Kenneth Woodward’s Requiem for a Lost America

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

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