The Future of American Religion: A Conversation

R. Scott Appleby, Notre Dame University
David Brooks, The New York Times
Wendy Kaminer, The Atlantic Monthly
Peter Steinfels, The New York Times
Alan Wolfe, Boston College

Date: November 4, 2003


Event Recap

On the evening of November 4th, the Boisi Center and the Church in the 21st Century initiative co-sponsored an “authors meet critics” event at Robsham Theatre featuring Alan Wolfe, the director of the Boisi Center and author of The Transformation of American Religion: How we actually live our faith” (Free Press 2003) and Peter Steinfels, New York Times religion correspondent and author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America (Simon and Schuster 2003). The panel of critics included David Brooks, columnist for the New York Times, Wendy Kaminer, contributing editor for The Atlantic Monthly, and R. Scott Appleby, director of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at Notre Dame.

Both books deal with issues related to how American religion has changed in the past few generations. Wolfe focuses on the Protestant majority and how the styles of faith, commitment, and doctrine have changed. He argues that Americans are moving away from a focus on the distinctions that differentiate Protestant sects and more towards an individually oriented style of faith that centers on prayer, worship, and witness.

Steinfels’ book, which was begun before the sex abuse scandals reshaped the way we think of the American Catholic Church, argues that this institution is on the brink of either moving further into decline or forward into a thoroughgoing trans- formation. He marshals evidence from a variety of reports on Catholic beliefs, the status of Catholic institutions, and the shortage of vowed and ordained personnel to support his argument about the vulnerabilities of the church in the current situation. Although his account has been dismissed as the perspective of a “liberal critic” by his detractors, Appleby argued that he considers the book quite “equable” in its approach in that it takes on the undeniable problems within the Catholic Church whose impact cuts across the interest of all stakeholders. Rather than run from the looming changes facing the Church, it assesses them head on.

One theme that the panelists lifted up from both books is the reason for these changes. Appleby commented that in the last 30-40 years, the idea that there can be one “Truth” has come under attack in certain areas of the culture so that truth claims, whether of a religious or secular nature are automatically suspect. This in turn has led to an erosion of faith in the authority of doc- trines and institutions. Panelists also discussed the rise of individualism as a probable cause and the shift towards an understanding of individualism that is increasingly associated with the idea of self-centeredness rather than originality. Wolfe pointed out that although there is a certain narcissism associated with contemporary American individualism, it is also characterized by a self-reliance and entrepreneurship which is one of the more positive characteristics of American culture.