

      buckleupdorothy 5 years ago from Istanbul, Turkey

      I think you're quite right to maintain some distance, Dee - it's so easy to get pulled into a shouting battle where no one is really hearing the other.

      I wonder, though, that this new(ish - the book is at least 5 years old I think) division Wuthnow describes isn't much more insidious and damaging than the inter-denominational one "of yore".

      And of course the more pressing issue: what on earth can be done about it???

    • Dee aka Nonna profile image

      Dee aka Nonna 5 years ago

      buckleupdorothy, based on your comment you are correct I don't need to read the book to comment on what I see...forgive me, I guess I thought you were asking for input on the book. But here goes.....this is only a brief overview of what I see...every religion...denomination, etc was started because someone was either trying to escape religious persecution or did not agree with something that was going on in the church. The men who first ran this country were from all different kinds of beliefs...and some non-believers as well. It grew into this war of people thinking their belief was the "only" belief....soon people started to openly disrespect someone elses belief. And yes I would say that religion is a big factor in the way politics works... People who try to force-feed something are not trying to see the whole picture.

      That is why I do not like it when someone try to tell me what I should or should not believe. I will respectfully listen to everyones opinion and decide or not for myself. This is why so much of my writings are personal accounts. Others may or may not agree and that is perfectly OK because it is my experience and, of course, experiences change.

      Again, well done. I am more anxious than ever to read the book you wrote about.

    • buckleupdorothy profile image

      buckleupdorothy 5 years ago from Istanbul, Turkey

      Dee, thanks so much for stopping by - I am very much looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the matter, and what you think of the book.

      I do think, however, that it's not absolutely necessary to have read the book to chime in!

      I haven't lived in the US for 5 years now and would love to hear whether people have noticed anything that illustrates Wuthnow's argument (that the denominational distinctions between religions has given way to an intra-denominational distinction between 'religious conservatives' and 'religious liberals'), either in the US or elsewhere and, if it's true, whether/how it changes the way politics "works".

      Thanks very much, again, for stopping by and chiming in. I'm very much looking forward to hearing your views!

    • Dee aka Nonna profile image

      Dee aka Nonna 5 years ago

      Not having read the book I don't really know how to respond. Your review has really made me want to read it and I will. So, I think you raised some important questions...I think it is great to question and question and question until one find their own answers.

      I am excited to get and read the book. Will probably come back once I have read it.

      Well done. Voted up and interesting.