by Randy Corn
Getting Religion. By Kenneth Woodward. New York, NY: Convergent Books, 2016. 466 pages, $14.90 ebook.
In 1976 I was twenty years old and had my first opportunity to cast a ballot in a presidential election. I voted for Jimmy Carter, largely because of the furor he created by proclaiming himself “born again.” Four years later I would vote for Ronald Reagan because, like few candidates before him, he publicly embraced the values which most evangelicals hold dear. I have often wondered how many voters were swayed by these or similar factors in the election of our 39th and 40th presidents, or for that matter any of them. Kenneth L. Woodward’s book, Getting Religion, goes a long way toward giving an answer.
The subtitle of this book is “Faith, Culture, and Politics from the Age of Eisenhower to the Era of Obama.” Far from being a dry recitation of sociological facts, the author weaves a personal memoir into the tapestry of American society, especially as it relates to religious faith. Woodward was the religion editor for Newsweek magazine for nearly four decades. This gave him extraordinary access to the movers and shakers of American religion, from evangelicals like Billy Graham and Bill Bright to Mormon leader Boyd K. Packer, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. He either reported on, or was present for, most of the events in the past forty years that made the landscape of American religion what it is.
The great value of this volume is that it helps the reader gain perspective on all of the varied religious impulses in our country over the past half century. While the section on the author’s own Roman Catholic background is interesting, and the discussion of mainline Protestants is enlightening, the section dealing with Evangelicals was of greatest interest to me. In chapter three, Woodward argues that while “Entrepreneurial Religion” is not a theological phrase, it is Evangelicalism’s distinguishing feature. The proof of this assertion is not so much in the churches that constitute the movement, but in the para-church organizations which Evangelicalism has spawned.
The book gives a short recitation of the televangelist scandals, and also some interesting information about such organizations as the Moral Majority and the Religious Roundtable. While the author is sympathetic to Billy Graham and Bill Bright, he saw Jerry Falwell as playing dangerously close to scandal financing the Moral Majority out of revenue from his broadcast ministry. This the Lynchburg preacher justified by a phrase in the fine print of his promotional literature, which allowed him to spend any money raised as he saw fit! Woodward summarized, “The key to his personality, I always thought, was his determination to make good as well as make waves” (chapter 12).
The volume closes with two chapters dealing with the current political situation. The first “Piety and Politics” dealing with the Republican Party and the last “Religion as Politics,” focusing on the Democrats. This is one of the best explanations I have seen about the polarization in American politics, why broadly speaking you don’t find moderate Republicans or conservative Democrats.
In his epilogue, the author sums up the shift in public morality due to the underlying erosion of what was a Christian consensus in American life. Woodward quotes sociologist Christian Smith who had done extensive surveys of teenagers and college students. His frightening conclusion is that most have adopted what he calls, “moralistic, therapeutic deism.” This means that college students think God wants them to be nice, happy, and that He is not all that involved in the day-to-day living of their lives.
If you are looking a broad analysis of the influence of religious faith in our current culture and how we got here, this is the book for you.
*Chapter location is given in lieu of page numbers due to the review being of the iBook version of this volume.