Robert Wuthnow, The Restructuring of American Religion: Society and Faith Since World War II (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), 360 pp., $25.00, cloth.
David W. Lotz, editor, Altered Landscapes: Christianity in America 19351985 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 376 pp., $27.95 cloth, $17.95, paper.
Mark Ellingsen, The Evangelical Movement: Growth, Impact, Controversy, Dialog (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1988), 484 pp., $24.95, cloth.
Wade Clark Roof and William McKinney, American Mainline Religion: Its Changing Shape and Future (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1987), 272 pp., $10.00, paper.
George M. Marsden, Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 311 pp., $19.95, cloth.
Robert T. Handy, A History of Union Theological Seminary in New York (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), 370 pp., $32.00.
G. K. Chesterton once described America as “a nation with the soul of a church.” The acids of secularism and modernity have eroded the patina of that soul, but one of the most remarkable features of America in the 1980’s is the persistence of religion as a major factor in the life of the nation.
Foreigners have been consistently surprised by this facet of the American character. Alexis de Tocqueville, who noted this religious character in the 1830’s, was echoed a century and a half later by the English think-tank, Oxford Analytica, which noted “the quite extraordinary, even exceptional, vigor of religion in America in the 1980’s.” Their report continued: “In a day of declining American exceptionalism, religion is still a point where the U.S. is strikingly different.”
Preachers packing their bags for summer reading will find six new volumes on American Christianity worthy companions for a journey across the religious landscape. The six volumes range from comprehensive works on religion in modern America, to the histories of two significant theological seminaries. Each offers an important perspective on the state of Christianity in the United States.
The Restructuring of American Religion, by Robert Wuthnow, is destined to be one of the most-quoted volumes of the decade. Wuthnow, professor of sociology at Princeton University, has produced one of the most significant studies of American Christianity written in the twentieth century. The fundamental thesis of Wuthnow’s volume is that American religion has responded to the challenges of modernity and contemporary secularism by a process of restructuring.
Though secularism is a fact of life in the last decades of the twentieth century, Wuthnow demonstrates that the secularist theorists who predicted the demise of religion in America underestimated the religious nature of the American people. On the other hand, those who look to the contemporary religious scene and detect no great shifts from the religious structures of the Eisenhower years also miss the fundamental point — that a major restructuring of American religion has taken place.
Wuthnow begins his volume with a description of the Brooklyn Sunday School Union parade of June 6, 1946. Public schools were closed, public officials (including an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court) were gathered, and 90,000 children paraded in a great Protestant show of force. The very description of the event evokes a recognition of the changes in the religious scene since that period.
Yet Wuthnow demonstrates that the energy and institutions of American Christianity did not go underground; rather, “American religion has been able to play its cards with the advantage of a tremendously strong hand.” This strong hand, coupled with an ability to adapt, has produced the new religious structures which mark the current scene.
The post-war period, suggests Wuthnow, was a period of consolidation and general cooperation among the various strands of American Christianity. Though tensions between the rival Protestant and Catholic churches were present, the post-war period represented the high tide of the mainline establishment. America was a denominational nation, with Will Herberg’s famed volume Protestant-Catholic-Jew setting forth the recognized parameters of mainstream faith. Nevertheless, the period was, by Wuthnow’s description, an era of promise and peril. The realization of victory in the world war was matched with the widespread fears of totalitarian expansion and the nuclear age.
The changes on the American scene were marked by several strategic trends. Among the most important of these has been the decline of denominationalism among the religious populace. This was partly due, Wuthnow explains, to the shifting social bases of denominational life. Whereas the denominational lines of the 1940’s were clearly marked by socio-economic distinctions and regionalism, the next four decades experienced the decline of these distinctions.
The decline of the role of denominations in American religious life can be seen in the phenomenon of denominational switching. In 1955, only four percent of the American population was in a denomination other than that of their birth. By the mid-1980’s that component represented a full one-third of the population.
While denominations have declined, the period had been marked by the phenomenal rise of special purpose groups — often transdenomination interest and advocacy groups — which now populate the religious structure. Ranging from missionary organizations to political advocacy groups, these special purpose groups now play a more important role than the historic denominations in many sectors of the religious topography.
Other significant trends identified and discussed by Wuthnow include the religious realignment of the 1970’s, the mobilization of the religious right, and the decline of the mainline denominations. Wuthnow describes a context in which the liberal-conservative tension has produced a restructuring of the basic pattern of religion in America. The basic liberal-conservative divide now cuts across denominational lines. As Wuthnow commented: “Thus, conservative Baptists and conservative Catholics may share more in common than conservative with liberal Baptists.”
The controversies over abortion, biblical authority, economic issues, feminism, and a score of other issues, indicate the character of these new lines. Yet Wuthnow does not paint a bleak portrait of the future. Indeed, his description of this fundamental restructuring of American religion points to the adaptability of religious structures in America even as it indicates the points of tension.
The Restructuring of American Religion will set the terms for the debates concerning the role of religion in American life for years to come. Wuthnow’s thesis represents a helpful and suggestive means of understanding religion and its future in modern America. His explication of the major trends of the post-war era reveals both the tenacity and the tensions of religious belief in the United States.
The image of an altered landscape, suggested by Martin E. Marty, forms the title of an important new volume edited by David W. Lotz. Altered Landscapes is a collection of essays on Christianity in America from 1935 to 1985. The essays, collected as a tribute to historian Robert T. Handy, are grouped into three major sections: “The Changing American Churches,” “The Changing Theological Disciplines,” and “Reflections on Religion in a Changing America.”
The twenty essays range from Leonard Sweet’s “The Modernization of Protestant Religion in America,” to “Religion at the Core of American Culture,” by John F. Wilson. In between are eighteen essays concerning issues including the evangelical resurgence, the Black churches, ecumenical movements, worship, American Catholicism, women in the church, and world missions. In addition, eight essays consider the revolutions in theology, biblical studies, church history, and theological education. The essay by John F. Wilson, joined by a significant contribution by Donald W. Shriver Jr., concludes the volume.
Marty, the most recognized church historian in America, sets the stage by describing the changes in the American religious context in terms of a religious landscape altered by both hurricanes and glaciers. The hurricanes (Vatican II, the civil rights movement, etc.) alter the landscape with radical change. Marty notes that “Such events and public reaction to them make for the kind of subject historians like to chronicle.”
The alterations brought on by glacial change are less immediate, but the glacier has an impact far beyond that of the hurricane. “In its path there is an altered landscape, a new carving of the terrain and a deposit of moraine.” The essays in the volume prove the point, detailing and interpreting the radical and gradual transformations on the American religious landscape.
The era covered by the volume, 1935-1985, marks the half-century which followed what Robert T. Handy has identified as the end of the Protestant era in America. Indeed, Leonard Sweet’s perceptive essay demonstrates the foibles and fortunes of mainline Protestantism in this era of modernization — as the mainline appears to shift to the sideline. The evangelicals, on the other hand, now encounter the challenges of their resurgence in the 1980’s. George Marsden’s contribution is a helpful introduction to the contours and character of the evangelical movement.
Altered Landscapes is a worthy collection, and the individual essays deserve a close and careful reading. Readers seeking a survey of American religion will find the volume a competent and fascinating guide. Nevertheless, closer examinations of both the mainline and evangelical sectors of American Protestantism have emerged in recent months.
Wade Clark Roof, professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, and William McKinney, professor of religion and society at Hartford Seminary, have collaborated to produce American Mainline Religion: Us Changing Shape and Future, published by Rutgers University Press. Roof and McKinney are both experienced researchers, and both have published widely on the subject of American mainline Protestantism. This volume grew out of their long-standing interest in the changing religious scene and its likely future. The authors identify and describe a major transformation of this religious pattern: “The shifts signify a new religiocultural order now in the making — a rearrangement of groups and forces, a realignment of power and influence, and a change of mood and outlook.”
Mainline religion, as identified by Roof and McKinney, includes the major religious movements in contemporary America — not just mainline (or “oldline”) Protestantism. Thus, the authors include the mainline churches, evangelicals, Roman Catholicism, and the American Jewish community within the scope of their study.
Their conclusions represent a new “mapping” of religion in America. Like Wuthnow, the authors describe a growing division of American Protestantism along liberal-conservative lines of division. The right continues to grow, whereas the older, more denominational traditions, decline in membership and impact.
The new mapping of the religious scene reveals “the fragmented mainline,” yet is not without hope for a revitalized future. The authors based their conclusions upon a solid base of demographic and cultural research, buttressed by perceptive interpretation. American Mainline Religion should be read by American Christians of all traditions.
Though the evangelical movement has been documented in numerous (if not countless) essays, articles, and books, no single volume has attempted to bring together a history of the movement with a comprehensive taxonomy of the various evangelical subgroups. That is, this was true until the publication of The Evangelical Movement by Mark Ellingsen. This massive volume is the most thorough introduction to what Timothy Smith of Johns Hopkins University has termed “the evangelical mosaic.”
Ellingsen, a Lutheran pastor currently in North Carolina, was formerly associate professor at the Institute for Ecumenical Research, Strasbourg, France. The ecumenical vision informs Ellingsen’s contribution, and his work represents both a means of introducing ecumenical Christians to the evangelical movement, and of inviting evangelicals to ecumenical dialogue.
These are, he suggests, “heady days” for evangelicals: “Their marked growth and the significant influence they have had upon recent American elections for federal offices have transformed this once castigated minority into a powerful religious and political force, at least in America.”
Ellingsen begins with the vexing problem of defining the term “evangelical.” Evangelicals range from the most ardent fundamentalists on the right to stalwart members of the mainline ecumenical churches. Nevertheless, Ellingsen describes the evangelical movement in terms of the conservative theological and religious subculture in American Protestantism.
The Evangelical Movement surveys the history of the movement, its current diversity, and characteristic evangelical themes, which he terms “the quest for orthodoxy in modern dress.” His study is certain to draw criticism at several points from both evangelicals and mainliners. The matters of central concern to the distinctions between these two movements are still sensitive spots on the ecclesiastical body. Nevertheless, an entire section within the volume consists of a call for a substantive dialogue between evangelicals and the mainline churches. This, the author seeks to demonstrate, would broaden the evangelical consciousness while enriching the mainline churches.
The Lutheran character of this volume adds a unique element to the discussion. We should not fail to note that the volume is released by Augsburg, a major mainline denominational press. The Evangelical Movement is likely to stand for several years as the most thorough survey of the evangelical mosaic.
The chronicle of American religion in the twentieth century is focused, in large part, upon the institutions by which American religion has organized and extended its efforts. The histories of American theological seminaries are not likely to become best-sellers on the trade market, but two recent contributions set the pace for histories which read more like critical institutional biographies. Both offer unique and noteworthy glimpses of movements far beyond institutional boundaries.
Robert T. Handy, whose contributions to church history are celebrated in Altered Landscapes, offers a comprehensive history of the flagship seminary of mainline Protestantism in A History of Union Theological Seminary in New York. Capably written and with scrupulous attention to detail, the volume is a guide through the story of the institutional home of Philip Schaff, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, Charles A. Briggs, and Henry Sloane Coffin, who, with many other luminaries, dedicated a major portion of their professional lives at Union Theological Seminary.
A History of Union Theological Seminary in New York is a rich and textured institutional biography which offers interesting and informative glimpses of mainline Protestantism beyond the story of Union Seminary. This broad purpose is central to the purpose of George A. Marsden in his timely history of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Fuller, named for its founder, Evangelist Charles E. Fuller, was the institutional manifestation of the “new evangelicalism” which emerged in the 1940’s and 1950’s.
Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism tells the story of the development of this strategic theological seminary, but, more importantly, of the character and development of the new evangelicalism. The seminary, founded by Fuller and Harold J. Ockenga, the respected pastor of Boston’s Park Street Church, gathered many of the luminaries in the new evangelical movement. Carl F. H. Henry, E. J. Carnell, Wilbur Smith and others served as the early faculty. Later, the faculty was to include scholars such as Geoffrey Bromiley and George Eldon Ladd.
Marsden, whose Fundamentalism and American Culture considered the early fundamentalist movement, brings all of his considerable skills in historical research and interpretation to this volume. Intending to write a comprehensive volume detailing the development of evangelicalism, picking up where his earlier volume ended, Marsden was approached by Fuller President David A. Hubbard with the invitation to write a history of the seminary. Marsden accepted, blending the two purposes into one text.
The volume is a remarkable journey through the evangelical movement, with Fuller Seminary playing the central role in the evangelical drama. Actually, the format of the book tends to inflate the significance of Fuller Seminary by the central focus on this one institution as a means of understanding evangelicalism. Yet, this is not to be overstated; the history of Fuller Seminary is, in large part, the history of the evangelical movement, with all the tensions and energy therein.
The histories of these two seminaries, rich in content and perspective, serve as windows into the larger religious movements each represents. Preachers will find these two volumes a profitable pairing for thoughtful and interesting reading.
The American religious landscape is shifting under our feet. These six volumes offer valuable and catalytic insights into the character of those changes, and of the future of religion in America. The context of Christian preaching is an important part of the homiletical mix.
These volumes serve to raise the important issues and to suggest avenues of thoughtful interpretation as the preacher views the American landscape.

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