Is there any more American a diversion than the road trip? Those of us who live on large land masses with relative ease of travel sometimes like to go for, well, the fun of going. If you’re a sociologist, however, you might find funding for a road trip if you can put a thesis behind it. Christopher P. Scheitle and Roger Finke made such a trip and entitled the results Places of Faith: A Road Trip Across America’s Religious Landscape. This isn’t really an academic book, but it does contain some interesting information about faith communities that might otherwise remain off the radar (with the exception of mega-churches, one of which they visit in Houston). Religion, it becomes clear, is still a large part of life for many Americans, and not just small-town rubes like yours truly. Thriving faith communities are found in New York, San Francisco, Houston, Detroit, and Salt Lake City. Scheitle and Finke don’t neglect the smaller venues either, stopping at rural sites in Nebraska and Pennsylvania. Perhaps the biggest take-away from their book is that religion is diverse and deeply embedded in the United States.
While many claim that atheism is humanity’s next big step forward, it has to be admitted that freedom of religion (without which atheism might be problematic) has gone far. Although Places of Faith sticks pretty close to Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism, there can be no question that many, many other religions constitute a nation where “mainstream” is not as normative as it may seem. As also became clear from the descriptions and photos the authors provide, religions are fond of splintering. Faith can be made of brittle stuff. As I’ve argued before, we are really each our own entity of personal religion. We share some traits with the larger group, but unless we’re an identical twin, likely nobody thinks quite the same way we do. Religious leaders know this well—uniformity is often a thinly veiled illusion.
Having studied religion for most of my life, I can’t say that there was too much new to me in this little book. It provides a tolerant, and colorful tour through some religions that will be less familiar to those who don’t consider just how broad the landscape is. You won’t become an expert in Mormonism or the Amish, but you might learn a thing or two about both. The authors encourage something that many religion majors know by rote: you learn a lot by exploring your local religious landscape. As a college student I tried not only Presbyterianism and Pentecostalism, but also the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the occasional foray into that mysterious realm of Episcopalianism. There was more diversity, even in that small town of Grove City, than I had the ability to explore on my own. This much was certain, however, people find meaning and comfort in their beliefs. To deny them that is to deny them what makes religious freedom the wonder that it is.