Robert Wuthnow examines the ways in which American religion has been restructured since the Second World War; he simultaneously explores the causes behind such restructuring. Part of a larger project on Church and State, “The Restructuring of American Religion: Society and Faith Since World War II” is for the most part a historical narrative that begins with the new found optimism among religious organizations shortly after the Second World War. At the same time, this period also manifests a sense of foreboding among religious leaders, Wuthnow notes.
The 1950s and 1960s saw the initiation of religious organizations’ engagement with the public sphere flowing out of a cultural understanding of what it meant to be religious, the character of religious communities and their role in shaping the larger society. To be sure, there were competing visions for the larger society articulated by different religious organizations. There were however commonalities such as the emphasis on individual piety that was in congruence with broader individualistic orientations in American culture; culture was understood by and large to be a repository of values, hence the emphasis on influencing cultural values in the arena of moral and cultural principles. Most of all, this period witnessed an overwhelming emphasis on religious education, Wuthnow notes, as a result of perceiving the need to educate people and society in moral and spiritual values. Most of the religious education efforts were divided along denominational lines.
Following this period, Wuthnow observes a decline in denominationalism coupled with the proliferation of special interests groups such as Moral Majority, Christian Voice, Religious Roundtable, and the National Christian Action Council, which arose at all levels of religious hierarchy. Such special interest groups revitalized faith and encouraged its engagement with the broader society; on the other hand, notes Wuthnow, special purposes groups have in many instances added further layers of bureaucracy to the already highly bureaucratized structure of American religion.
Increasingly divisions arose among adherents of different types of special purpose groups. Wuthnow characterizes this polarization along the ends of a broad spectrum represented by religious liberals and religious conservatives. While influential elements in mainline denominations move towards the political left, the 1960s and 1970s saw the emergence of evangelicals. Interestingly, while the rise of evangelicalism led to its engagement with the broader culture, evangelicalism itself did not escape being significantly influenced by the broader trends in the surrounding culture.
Divisions between religious liberals and religious conservatives developed sharply around issues of abortion, the question of public morality in relation to governmental policy, the role of women in churches and in society in general, and the relation between religion and politics. These divisions are mirrored in two distinct approaches to civil religion, one favored by the liberals and another by the conservatives.
Wuthnow provides historical comparisons with similar situation in Europe during the periods of Reformation and Enlightenment. While there are abstracted similarities, important differences remain: America continues to have a high degree of organized religiosity. The restructuring of American religion has been significantly influenced by the cultural, social, and political environment in which it functioned.