‘Getting Religion’ by Kenneth Woodward was not at all what I expected. By the title and subtitle (‘Faith, Culture, and Politics from the Age of Eisenhower to the Era of Obama’), I assumed that this would be a history of religion in America from the 1950s through today. But this isn’t history per se. This is more of a memoir – a memoir laced with the history of religion in America – but a memoir none the less. Woodward’s bias as a Roman Catholic also comes out in a number of chapters, planting it even more firmly in memoir territory.
Woodward divides the book up into topical chapters: one on evangelicalism, one on the liberation theology movement, etc. In each, he examines different religious movements that have characterized the past six decades. Though in examining the movements, he’s only able to discuss a handful of people per movement.
In the fifth chapter, Woodward takes on evangelicalism, a movement he describes as “essentially an entrepreneurial religion.” I would largely agree with his assessment regarding evangelicalism’s strengths and weaknesses. However, I was disappointed that he limited his discussion to Billy Graham and Bill Bright. Obviously, these men are important when discussing this topic. But they aren’t the movement. Francis Schaeffer gets a sentence or two as does Rick Warren but overall, Woodward’s discussion of evangelicalism over the past fifty years is frail. And that’s the drawback in every chapter. The history of religion for the past fifty years would require volumes to cover even the most major ideas, individuals, and movements. As a result, this book is a mile wide and an inch deep.
I also felt like Woodward misunderstood certain aspects of evangelicalism (and perhaps some of the other movements, although I’m not as familiar with them so I can’t make a judgment there). For example, he makes the statement that “Some Evangelicals took to calling themselves simply ‘Christians,’ as if only they could claim that title.” I think this is a gross misreading of what’s going on when someone refuses a denominational (or other) label. They aren’t making a statement about what others are or are not. They’re simply declaring their own allegiances. They see themselves as belonging wholly to Christ. They aren’t (usually) declaring all others ‘not-Christian.’ They just don’t want to be associated with any reformer or otherwise human leader.
The only other complaint I had was the inclusion of a peculiar paragraph that seemed (to me at least) to invite suspicion that Jerry Falwell had a financial advisor murdered. According to Woodward, he “had died in a mysterious accident: he was hacked to pieces, apparently after falling into the blades of his own thrasher.” Woodward mentions this briefly and doesn’t expand on it at all. He doesn’t even include a footnote to a news article so I could find out more about it. It was, to put it bluntly, strange.
With all of that said, I really did enjoy this book. It’s well written and includes a lot of anecdotes about leaders across the political and religious spectrum that Woodward had the opportunity to interview through the years. You might not walk away from it with a deep understanding of the religious movements that have defined the last 60 years, but you will at least be exposed to them. And that’s a great first step.