A Nation of Behavers
The New Religious Consciousness
The Evangelicals: What They Believe, Who They Are, Where They Are Changing
Martin Marty tries to cover everything in his new book on American religion, with the result of saying little about anything. He offers a sketch of the national religious terrain at the moment, dividing the ground into six main regions of religious identification and loyalty, and describing the social outlooks of the inhabitants of each region. Marty treats “Mainline Religion” (e.g., Catholics, Jews, Episcopalians, Lutherans), Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism, the Pentecostal and Charismatic sects, the new religions (mostly Asian in origin), Ethnic Religion, and “Civil Religion”—a term which came into prominence some ten years ago in an essay by Robert N. Bellah, and whose meaning is more obscure now than it was then, despite an enormous amount of scholarly attention. A recent bibliography compiled on Civil Religion runs to ten pages, and a recent collection of essays distinguishes five quite different uses and interpretations of the term. The scholars seem to agree that there is something out there, somewhere, having to do with religious influence and rhetoric in public life, but they are not at all sure about what or where it is. It is a case of the blind men and the elephant.
The New Religious Consciousness edited by Glock and Bellah is a melange of sixteen essays on as many aspects of contemporary wild and enthusiastic religion. Most of the essays are in the form of case studies of one or another specific manifestation of the “new religious consciousness,” ranging from Hare Krishna through the Happy-Healthy-Holy Organization and on to Synanon and the Christian World Liberation Front. Showing a fine sociological impartiality, the editors also include a piece on Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan. Altogether, the book concentrates on the wild and the exotic, and reading it can produce the jitters. Furthermore, given the editors’ principle of selection, they manage to miss the really significant dimension of the new religious consciousness, which is the remarkable resurgence of Evangelical Protestantism and its increased attention to social and political questions.
The chief interest of such books as these is not scholarly. Rather, they seem symptomatic expressions themselves of the widespread yearning to be relieved of the anxieties and despair of our time, and to find shelter in simple belief and strong conviction. As many observers have pointed out, Americans are undergoing a crisis of meaning and self-confidence, and large numbers of them are turning or returning to religion, usually of the pietistic and evangelical kind. The twice-born are growing in number and visibility. The recent book by Charles Colson,1 for instance, is a before-and-after account of his own religious conversion. While misleading and perhaps even mendacious in its treatment of some of the political episodes in which Colson took part, the book does capture the current mood among the mighty. It is sanctimonious throughout.
Colson is only one among many prominent public actors who are “getting religion” (an expression, incidentally, which according to Mencken’s American Usage is distinctively American; and when you “get religion” here, what you usually get…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.