Martin Marty: Sightings Opinion

How Americans ‘got’ religion


Getting Religion: Faith, Culture & Politics from the Age of Eisenhower to the Era of Obama by Kenneth L. Woodward (New York: Convergent Books, 2016).

“Getting Religion” is a concept born of H. L. Mencken’s observation that in the free market of American religion, citizens “get religion” when they convert or get steamed up. They do so in different ways and with different degrees of fever. Kenneth L. Woodward has taken the temperature regularly since the mid-Sixties (when he and I got acquainted and started following parallel but different paths, he in journalism and I as historian—and moonlighting in religious journalism). He was religion editor at Newsweek for over 40 years, where he could chronicle and interpret the dazzling, complex four decades of America and its people “getting religion.”

Last week he published a summing-up on “Faith, Culture, and Politics” in that period. Vatican II; religious revivals; civil rights; Vietnam War protests; “movement religion,” including women’s movements—these are a few of the catalytic and capstone clusterings of events here. I had read the manuscript, and this week reread what became a 447-page hardbound book. This is not a review; I am too close to the author and too involved in the times to gain objectivity and perspective. But I can advise readers that nowhere else are they likely to find a more informed, impassioned story of how Americans in these years “got” and kept—or abandoned—religion.

If this is not a review, what is it? A reflective response to the closing pages, which were not in the manuscript a few seasons ago, and which deal with what the author calls “The Recent Present” in his Epilogue. Some high spots:

“Segmentation is readily apparent in American religion.” When Woodward’s story began, Catholics and Southern Baptists made up 40% of the American population. Not now.

“The unanticipated surge in the nonaffiliated” has led observers to wonder whether the U.S. is following the European pattern of secularization. Not quite. Woodward instead sees a “winnowing effect” as more citizens are “self-identifying as Nones.” Since so many of the young are trending that way, religious communities suffer. Without community—church, club, cause, etc.—individuals engage in self-authentication as they seek recognition.

Families and neighborhoods have changed drastically, but “children have never been more dependent on parents for achieving later success.” So, despite working full time outside the home, “parents actually spend more time interacting with the children” than before. A half century ago collegians gave high priority to finding a “philosophy of life,” but now, under cultural pressure, collegians “take a decidedly instrumentalist view of higher education, and who can blame them?”

Morality, a big theme some decades ago, is harder to define and discern, to measure and promote. Woodward cites sociologist Christian Smith, who found and named a “moralistic, therapeutic deism,” which Woodward calls “religion with a shrug.” He sees himself now in old age, when one “pits the temptation to terminal self-absorption against the opportunity to exercise continued care and concern for those generations moving behind us,” which, he reveals, “may be the real reason [he has] written this book.”

This is a memoir, not an attempt at stand-at-a-distance history writing, and early short notices and critiques make quite a point of the fact that Woodward writes with a Roman Catholic sensibility and from a Catholic viewpoint. Which means that he is ready to let this book of memories start arguments, as many of his Newsweek stories and essays did. When almost overwhelmed by disturbing “existential facts of life,” he ends the book, as one would expect a person of faith to do, in some formula or other: “Christians like myself are called to abide in Faith, Hope, and Love. What matters is that God’s grace is everywhere.” I call such a sentence an affirmation that this friend has “got religion.”

About the author

Martin E. Marty

"Marty" is one of the most prominent interpreters of religion and culture today. Author of more than 50 books, he is also a speaker, columnist, pastor, and teacher, having been a professor of religious history for 35 years at the University of Chicago.


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  • “Segmentation is readily apparent in American religion.”

    I don’t know that we needed “American” in that quote. Re-re-reading it, I think we might distill it even further, to read simply: “Segmentation IS religion”…

  • I’m glad that Dr. Marty–as well as Fast Eddie and Stupid Athiest below, are talking about religion and not an authentic encounter with the Almighty–one that cleansed their sense of guilt and caused them to feel loved and valued for one’s gifts. That used to be the aim of evangelical churches before they got all bogged down in right-wing politics. It even was the focus of mainline churches before they tired of doing those confirmation classes and went about marrying spirituality with progressive politics and convinced everyone that political action was the cure for guilt! Further making big donations to liberal causes is the remedy for ‘white success-guilt.”

    The climate change religion certainly qualifies: Al Gore went to seminary, and has made himself quite rich taking his minions on a super-head-trip of saving the universe for God! Gore’s package is a perfect fit with Dr. Marty’s description of Americans “getting religion!”

  • There you go, mistaking rational belief and science with religious belief. I love the arrogance and triumphalism of it all. Nothing makes more “Nones” than the behavior of the devout.

  • Spuddle-pants, you need to read more carefully. I’m aware that little of
    this fits your preconceived biases, but I’m speaking here from a good
    many years’ experience with both evangelical and mainline churches,
    viewing the behavior of young adults over time.

  • “I’m speaking here from a good many years’ experience with both evangelical and mainline churches”

    None of which prepares people for the idea of rational belief or accepting scientific conclusions accepted in a given field.

  • It depends on why you go to a church or synagogue. I stopped going for a while, because I didn’t believe in the prayers literally. The I discovered that I could rework the prayers so they did. Also, I’ve the some to the interesting and genuinely nice people at synagogue.