Wolfe, a Jew who teaches at a Jesuit university and wrote an Atlantic cover story about evangelical Christians last year, caught attention with his 1998 book, One Nation, After All, in which he chronicled the moral attitudes of the American middle class.
Wolfe's books owe a lot to the 1985 book Habits of the Heart, by Robert Bellah, William Sullivan, and Steven Tipton. Like Habits, Wolfe's books are a pleasure to read, larded with anecdotes and quotes that bring the reader face to face with the people behind the statistical trends. Christian readers will sense the warmth and respect with which Wolfe treats his religiously and morally conservative subjects.
Habits of the Heart introduced its readers to Sheila Larson, a young California nurse who unabashedly constructed her own religion. "It's Sheilaism. Just my own little voice," she said. But where Habits raised a sense of alarm about such self-reverence, Moral Freedom seems to welcome it.
"Pessimists think that as a result of the '60s anything goes," Wolfe told Publishers Weekly. "I'm saying that I trust Americans more than that. The old rules in many ways are out, but that does not mean we're without any rules at all."
But what are those new rules? Wolfe asked his subjects about loyalty, self-discipline, honesty, and forgiveness. In the responses, it becomes clear that some of these virtues have undergone a metamorphosis that makes them nearly unrecognizable.
Take loyalty: Patriotism and other inherited loyalties are out. Wolfe believes that "the emphasis on putting one's own interest first taught in the economy will carry over into the family." Loyalties still exist, Wolfe says, but only freely chosen loyalties. But how can a nation and its mediating institutions survive if every individual must choose his or her own loyalties?
Self-discipline survives, Wolfe notes, but without its twin value, the disapproval of self-indulgence. He worries over Americans' nonjudgmentalism: "Americans seemed to be copping out of their obligations to others by adopting a version of moral laissez-faire in which seeming tolerance became an excuse for not taking others seriously."
Honesty and forgiveness fare better than the other virtues. But these seem to survive more on their practical benefits; practicing forgiveness, for example, helps us get on with our lives.
Born to be Mild
Finally, Wolfe turns to the transformation of Americans' ideas about human nature. Wolfe's historical treatment is hopelessly muddled by his reduction of Calvinist estimates of human nature to "people are born bad." Despite a belief in total depravity, the best Calvinist thinkers have affirmed "common grace," finding much good in human beings and their cultures.
Nevertheless, Wolfe's portrait of American optimism about human nature rings true: "A survival of the species argument probably promotes, after many generations, a positive type of human nature," says one of his subjects. This optimistic view of human nature seemed shockingly naïve last month, when the newsmagazines were reporting pervasive high-school cruelty that made Lord of the Flies look like Goodnight Moon.
Curiously, Americans cherish their view of human goodness, not for philosophical reasons but for its practical value. Assuming the best about people contributes to an atmosphere of tolerance and acceptance. Wolfe calls this lack of a sense of human evil "a fairly realistic assessment of what it takes to make a society function smoothly."
It is a very small step, writes Wolfe, from believing that people are born without radical evil to "believing that the best place to turn for moral guidance is to themselves." If people are inherently good and if their own hearts are the best place for them to seek moral guidance, then it is only logical that individuals should be free to "determine for themselves what it means to lead a good and virtuous life." Wolfe calls the wide acceptance of this idea both "radical" and "disturbing in its implications." Yet, after rehearsing the classic argument that both free societies and free markets demand common moral commitments, Wolfe resolutely looks on the bright side.
The good news is that people continue to turn to biblical faith for guidance. But they do so as free agents. Evangelicals have long emphasized the importance of personally appropriating the Christian faith, though along the way we have complained of the individualism this fosters. In this context, Wolfe claims, moral freedom can be the friend of moral authority: "When a traditional way of life is the product of a person's own decision, it is likely to be held on to with greater tenacity and appreciation than when it is inherited unthinkingly."
But the good news is not good enough.
Wolfe's Christian subjects reasoned as individualistically and pragmatically as the others. Even believers seem blind to the principled and communal character of biblical ethics. Elton Trueblood's prophecy of more than 50 years ago has come to pass: We live in a "cut-flower civilization."
"Beautiful as cut flowers may be," Trueblood said, "they die because they are severed from their sustaining roots." Economic and political freedom—ripped from their comunal moorings in republican virtue—have brought us to this state of affairs. Wolfe looks admiringly at the flowers in the postmodern vase. It is up to Christian communities to cultivate the garden.
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Moral Freedom can be ordered at Amazon.com and other book retailers.
Mark Buchanan wrote about such American syncretism in the January/February 2000 issue of Books & Culture: "We're All Syncretists Now | Not religious, just spiritual."
A recent Christianity Today column by Charles Colson lamented, "'Salad-bar Christianity' often goes unchallenged by the larger Christian community."
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.