It is not clear how the authors chose the primary destinations for their “carefully charted” course, nor how they determined the status of these destinations as some of the most distinctive and important. Large areas of the country – New England, the upper Midwest, the Northwest, the Southeast – were not visited and are not represented. (Christianity’s arrival, with the first Mass in 1565, would seem a worthy reason to include, or at least make mention of, St. Augustine, Fla.)
The authors, scholars who “have each published extensively on historical and national trends in American religion,” appear to limit their approach to many of the sites by using mainline Protestant Christianity as their baseline for comparison.
On their experience of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, formal name of the Mormons, they note: “On many Sundays the worship service resembles that of many Protestants, sometimes even using the same hymns.” From the multitude of Asian religious experiences to explore in San Francisco, most of which were “strikingly different from other religious congregations in the United States,” the authors chose to write about their experience of a Buddhist community that “seemed to have more in common with traditional Protestant churches than with the Buddhist temples we had just visited.”
Even their description of a Mass sounded like a Protestant service, with no mention of Catholicism’s integral element of the Eucharist: “There was a confession of faith, Bible readings, prayers, a homily or short sermon, a blessing, a collection, and there was singing, much singing.”
References to “a typical Protestant congregation” and Catholic worship “similar to Roman Catholic Masses conducted everywhere” seem to belie the book’s basic premise of America’s “ever-changing religious geography” with “a rich and varied topography.” Of the many religious leaders interviewed in this exploration of diversity, only two were women.
The book is uneven not only in its treatment across regions and leadership, but also in its treatment of the different religious traditions and of the groups within them. Though pointing to America’s rich religious variety, the authors presume the reader to be Christian or at least quite familiar with Christianity. A Christian reader might learn of the “five pillars” of Islam, or of the Jewish law contained in the Torah. A Muslim, a Hindu or someone unaffiliated with a religion would not learn any of the basic tenets that undergird Christianity.
Learning about a religious tradition other than one’s own can be a rich and rewarding experience. This book provides some pieces toward this exploration, with interesting statistics, entertaining anecdotes and interviews, and compelling photos.
But for a more comprehensive, expansive and extraordinary resource on the American religious landscape, see Harvard University’s Pluralism Project at: pluralism.org. For a road trip that provides more breadth to American Christianity, see “Sundays in America: A Yearlong Road Trip in Search of Christian Faith” by Suzanne Strempek Shea, Beacon Press, 2008.
Kantor, a writer and lecturer, lives in Boston and has a doctorate in religion and society from Harvard Divinity School.