Kenneth Woodward’s Requiem for a Lost America

January 30, 2017

Responding to Kenneth L. Woodward’s Getting Religion: Faith, Culture, and Politics from the Age of Eisenhower to the Era of Obama (New York: Convergent, 2016)

woodwardFew people have had the opportunity that has come to Kenneth L. Woodward who devoted most of his career to writing about American religion. His base was one of the most favored journalistic posts of the half century during which he worked: religion editor for Newsweek. This position provided financial support and entrée so that he could go places, watch from the inside, and talk extensively with people who were central to what was going on.

He wrote extensively and frequently in disciplined and lively, readable language. In later years, institutional archives have made this backlog of material available for him to draw upon when needed. Among the strengths of Woodward’s reporting is that he writes as a Christian believer and as a self-aware old man, conditions he affirms in the final paragraph of the book.

“One of the blessings of old age is the clarity with which diminishing energy of mind and body allows us to see what has been our human lot all along—namely, contingency, transience, and finitude. We cannot control what may happen to us. Nothing lasts forever. We must die. These hold true for believer and nonbeliever alike. They are the existential facts of life that all religions in different ways address. In reply, Christians like myself are called to abide in Faith, Hope, and Love. What matters is that God’s grace is everywhere” (413).

Everyone interested in the life of our nation during this half century can benefit from this book of “lived history” that Woodward has written. It is clear, articulate, vivid, and filled with insight concerning the central topic, which is the interaction of religion, culture, and politics during this period.

As soon as I started reading the book, I liked it. Perhaps the most important reason is that we are close to the same age (I was born in 1931, Woodward in 1935). We grew up in an era when the United States was characterized by what he calls embedded religion, marked by a fusion of faith, culture, and politics. He grew up in a Catholic culture in Cleveland, Ohio, whereas I grew up in a low-church Protestant culture in Portland, Oregon. Although the details of church life and education differed dramatically, there was an undergirding system of values, especially as focused on family structure, transmitted by church and school, that was much the same.

The first half of the book held my attention as Woodward describes the traditional patterns and then reports on the rapid changes that occurred, especially during the fifties and sixties. He describes the entrepreneurial religion of people like Billy Graham, basing his accounts on frequent interaction with leaders of these religious responses to changes in American life.

He gives careful attention to major changes in his own church, pushed in part by the Vatican Council, and describes the dismantling of the embeddedness that had been so important in his growing up years. Changes in Catholic liturgy and debates over birth control are carefully chronicled, and Woodward’s ambivalence about what was happening is clear. He quotes from his feature essay in a 1971 issue of Newsweek to describe why he and other Catholics of the time could remain steady in their faith.

“When the Catholic faith runs deep, it establishes a certain sensuous rhythm in the soul, a sacramental sensibility that suffuses ordinary things—bread, water, wine, the marriage bed—and transforms them into vehicles of grace. In these spiritual depths, doctrine and church laws fade in importance” (92).

At this point in his book, Woodward turns in a new direction. He describes the civil rights movement, as led by Martin Luther King, Jr., in which religious faith and zeal led to public engagement and the vigorous efforts to realize religious aspirations in public life by transforming a racist society. He emphasizes the restructuring of American religion, as described by writers like Richard John Neuhaus and Robert Wuthnow.

Woodward quotes from James Davison Hunter’s book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America in order to state the central feature of the change that was occurring. “The great polarity in American religion, he argued, was between ‘orthodox’ believers who appealed to an external, definable, and transcendent authority and ‘progressives’ who tended to resymbolize the contents of historic faith according to the presuppositions of contemporary life” (179). Read more: woodward


Using the church to reform society

January 27, 2017

Presences: A Bishop’s Life in the City, by Paul Moore (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997)

moore-paulSoon after the forced integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, leaders of Christ Church Cathedral in Indianapolis averted a crisis over race and religion.  I learned about this congregational case study from a sermon preached in January, 2017, by Stephen Carlsen, the current dean and rector, and read the full detail in the memoir of Paul Moore who had been the Cathedral’s dean and rector at that time. Although it happened sixty years ago, this episode in church politics continues to be instructive for people interested in the relationship of race and religion in America.

Moore was born into a wealthy New York family in 1919, reared in luxury, and educated at prestigious St. Paul’s School. This school, Moore writes, “instilled faith in a god who looked favorably on gentlemen and demanded no shift in social values from the status quo. . .This religion had a touch of Calvinism to it, a tendency to believe that worldly success and position were blessings given to those who deserved them.” People so blessed “were obliged, in return, to give service and leadership to your community and be a steward of the wealth you had inherited or earned because of your advantages.” They were taught to give generously to their communities and the institutions that helped the poor. “Social change to eliminate poverty, however, was thought to be dangerously liberal.” You could give money to a settlement house for black people but efforts to break the color barrier in your neighborhood would probably lead to your being criticized or ostracized (27).

After graduation from Yale and heroic service in the Marines during World War II, Moore experienced a deepening of his faith and enrolled in General Theological Seminary in New York City to prepare for the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. While in seminary, he and some of his classmates ministered among poor people, many of them people of color, in neighborhoods close to the campus. Following graduation, he and three or four others were appointed to a long-established but declining Episcopal church in Jersey City located in a neighborhood with many poor people who were struggling to survive. Some of them were drawn to the church which found new strength.

In 1958 Moore moved to Indianapolis to serve as dean and rector of Christ Church Cathedral on Monument Circle, succeeding John Craine who had been elected bishop coadjutor of the diocese. The Moore family, including seven children (two more were born later) moved into the house provided by the church, “a large, pretentious neo-Tudor mansion, set back from the still-fashionable Washington Boulevard by a well-tended lawn and shade trees.” The children attended public schools, including Shortridge High School where my children were  students more than a decade later. Moore describes Indianapolis as patriotic and its people as “polite, but not overly friendly.” Heeding Bishop Craine’s advice, he decided “to take it easy with the congregation. I realized most of them were conservative—socially, liturgically, and politically. In Jersey City, the more radical your views and actions, the better the people liked it. The opposite was true in Indianapolis” (141–3).

Christ Church had about seven hundred members, but only two were black, the principal of the segregated black high school and his wife. One of the cathedral clergy befriended three black children who attended its Sunday School and the 9:00 o’clock service with “the younger, more liberal families” (151). They asked to be baptized; in keeping with the church’s established practice, the baptisms took place at the 11:00 o’clock service. At least twenty black adults were gathered around the font. About a month later, the vestry, the congregation’s governing body, set up a retreat with their pastor. He soon discovered that the purpose was to register their discontent that “these nigras” had been there and to insist that this practice should not continue. Read more: using-the-church-to-reform-society


Is it ever too cold to ride?

January 7, 2017

snowEvery morning as the Mass Ave neighborhood in Indianapolis comes to life, bicycle riders are part of the mix. They join walkers and drivers on their way to 8:00 a.m. destinations. Even as winter’s darkness and falling temperatures settled into place, bikes, most of them with lights, kept appearing

On a Friday morning, I watched from my window with special interest: 7 degrees by the thermometer, minus 2 with the wind chill factored in; frozen slush on the Cultural Trail that cyclists prefer, and salt-treated but damp streets.

Walkers were out, some with dogs on their morning constitutional and others with business-like bags slung over their shoulder. And cyclists? From 7:15 to 7: 35, I saw two, a smaller number than on summer mornings, but there they were. The bikes had straight bars and lights, and the cyclists were bundled up and wearing back packs.

The surprise was that they were riding on the slushy and slick Cultural Trail rather than on the street where traction was probably better. This makes me think they were commuters rather than messengers, because those who ride their bikes to make their living usually pick the streets where they can ride hard and fast.

Twenty-five years ago, when I lived in a traditional Indianapolis neighborhood, I biked three miles each way to my teaching job regardless of temperature. On the coldest morning I remember, the temperature was officially reported to be minus 20, but the roads were dry and I waited until it was light enough to see. “It’s my benign eccentricity to ride regardless of weather,” I told students.

“15 above was my limit,” a book group acquaintance told me, “when I was commuting 10 miles each way to my job in Chicago. No matter how you dress, you have to breathe that super cold air, and I worried what it would do to my lungs.”

My rule for training rides back then was 25 and sunny, and decent roads. Under those conditions, I could manage a fast hour’s ride. During my recent years in the Pacific Northwest, I upped the limits to 35 and sunny, but I also factored in the east wind that on bright winter days could whistle down the Columbia River Gorge, over snow fields, and then chill out all but the most resolute cyclists

As a short distance commuter in Indianapolis, I wore my regular suit and tie, with trench coat, ear muffs, and heavy gloves when the weather turned cold. Training rides called for warm leggings over my cycling shorts, shoe coverings, and alternating layers of short- and long-sleeved shirts and jersey above the waist. A wool scarf and a wind breaker provided added warmth and could easily be removed to avoid over-heating.

A more challenging task for a cold weather cyclist is attitude adjustment. How can you keep going out day after day when temperatures fall?

For a commuter, the secret is to make the daily trip by bike a matter of basic routine, something you do every day as a matter of course. Once I decided that I would travel to campus by bike or by foot, it was easy. The daily question was not if I would head out on my bike (or when the roads were slick, on foot). Instead, the question was how to dress to meet the current conditions.

For training rides, the attitudinal factor was somewhat different. When I didn’t have to keep riding, it was easy not to go out when weather was unfavorable. What pushed me to keep going was a basic desire to stay in shape. I wanted to be in good enough condition that I could do 100 miles any day of the year. This meant that even during the winter I had to do rides that lasted from one to three hours so that during our annual short visit with our Florida son and his family, I could do much longer rides.

Now that I am an octogenarian open road cyclist, I am experiencing a weakening resolve. Short trips to the grocery store, bank, and library and occasional fifteen-mile round trips to the Irvington and Butler-Tarkington neighborhoods are as far as I’m likely to go,  unless the temperature gets into the 40s. That’s enough to keep be in good enough condition for my annual Florida and Arizona winter break when there will be many days with many more miles.

In March, when I get back home, spring will be coming back to Indiana. Hurray!