Woodward, for forty years the religion editor of Newsweek, has lived through the last 70 years and pondered the intertwining of religion and our American culture. Getting Religion is fascinating and insightful and I expect would be of great interest to any Vanguard faculty member.
The author grew up Catholic in 1950s Cleveland, and his opening chapter lovingly recreates the warm, safe, secure culture of Catholicism in that pre-Second Vatican age. John XXIII and the revolution he engineered through Vatican II in the early 60s are one powerful thread in the tapestry Woodward weaves.
We can see how many Catholic distinctives disappeared and with them many American believers as the church became less unique and more infused with the acceptance of other denominations. Like mainline Protestant denominations, the Catholics lost a great deal of their flock.
THE DECLINE OF MAINLINE CHURCHES
The book explores the decline of the mainline churches, as Woodward concludes that young Americans wanted experience, not doctrine, and evangelical and Pentecostal churches offered that and thrived in the wake of the sixties.
Readers can see how cults emerged, thrived, and declined, and Woodward details the decline of the family over his lifetime and suggests that the lack of father figures has led many to cults that provided a surrogate father figure. The percentage of single parent black households that alarmed Patrick Moynihan in 1965 looks almost quaint now as white families have followed the black path of out-of-wedlock births to a level inconceivable a half century ago.
Drawing heavily on public opinion polls, he finds that the faith of a father is the most critical factor in whether children will grow up to be believers—homes without fathers beget our current post-denominational and post-Christian generation. One rather stunning statistic struck me: three-quarters of Americans believe that sex outside of marriage is rarely or never wrong.
A LOOK AT WHERE WE ARE TODAY
Two random points illustrate the breadth of the book’s coverage. First, why did the Mormons receive a revelation allowing blacks to be full-fledged members? It wasn’t the civil rights movement in the US—it was the growth of Mormonism in Brazil, where a large percentage of the population has some black blood, that forced a re-examination (or fresh revelation) of the exclusionary doctrine.
Second, in writing about the emergence of the Christian Right, he explains how critical Francis Schaefer’s Whatever Happened to the Human Race (1979) was in shaping the movement around the abortion issue. Most of the leaders of the Moral Majority credited Schaeffer with goading them into political activism, with all the repercussions that followed over the next several decades.
All in all, this is a wonderful tale well told, and I think critical to understanding where we are religiously as a nation today.