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by R. Stephen Warner


They're OK, We're OK

So much for being resident aliens.

Authors are usually asked by publishers to help the marketing department locate the audience to which the proposed book is directed. Most professors write for colleagues in their own and adjacent fields, but the potential of sales to the dwindling ranks of rich university libraries and narrowing ranks of congenial private scholars is nowadays deemed insufficient.

To judge by the product, Alan Wolfe and his agent must have had an easy time of it pitching the idea for The Transformation of American Religion, his unflinching overview of contemporary religious life in the United States. Not only is Wolfe, a social scientist who teaches at Boston College, a prolific and increasingly influential writer. He also addresses two distinct nonspecialist audiences, both of which should (and likely will) pay attention to what he has to say.

The first audience is made up of people like himself, the sort of public intellectual who writes for (or would like to write for) The Atlantic, The New Republic, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. The second audience is people of faith in America, especially but not solely the sort of evangelical with whom he became friendly in the course of his research. Both audiences, overlapping only in places like the readership of this review, are implicated in the book, albeit unequally, public intellectuals in the introduction and conclusion, people of faith in the eight chapters in between.

Wolfe's message for the first audience is that they need not fear the kind of people who make up the second. Religious people pose no threat to democratic institutions. In earlier times and other places, religion may have been a radical force or a repressive one, but not today in the United States. Religious Americans are overwhelmingly moderate, unwilling to press their ideas against those they perceive to differ with them. Indeed, "if anything, the problem American believers have is lack of confidence rather than excessive arrogance."

Wolfe's purported message for ...

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