77 North Washington Street

IN a sense, Alan Wolfe says, the cover story in this issue of The Atlantic Monthly grew out of a snap decision. A few years ago Wolfe was attending a conference on religion and higher education, and at dinnertime found himself facing a choice between taking a seat at a table with a number of old friends and one at a table whose occupants included Richard Mouw and Mark Noll, two of the most influential figures in evangelical academic life. "I opted for the latter," Wolfe recalls, "understanding at some level that the conversation would be more interesting, because the people were unlike those with whom I regularly come in contact."

Alan Wolfe's straightforward curiosity about America's many social parts, and how their members think and act, is a characteristic feature of his work. A political scientist and sociologist, Wolfe has produced a dozen books and written countless articles for journals, newspapers, and magazines. He emerged during the 1990s as one of the nation's most prominent public intellectuals. His best-known book is his most recent -- (1998). In his forthcoming book, Moral Freedom, Wolfe explores the ways in which Americans increasingly rely on themselves to answer the question of how to lead good and virtuous lives.

Last year Wolfe was lured away from Boston University by Boston College, a Jesuit institution, where he became the founding director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life. The center advances neither a religious point of view nor religious faith in general; it brings together a diverse group of students, scholars, and public intellectuals to explore the often fractured terrain where public issues and religious values intersect. Wolfe has repeatedly chided his fellow social scientists and other scholars for paying little attention to the many roles played by religion in America.

"Americans talk a lot about religion and they talk a lot about diversity," Wolfe says. "Rarely do the two topics come together, even though we have fought culture wars over faith as intense, if not as bloody, as those fought over race. The idea of a Jew, like me, who teaches at a Catholic university writing about evangelical Protestants struck me as something of an exercise in diversity training."


Photograph by Lee Pellegrini.

The Atlantic Monthly; October 2000; 77 North Washington Street - 00.10; Volume 286, No. 4; page 6.