The Public Interest

Religion and the social scientist

Daniel J. Mahoney

Spring 2004

WITH The Transformation of American Religion, † the distinguished sociologist and chronicler of the culture wars Alan Wolfe has written a curiously instructive book on the ways we Americans “actually live our faith.” Wolfe writes as a social scientist who is himself an unbeliever, but who nevertheless expresses respect for the diverse religious commitments of the American people. He distrusts soi-disant liberals who deny the right of the religious-minded to bring their beliefs and “values” to bear on the pressing issues of the day. His book’s argument is nicely captured in the title of its introductory chapter, “The Passing of The Old-Time Religion”: informality is on the rise in worship, the nature of religious witness is changing, and doctrine is being de-emphasized.  Through a series of well-crafted sociological portraits and vignettes that explore the ways in which Americans practice their religion today, Wolfe suggests that the lived reality of American religion has next to nothing to do with the stringent moral demands and doctrinal preoccupations of the religions of old.

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