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Interview by Michael Cromartie
Alan Wolfe is professor of political science and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and Public Life at Boston College. He is the author most recently of An Intellectual in Public (Univ. of Michigan Press), a collection of his essays and reviews from The New Republic and elsewhere, and The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith (Free Press). Many readers of Books & Culture will have seen his October 2000 Atlantic Monthly cover story, "The Opening of the Evangelical Mind." Michael Cromartie spoke with Wolfe in Washington, D.C, last November; John Wilson joined the conversation.
Alan, you say that "in the United States culture has transformed Christ, as well as all other religions found within these shores. In every aspect of the religious life, American faith has met American culture—and American culture has triumphed." Why is this?
Religion is an enormously overpowering force that influences how people think and how they act, what they do, what they think is ethically right and wrong, and so on. But culture has very much the same kind of impact as well. It also shapes who we are and how we act. The question that preoccupies me is what happens when these two gigantic forces clash, as they do in the United States. And I argue in the book that culture tends to win in most such clashes. And so religion finds itself adapting to some characteristic features of American culture that are antithetical to what, for lack of a better term, we call "the old-time religion."
What would be some examples of those adaptations?
The individualism of our culture, the populist quality of our culture, its short attention span, and its anti-intellectualism. All those things influence all the other kinds of institutions we have: they influence sports, they influence politics. Politics today doesn't resemble what it was 50 or 70 years ago; the same is true of sports. How could religion be immune to these cultural forces? It too will take new forms—what some people ...