Using Religion to Validate Policy

RELIGION IN AMERICA SINCE 1945: A HISTORY. By Patrick Allitt (Columbia University Press, 61 West 62nd St., New York, N.Y. 10023, 2003), 265 pp. $30.00.

Religion In America Since 1945: A History, by Patrick Allitt, a professor of history at Emory University, is part of the Columbia University series focusing on the American experience after World War II. The book provides a panorama of the major religious movements that responded to the political and cultural events of the post-World War II nation. The overriding theme of the study is that religion is used more as a response to issues than a force in shaping them. Allitt basically sees religion as a private affair, which allows for the plethora of religious movements in the United States. The tolerance for such variety and expression, Allitt believes, stems from the ecumenical experience fostered by the military during the war.

For those who have lived during the intervening years, Allitt’s book may resemble a memory lane. From a united nation aligned against the threat of communism to the balkanization of America caused by Vietnam, Allitt shows not only a religious denominational divide but an interdenominational one as well. The conservative-liberal religious fault line seems to rest mainly, in his view, in religious fundamentalism, both Christian and non-Christian, and the malleability of belief in some churches afforded by Enlightenment principles that encourage civil religion. Allitt’s sympathies all seem to lean toward the latter. This is especially so in regard to Catholicism. His superlative language for the more liberal proponents of Catholic thought are rarely balanced with an opposing point of view. His shallow and prejudicial understanding of Catholicism is most obvious when he states “Pope Pius XII had, illogically expressed his approval of the rhythm method of contraception.” A few paragraphs later, he goes on to say that Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae “rejected the idea of a development of doctrine.”

On the other hand, those adherents to Catholicism’s more left-leaning social agenda are praised for their involvement in the anti-Vietnam War protests, the civil rights movement and the break-up of the perceived insular system of higher education prevalent according to John Tracy Ellis before Vatican II. Allitt’s penchant seems to be for a social religion devoid of doctrinal absolutes and amenable to emerging temporal issues. For Allitt, transcendent guidance seems to be of little consequence or quirky at best. He does indicate, however, that an appeal to transcendent values often strengthen a cause or movement. Though not mentioned in the book, this attitude of the liberal elite is best exemplified by their treatment of George W. Bush’s religious belief in the 2004 election. Left-leaning pundits worried that as a true believer the President’s behavior and decision-making might reflect his faith and thereby reject their preferred model of separation of church and state.

The concluding chapter of the book is a summation of the era covered in the previous 250 pages. The disaster of 9/11 and the ecumenical expression of good will and solidarity following the attack on the Twin Towers represents for Allitt the best of American religion. He holds up Washington, Lincoln, and Rudy Giuliani as exemplifying American religion as faith in America. Unfortunately, the data seem to indicate that over the past half century, this is indeed the case. Unlike the Middle East, where a belief in the transcendent motivates policy, in America partisans, according to this study, use the transcendent to validate policy. In the final analysis, Allitt sees theology as having a diminishing influence on American culture over the past 56 years.

For anyone looking for a collection of major religious movements and stories, this book is a handy resource, though deficient in insight and analysis.

Rev. Michael P. Orsi
Ave Maria School of Law
Ann Arbor, Mich.

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