Learning to Live with Religion: The Pluralist Imperative

Changing the Culture of Protestant Worship: Fourth in a Series

The cultural world of our time provides a promising environment for transforming the worship, congregational life, and outreach of classic Protestant churches. This is one conclusion that can be drawn from a book by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge: God Is Back, How the Global Revival of Faith is Changing the World. Although the authors have written a detailed and richly textured text, it is held together by a clear, simple, and persuasive narrative line.

1) Scholars have long insisted that modernization and religion do not go together. As societies take on the characteristics of the modern world, scholars have argued, religion would disappear along with other primitivisms. Europe, home of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and Modernity (and the French Revolution), has been offered as the example.

2) The United States, with its own transformative revolution, has been the anomaly. Not only has this country embraced modernization, but it has also experienced the continuing rise of religion. The authors propose that religious vitality in America has been the result of the separation of religion from political power and the consequent freedom of choice, which have resulted in orientation toward the consumer and in growth-oriented activity by the churches.

3) They believe that capitalism and religion have become an increasingly codependent duo. Capitalism in the economic order leads to mobility, rapid change, and the breakdown of relationships that provide meaning and support. In order to stay with this process, people need communities that provide these qualities, and in the American model that is what churches do. In response to this dynamic, many churches have been transformed. They are thriving because they have learned to present themselves to the young, upwardly mobile middle class. They present a message and pattern of relationships in megachurch assemblies and in face-to-face groups that anchor people in a world of change. These churches are imaginative and aggressive in their modes of communication.

4) This American pattern that binds capitalism and Evangelical/Pentecostal Christianity together has been imported to many places around the world with similar results. Adopting Marx’s metaphor, Micklethwait and Wooldridge say that Americans “are both exporting opium and stoking the demand for opiates.” The impact is especially important in the effect it is having upon Islam around the world. In a section entitled “the pluralist imperative,” they cite the two “preconditions for any serious interfaith dialogue” that Pope Benedict has put forward: “first, accepting religious freedom as an inalienable right, and second, drawing some separation between church and state.”

5) Although the struggle with modernization is taking place in many places around the world, in societies with widely differing economies and relations of religion and political power, the authors believe that the main battle is between Christianity and Islam. They acknowledge the factors that support the “clash of civilizations” thesis, but they believe that the future prospects are much more hopeful.

6) The conclusion to this book bears the title “Learning to Live with Religion.” The authors are persuaded, contrary to many scholars in recent times, that religion thrives in a world shaped by modernization. Therefore, religion has to be taken seriously, especially in societies like the United States. New ways need to be found to include religion in the public square. In a passage that should resonate with many classic Protestants, they recite a passage from John Locke to support their analysis of the way that three freedoms go together: spiritual freedom, economic freedom, and political freedom.

A generation ago, Mircea Eliade proposed that world religions are those that enable people to cope with the terrors of history. Although they use an entirely different vocabulary and study human societies with different scholarly disciplines, Micklethwait and Wooldridge are making the same point. In our time, too, religion is successful when it provides support, safety, and meaning for people who are buffeted by the political and economic tempests of modernization.

One of the puzzles of our time is why classic Protestant churches, many of which came to birth in the United States and in earlier generations developed vibrant life, have now waned in their energies and appeal. The global revival of faith is changing the world, or so our authors declare. Is it too much to believe that this same revival can also transform classic Protestant churches?

In order for this transformation to take place, however, these churches need to offer a theological interpretation of life in our world that makes sense to people. They have to embody this message in art and music that are connected to our time. They need to develop small communities of nurture and support. They need to do significant work in the world. They need to find new ways to present themselves in the religious marketplace. The congregational and liturgical culture of these churches has to change.

4 Responses to Learning to Live with Religion: The Pluralist Imperative

  1. Rodney Allen Reeves says:

    Excellent post Keith. A lot of interesting material in the book, with most of their basic apologia, quite persuasively presented, as to why the American Experiment in Liberty has in many ways been more effective with the integration of “religion” into cultural life on the road to modernity, than in general the European model.

    A favorite quote from the book, among numerous, is when speaking of the “fundamental principles of liberal pluralism” and of movement toward John Locke’s “toleration” (page 367) is on the next page: “But the great breakthrough came with America’s Founding Fathers. Whereas Locke had advocated mere ‘toleration’ — an established religion with other faiths legally tolerated — the Founders eventually argured for the universal freedom of religion with no established church and therefore no religious dissent. Tom Paine put the case for going beyond mere tolerance best: ‘Toleration is not the *opposite* of intolerance but the *counterfeit* of it. *Both* are despotisms: the one assumes to itself the right of withholding liberty of conscience, the *other of granting it*’.” (page 368, the quote of Paine from “The Rights of Man”)

    I encourage all readers of Keith’s blog to read “God is Back” (2009, Penguin Books) if you have not already.

  2. Bob Cornwall says:


    Thanks for this review/engagement and to Rodney for your additional comments!!

  3. […] concerning the vigorous role of religion in modern societies. In group discussions and responses to my recent posting about the book, three dissenting points of view have come to my […]

  4. […] books that I have reviewed in recent columns support this thesis: Leadership Without Easy Answers; God Is Back; Finding a Spiritual […]

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