Therapeutic Culture and Religion in America



Much has been written about the psychologization of different spheres of contemporary American culture (education, industrial–military complex, health care, etc.) from different disciplinary perspectives. In this article, I will discuss the concept of therapeutic culture in relation to religion in America. The essay will trace contemporary therapeutic culture back to the mind cure movement and “New Thought” and its concept of the instrumental power of thoughts. A variety of 20th century developments that can be framed both as secular and as religious or spiritual, such as positive thinking, self-help, 12-step programs, New Age, and the so-called Prosperity Gospel, have predecessors in New Thought. Furthermore, the essay will survey early influential works on therapeutic culture in America. Philip Rieff's Triumph of the Therapeutic (1966), Christopher Lasch's The Culture of Narcissism (1979), and Eva S. Moskowitz's more recent study In Therapy We Trust (2001) are based on the idea that traditional Protestant religion has been eroded and replaced by the therapeutic ethos. These authors are concerned that America has traded its soul for its psyche and has swapped religion for therapy. In contrast, Eva Illouz' Saving the Modern Soul (2008) introduces a more comprehensive understanding of the therapeutic discourse as a new cultural matrix that permeates society as a whole. Moreover, a discussion of different historical studies on the interrelation of Protestant religious cultures and therapeutic ethos in the United States will demonstrate that it is not simply a relationship of replacement but one of intricate interconnection and entanglement. The works under discussion show that clinical pastoral education programs, Alcoholics Anonymous, and the Salvation Army adapted psychology and therapy to facilitate religious counseling, to foster outreach to homeless men, and to create spiritual engagement and fellowship among inebriates. As I explore the relationship between therapeutic culture and religion in America, I will point out central themes, possible shortcomings of approaches to the therapeutic so far, and desirable avenues for future research into the interplay of the therapeutic and religion.


An announcement for a loving kindness meditation course at Rigpa New York City, a center in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, states “meditating on loving kindness helps us restore our love and confidence, and heal any unresolved emotional wounds we may be carrying.” It further reads that this form of meditation practice “puts us back in touch with the fundamental goodness of our core being, and once that has happened, we are able to love ourselves” (Rigpa New York City 2012). The announcement provides additional course information that not only promises a step toward the realization of Buddhist ideals, such as unlimited compassion and ultimate enlightenment, but an opportunity to work with negative emotions and to purify them. Negative emotions here are seen as a barrier, which separates the Buddhist practitioner from the source of unconditional love in herself and for herself. Through working with and purifying her negative emotions, the practitioner is encouraged to transform herself, develop loving and caring emotions toward herself, and increase her self-esteem. Those transformations of the self are seen as a necessary condition for developing the Buddhist virtues of compassion and love for others. This is just one example of religious doctrines and concepts couched in therapeutic language in contemporary America. In his article “The Encounter of Buddhism and Psychology,” Franz A. Metcalf addresses the Americanization and psychologization of Buddhism and the Buddhicization of psychology as two parallel processes that immensely contributed to the successful assimilation of Buddhism in the West in the 20th century. He argues that Buddhism proliferated in America because it perfectly resonated with the psychologized nature of mainstream culture (Metcalf 2002, p. 353).

Buddhism in America is not the only religious tradition where the interplay of the therapeutic and religious discourses and practices can be observed (Gómez 1995, 1996; Metcalf 2002). Protestantism in America has a long history of using therapeutic language and approaches in counseling (Holifield 1983; Myers-Shirk 2009), mission (Muravchik 2011), healing (Klassen 2006, 2011), and religious services. Popular Christian self-help books are another example. Joel Osteen, who is a popular televangelist as well as a best-selling author, incites his readers to think positive, and he declares in one of his publications “happiness is a choice.” His mission is as he explains, “to help his readers to arrange their minds so that they choose happiness each and every day” (Osteen 2011, pp. 3–4). Whatever challenges his readers may encounter, whatever circumstances are weighing them down, according to Osteen, everyone can choose his response. How someone lives his life is not dependent on his circumstances but his choices. Osteen's message conveys the idea that life can improve, difficulties can be overcome, and a better life full of happiness will result if one chooses to arrange one's mind in the right way. The focus of change is not external circumstances that may lie beyond the individual's reach and influence but rather the individual's mind. The mind is construed as both the problem and the solution. Negativity and discouragement are consequences of a wrong mind-set, a wrong perspective on things. Liberation from negativity and unhappiness is thus a question of consciously reworking one's mind in the right way. Although Osteen is a Christian, his audience of readers and viewers includes Christians and non-Christians alike. Despite the frequent reference to a powerful God who works in supernatural ways on behalf of the believer, the individual is solely responsible; the individual has to make the choice to change his life. Only then, she will ensure God's supernatural powers to help make those dreams come true.

Buddhist courses on the transformation of negative emotions and Osteen's approach to the fulfillment of the self are comparable to similar products on the market that combine self-help, positive thinking, and the pursuit of happiness and self-realization with spirituality. They all place happiness and contentment solely within the agency of an individual and thereby dovetail a neoliberal discourse that naturalizes the idea of individual autonomy and simultaneously conceals the supra-individual forces of the social and material world. The notions of self and personhood present in those self-help books and similar programs—whether Christian, Buddhist, or from the broad field of alternative spiritualities or secular providers—are shaped by the therapeutic culture prevalent in contemporary America.

Much has been written about the psychologization of all spheres of contemporary societies from different disciplinary perspectives.1 In this article, I will discuss the concept of therapeutic culture in relation to religion in America. First, I will explore works that rely on the idea that (traditional) Protestant religion has been eroded and replaced by the therapeutic ethos. Second, I will trace the religious background of contemporary therapeutic culture in America that most authors place in the mind cure movement and “New Thought.” Here, I will show how the transformative and healing capacity of thoughts formulated in New Thought has influenced different religious developments in the 20th century, e.g., New Age spirituality. Third, I will exemplarily survey more recent literature that explicitly discusses the interconnection of Protestant religion and therapeutic culture in America. As I explore the relationship between therapeutic culture and religion in America, I will point out central themes, possible shortcomings of approaches to the therapeutic so far, and desirable avenues for future research into the interplay of the therapeutic and religion.

The Discourse on Therapeutic Culture in America

The term “therapeutic culture” denotes not only the field of psychological disciplines and professionals (e.g., psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists, social workers, and educators) but also the field of popular culture (e.g., movies, television, popular press, and book industry) and everyday life where psychological ideas and practices are incorporated, transformed, and employed. From The Sopranos to The Oprah Winfrey Show, from countless self-help books to advice columns of all shades, and from advertisement to politics, the therapeutic ethos and its imperative to seek self-fulfillment and happiness seems to be ubiquitous in American culture.

In Saving the Modern Soul: Therapy, Emotions, and the Culture of Self-help, sociologist Eva Illouz (2008, p. 8) describes our preoccupation with emotions and diverse techniques to apprehend and manage them as part of a larger and “entirely new cultural matrix” that shapes our understanding of the self, its potentialities, and its relationship to others. In her assessment, therapeutic culture constitutes a discourse that is both a “formal knowledge system” that is produced in formal organizations and professional institutions and an “informal, amorphous, and diffuse cultural system” that informs everyday cultural practices and self-understandings (Illouz 2008, p. 10). Over the course of the 20th century, the therapeutic discourse has turned the self into the site where the contradictory normative imperatives of modernity are managed (Illouz 2008, p. 243). According to Illouz, the therapeutic discourse establishes the self both as the problem and the solution for the ailments of modern life and offers psychological techniques to accomplish the task. For example, self-help advice with its inculcation of “proper” emotions and its guidelines to manage those very emotions offers tools to manage the self and its quest for a stable identity, self-realization, and well-being. Therapeutic culture has blurred the boundaries between different spheres of modernity and influenced the core institutions of American society, such as the military, the corporation, the state, the family, the mass media, and the civil society (Illouz 2008, p. 242).

Its seemingly thorough penetration of American culture has spawned a whole range of studies from academics and cultural critics evaluating the role of the therapeutic in contemporary societies. Titles such as In Therapy We Trust (Moskowitz 2001) and One Nation under Therapy (Sommers & Satel 2005) suggest that some of these authors are concerned that America has traded its soul for its psyche, has swapped religion for therapy, and has given up faith in God for a faith in inner selves. The rise of the therapeutic sensibility is seen as related to the decline of tradition and religion, ultimately eroding moral values (Rieff 1979, 2006; Lasch 1979; Cushman 1995; Moskowitz 2001). One of the early critics of the therapeutic is Philip Rieff, who in (1959) introduced “psychological man” as the most recent character type to appear in our culture (Rieff 1979).2 As his inward orientation is solely directed toward “the mastery of his own personality,” traditional religious beliefs and communal obligations became obsolete for psychological man. This new character type has turned from the “Occidental ideal of action” that leads toward salvation of others beside himself; instead, he has hijacked the “Oriental ideal of salvation” that features self-contemplative manipulation (Rieff 1979, pp. 356–357). A few years later in his book Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud, the advent of “psychological man” has, according to Rieff (1966), evolved into a full-blown “triumph of the therapeutic” with monumental implications for the formation of contemporary culture:

That a sense of well-being has become the end, rather than a by-product of striving after some superior communal end, announces a fundamental change of focus in the entire cast of our culture (Rieff 2006, p. 223).

Christopher Lasch's (1979) critique of America's “narcissistic culture” in The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations takes a similar direction as Rieff's. If “psychological man” was for Rieff the character type of the 20th century, for Lasch it was the “narcissistic personality.” This personality type is not just selfish or self-aggrandizing although it is concerned with “purely personal preoccupations” and “psychic self-improvement” focused on the here and now (Lasch 1979, p. 4). The release from traditional “family ties and institutional constraints” does not free the new narcissist but contributes to his insecurities and leaves him haunted by anxiety (Lasch 1979, p. 10). Whereas some of Lasch's contemporaries saw the emergence of the new narcissism as a “third great awakening,” Lasch denies such an interpretation. 3 According to Lasch (1979, p. 10), the narcissist personality differs greatly from the earlier American “rugged individualist” and his cultural context:

The contemporary climate is therapeutic, not religious. People today hunger not for personal salvation, let alone for the restoration of an earlier golden age, but for the feeling, the momentary illusion, of personal well-being, health, and psychic security (Lasch 1979, p. 7).

Lasch places the rise of therapeutic culture, which gave birth to the narcissistic personality, within the development and pervasiveness of consumer capitalism and the spread of psychological expertise since the turn of the 20th century. Therapeutic culture with its ideal of psychic self-fulfillment has replaced religion and displaced the Protestant ideal of salvation through “discipline and self-denial” as the organizing principle of American culture (Lasch 1979, p. 57). Yet, the therapeutic enterprise is not to be seen as a “new religion in its own right,” rather therapy “constitutes an antireligion” as it does not “encourage the subject to subordinate his needs and interests to those of others, to someone or some cause or tradition outside himself” (Lasch 1979, p. 13). In Lasch's assessment, the growing therapeutic sensibility shows an anti-communitarian streak as it weakens the bonds between self and society.

This shift from character to personality as two different conceptions of the self is another recurring theme in the cultural analysis of the transformation of American society in the 20th century. The former ideal of character formed by Protestant virtues, such as work, thrift, and temperance through a proper cultivation of the self, is superseded by a cult of personality (Lasch 1979, pp. 57–60). Studying manuals and pamphlets for developing the self in the 19th century, historian Warren I. Susman (1973, p. 273) concludes in Culture as History: The Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century that the popular vision of the self was defined by the term “character” as a “modal type felt to be essential for the maintenance of social order.” This concept of character stressed morality, discipline, and self-sacrifice for some higher law or ideal. It linked two social functions: It encompassed both a method for moral self-mastery and self-development as well as a method of presenting the self to society. The words describing the notion of character in those materials were among others “citizenship, duty, democracy, work,” “reputation, morals, manners,” and “integrity” (Susman 2003, pp. 273–274). Beginning in the first decade of the 20th century, Susman detects the emergence of a new vision of the development of the self and the presentation of the self to society. This new vision of the self was embodied by the term “personality,” and the words most frequently related to the concept of personality used in manuals and other materials were “fascinating, stunning, attractive, magnetic, glowing, masterful, creative, dominant,” and “forceful” (Susman 2003, p. 277). In this new concept of the self, the ideal of self-sacrifice for some higher moral law was slowly superimposed by the ideal of self-realization and self-fulfillment. Both visions of the self, character as well as personality, have to be seen as two different answers to the problem of the self in society. The transition from one concept to another began in “the very bosom of the old culture” in the context of the “New Thought” or “mind cure movement” of the late 19th century (Susman 2003, p. 275). Susman does not trace back the roots of the modern psychologized version of the self to psychological discourses flourishing in the early 20th century, but he points toward the early religious underpinnings of this new concept of the self that can be found in the mind cure movement.

Historian Eva S. Moskowitz (2001) in her more recent book In Therapy We Trust: America's Obsession with Self Fulfillment dedicates her first chapter to the early religious influences of the “New Thought” movement on the development of therapeutic culture in America. Despite the historiographic excursion to the early entanglement of therapy and religion, Moskowitz joins the ranks of authors who argue that religion has been displaced by the therapeutic. For Moskowitz, the “gospel of psychological happiness” has literally replaced religion, although with substantial shortcomings that border on the verge to the cultic:

Our relationship to the psyche appears to have exceeded that of believers and become more like that of cult members. An almost slavish devotion to psychological health and emotional problems dominates our culture (Moskowitz 2001, p. 1).

The “therapeutic gospel” does not enable “moral judgments” and does not allow telling right from wrong; the “therapeutic faith” focuses on the private life of the individual and its personal sensitivities, blinding people to social, economic, and political issues (Moskowitz 2001, p. 7). According to Moskowitz, a psychological point of view dominates the political, economic, and the cultural life of contemporary America. Thereby, the therapeutic culture shrouds the inequalities produced by factors outside the individual psyche, such as social stratification and market economy. She describes the largely unquestioned assumption that our problems have psychological causes as one of the characteristic tenets of the “therapeutic gospel” of contemporary Americans (Moskowitz 2001, p. 2). Other tenets are the imperative of happiness and the belief that psychological problems, responsible for unhappiness and personal failure, are treatable and, therefore, should be addressed individually as well as societally. Hence, “all the institutions of American life—schools, hospitals, prisons, courts—have been shaped by the national investment in feelings” (Moskowitz 2001, p. 279). Examining how the therapeutic gospel has historically shaped the United States from the mid-19th century onward, Moskowitz argues that the therapeutic faith has taken deep root in American culture and profoundly shapes our outlook on the world but lacks social and political responsibility.

A Short History of Therapeutic Culture and Religion in America

Despite locating the rise of therapeutic culture firmly in the development and expansion of the psychological disciplines and therapeutic expertise in the early 20th century, most authors acknowledge that the diversified roots of the therapeutic ethos in the 19th century can be found in America's traditions of individualism, religious liberalism, the mind cure movement, and “New Thought” (Anker 1999a, p. 154; Moskowitz 2001, pp. 10–29; Becker 2005, pp. 36–59; Illouz 2008, p. 30).

The mind cure movement is generally taken to have begun with Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (1802–1866), a mental healer in Portland, Maine, who was influenced by Mesmerism, which he later denounced. Mesmerism and animal magnetism promulgated ideas about the effects of the mind on the body in the process of curing diseases (Fuller 2001, pp. 30–37; Schmidt 2005, p. 148). The mental healer Quimby practiced a new method of treatment of diseases by emphasizing the mind's role in both producing and healing sickness. He thus rejected the materialistic conception of diseases prevalent in contemporary medicine that viewed sickness as a purely physiological problem. For Quimby, wrong ideas and self-diminishing beliefs were the sources of illness. In accordance with right beliefs, man could channel health and happiness from the metaphysical sphere into his “mental atmosphere” (Fuller 2004, p. 101). Quimby's conception of a “spiritual science” imagined “a religion that was therapeutic” (Moskowitz 2001, p. 12). Quimby had a range of “patient-disciples” who systematized his convictions or developed their own systems and later became popular mind cure proponents (Fuller 2004, p. 104).4 His heirs lectured and published books and thereby helped to spread ideas and practices under various names such as “mind cure,” “mental science,” “metaphysical healing,” or “spiritual science” (Griffith 2001, p. 122; Moskowitz 2001, pp. 19–20). From 1875 onward, this informal network of healers, teachers, and adherents flourished in urban areas amongst white, Anglo-Saxon and middle and upper-middle class Americans of Protestant background and progressive orientation (Satter 1999, pp. 21–56; Fuller 2004, p. 105).

Although the label “New Thought,” which first surfaced in the late 1880s, did not designate a unified system of teachings and practices (Griffith 2001, p. 122; Moskowitz 2001, p. 19), its advocates were all concerned with the relation of mind and matter and the question of how to tap into the power source of the mind to overcome distress and sickness. Some proponents stressed the role of contemplative practices conducted in silence to achieve mental powers and spiritual healing (Schmidt 2005, pp. 150–152); others expressed the idea that the creative power of thoughts can be made tangible by spoken words that are “the means whereby the thought forces are focused […] before any outward or material manifestation of their power can become evident” (Trine 2006, pp. 24–25). The emphasis on thoughts as an instrument of power shifted the focus from the spiritual to the mental (Anker 1999a, p. 202); many adherents believed that this instrumental power of thoughts could not only influence their own body but also “virtually any condition in the outer world” (Fuller 2001, p. 50). This concern for mental and bodily health dominated New Thought up to the late 1890s. Around the turn of the century, however, as New Thought activists began to approach poverty and prosperity as inherently rooted in the mind, advocates' focus began to shift from health to wealth (Satter 1999).

Over the course of the hundred-plus years that it has been present in American culture, New Thought has manifested in a variety of forms, including attempts at institutionalization, such as the founding of the National New Thought Alliance in 1906; to the Kansas-based Unity Church, which remains active; best-selling books, such as Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking (1954); the activities of Alcoholics Anonymous; and the developments linking psychology, self-help, and spirituality to Oprah Winfrey's popularity and influence (Satter 1999, pp. 6–7; Hammer 2001, p. 72; Schmidt 2005). New Thought and its concept of the instrumental power of thoughts is seen as a predecessor to a variety of 20th century developments that are influenced by popular psychology and that can be framed both as secular and as religious/spiritual, such as positive thinking, self-help, the Human Potential movement, New Age spirituality, and the so-called Prosperity Gospel (Albanese 2007; Anker 1999a, 1999b; Bowler 2013; Haller 2012; Hladky 2012; McGee 2005; Melton 1992; Meyer 1988; Muravchik 2011).

The interconnection of the transformative power of thoughts and alternative modes of healing with religion and spirituality, which was already prominent in New Thought, has become a hallmark of New Age discourses and practices in American culture (Bender 2010, pp. 25–30; Heelas 1996, pp. 74–105; Hanegraaff 1996, pp. 42–61; Pike 2004, pp. 91–114). Scholars of New Age have identified a holistic approach toward the person and the world as one of the common characteristics of New Age spirituality, an otherwise extremely diverse field of discourses and practices (Heelas 1996, p. 33; Hammer 2001, pp. 67–78).5 Particularly from the 1970s onward, New Age discourse centered on personal growth and self-realization; it was precisely this subjective orientation at which psychological, therapeutic, and religious/spiritual concepts and approaches converged (Hanegraaff 1996, pp. 42–61; Sutcliffe 2003, pp. 174–194). The concept of self-healing can be described as the paradigmatic modus of holistic healing in New Age due to the fact that it urges the practitioner toward self-referentiality and reflexivity (Sutcliffe 2003, p. 176). The healing capacities of the self are linked to a reconceptualization of “the inner self as a way of relating to the sacred” (Wuthnow 1998, p. 142) that draws on different religious and spiritual traditions in combination with psychology. Unresolved conflicts, unwrought experiences, and negative emotions are seen as covering the “true inner self” and thereby inhibit personal development, spiritual fulfillment, and health (Rindfleish 2005; Lee 2007). Countless workshops, lectures, courses, and books offer practical advice on how to access the inner self as a resource in the process of personal and spiritual self-realization as well as holistic healing. Accordingly, Paul Heelas describes “self-spirituality,” i.e., the preoccupation with the inner self as a way of relating to the divine, as the heart of the New Age movement (Heelas 1996, pp. 15–40). The psychologization of religion and a simultaneously occurring sacralization of psychology are described as distinct features of New Age religion and spirituality (Hanegraaff 1996), pp. 224–229; Hammer 2001, pp. 67–73). Since the 1970s, New Age thought and practices have been one important trajectory along which religious concepts and practices were reformulated in psychological and therapeutic terms and disseminated into the broader culture.

The rising prominence of alternative psychotherapies and holistic healing methods since the 1960s/1970s coincided with a growing dissatisfaction with secular scientific approaches to health and illness—in both psychological and physiological terms. Both developments try to overcome reductionist concepts of health prevalent in biophysical medicine as well as in psychoanalytical and behaviorist therapies, which are primarily concerned with curing singular diseases and enabling patients' social adjustment. Both methods thus employ a broad notion of health that is defined not just as the absence of disease but as a state of “radical well-being” or a natural or even divine state of “blessing and abundance” (Hanegraaff 1996, p. 47) that incorporates the whole person and aims toward a healing of body, mind, and soul.

Humanistic psychology and transpersonal psychology developed against the predominant paradigms of midcentury psychology, such as psychoanalytic theory and behaviorism, which were regarded as pessimistic, reductionist, and mechanistic in their approach to human emotions and behavior (Hammer 2001, pp. 70–73). Instead, humanistic and later transpersonal psychologists integrated religious experiences as a legitimate part of human life and emphasized the fulfillment of human potential and self-realization over social adjustment. Transpersonal psychology in particular envisaged a synthesis of psychological theory and religious/spiritual systems and thereby became an “openly religionist psychology” (Hanegraaff 1996, p. 51). The school of transpersonal psychology became influential in American culture through institutions like The Esalen Institute in Big Sur, CA, which is described as a “growth center” (Kripal & Shuck 2005, p. 2) where experimental psychological and Asian spirituality meet (Kripal 2007; Wood 2008) and the broad reception of its approaches in New Age circles.

Holistic healing is a broad field of diverse methods and technologies, such as acupuncture, kinesiology, homeopathy, nutritional therapies, a variety of bodyworks, meditation, and visualization. All of these approaches ascribe particular importance to the mind's role in the process of physical healing. Body, mind, emotions, and the soul or spirit are conceptualized as interdependent and therefore have to be addressed accordingly in the healing process. Characteristic of the Holistic Health movement is the idea that psychological conditions have effects on the physical body and that physical diseases can be healed by psychological intervention (Hanegraaff 1996, p. 54). The mind–body interdependence creates the nexus point at which holistic healing and therapeutic discourse meet. Every human being is personally responsible for maintaining his own health or causing his illness. The idea of personal responsibility for health and illness demands that the individual actively participates in her healing and to employ the healing process itself as a means of self-development and personal growth (Hanegraaff 1996, p. 54). Many Americans have by now accepted some holistic healing methods, today known under the label Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM), as supplemental therapies to conventional medical treatments. One reason for the growing acceptance of CAM is the fact that those therapies pertain to the concept of self-responsibility and actively integrate the patient in the medical decision making process (Barnes et al., 2004, p. 54).

A renewed general interest in the healing powers of faith and religion drove the growth of alternative and spiritually inclined therapies in the second half of the 20th century. Numerous best-selling publications of medical practitioners, as well as academic studies, explore the mind–body relation in the healing process, assess the “healthiness” of religion, and advocate a holistic medical practice that integrates religious faith in treatment and counseling (Benson 1996; Dossey 1999; Koenig 1997; Pargament 1997; Wortmann & Park 2008). One prominent example is physician Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School, who takes “medicine's spiritual crisis” as a departure to argue that humans are “wired for God” (Benson 1996, pp. 97, 196) and that an alignment of medical with religious practices is necessary for health and well-being. Another example is physician Larry Dossey, who urges medical professionals to go beyond the mind–body approach in medicine that centers on the individual person and how her mind affects her body. Dossey's concept of “nonlocal medicine” draws on the idea of an expanded nonlocal consciousness that is not bound to the individual brain and body but can be accessed by medical practitioners and patients alike through prayer, dreams, meditation, and similar practices (Dossey 1999, pp. 24, 85–118). Growing medical support of religious beliefs and practices as healthy has not remained uncontested; however, some authors argue that a therapeutic application of religion compromises medicine (Sloan 2006), while others criticize a medicalized portrayal of religion (Kwilecki 2004). The entanglement of religion and medicine in the 20th century promises to be a broad and rich research field for future studies from a historical, anthropological, cultural, and/or religious studies perspective.6

The Interconnection of Therapeutic Culture and Protestant Religion in America

For the remainder of the article, I survey works that have explored the interconnection of therapeutic discourse and Protestantism in America in more detail.7 Those studies explicitly refer back to the aforementioned thesis that therapeutic culture will erode traditional Protestant moral values and eventually replace religion in American culture (Rieff 1979, 2006; Lasch 1979; Moskowitz 2001). One of the early works is Holifield's (1983) study entitled A History of Pastoral Care in America: From Salvation to Self-realization, where he examines Protestantism's part in the development of what Philip Rieff had called “a therapeutic culture.” Pastoral counseling, as Holifield shows, is embedded in larger social transformations, and the changing style of pastoral conversation with parishioners is paralleled in changing notions of the self in American Protestant culture. Analyzing the discourse of pastoral theology, he traces a transition in American Protestantism from an ideal of otherworldly salvation to “self-realization as an ethic of individual growth” disengaged from cultural mores and social institutions (Holifield 1983, p. 269). His study demonstrates that psychological concepts and practices did not replace Protestant religious culture but influenced pastoral discourse and the practice of counseling.

Susan E. Myers-Shirk's Helping the Good Shepherd: Pastoral Counselors in a Psychotherapeutic Culture, 1925–1975 (2009) takes a similar direction. She explores how liberal Protestant ministers took up principles and practices from the psychological disciplines as a new way of relating to their parishioners. She traces the process from the early decades of the 20th century, when liberal Protestants developed clinical pastoral education (CPE) programs, up to the second half of the 20th century, when the pastoral counseling movement grew substantially. Myers-Shirk argues that a significant shift in the moral sensibility of liberal Protestants occurred during the years of World War II when pastoral counselors took up ideas from Carl Rogers' “non-directive” and “client-centered” approach to therapy (Myers-Shirk 2009, p. 86). The prewar CPE programs had centered on “adjustment,” “social control,” “social obligations,” and “moral uplift” until Rogerian therapeutic influences shifted midcentury pastoral counseling toward an emphasis on personal autonomy and an “ethic of relationships” (Myers-Shirk 2009, pp. 122, 140). This orientation toward Rogerian therapeutic principles created tensions in the practice of pastoral counseling as it had to maneuver the ground between two seemingly contradictory principles, that of the individual's freedom and an obligation to community. Pastoral counselors resolved that tension by relating psychological language to theological language and a return to religious concerns. The theory of the ethic of relationships allowed pastoral counselors to reintroduce the ideal of community in terms of a relationship among autonomous individuals (Myers-Shirk 2009, p. 141). This ideal in combination with the “triumph of theological language” reconfigured pastoral counseling in the 1960s and shifted the emphasis from pastoral psychotherapy and counseling to pastoral care (Myers-Shirk 2001, p. 200). Myers-Shirk's (2009, pp. 10–11) work offers evidence in rebuttal of the once prominent idea that the Protestant adaptation of psychological principles and practices has to be seen as part of a larger secularizing trend that led to a decline of liberal Christianity and an erosion of moral values, as opinioned by Philip Rieff and others. She argues that liberal Protestants' engagement with psychological and therapeutic principles has to be seen as an indicator for their willingness to balance the worlds of religion and the (social) sciences and to accommodate to the needs of their parishioners in the 20th century. Although Myers-Shirk offers a short sketch of conservative and evangelical Christians' criticism in regard to pastoral counseling approaches in the last chapter of her book, her focus lies primarily on liberal Protestants.

Stephanie Muravchik's (2011) American Protestantism in the Age of Psychology starts her investigation of the interconnection between therapeutic culture and Protestant religion in the 20th century with the clinical pastoral education (CPE) programs that Myers-Shirk examined. But she moves beyond mainline and liberal Protestant circles in her case studies of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and the Salvation Army. Her findings contest the common assumptions of the early critics of therapeutic culture, who feared the erosion of religious faith, “ethical laxity, and the weakening of social bonds” (Muravchik 2011, p. 2). She argues that believers adapted psychology and therapy to their own purposes, whereby they created “psychoreligious programs” that “fostered faith instead of disbelief, community instead of alienation, and ethical striving rather than self-indulgence” (Muravchik 2011, p. 14). Contrary to most of the critics of therapeutic culture, who never grounded their assumptions on studying religious groups that employed therapeutic approaches for their own purposes in detail, Muravchik digs deep into archival material of the three groups under scrutiny. To determine what effect the confrontation with psychological empiricism had on clergymen in CPE programs, she analyzes the training that the Council for Clinical Training (CCT) offered its students as well as the files of 45 students (from 1940 to 1968) to assess their pastoral identity and therapeutic competence. Her findings do not support the critical assumption that therapeutic culture has a secularizing effect. On the contrary, her study shows that the CPE program strengthened most of the students in their role as ministers and chaplains. It helped graduates “to integrate secular expertise into an intellectually rigorous and fundamentally religious whole,” as was evident in their broad concept of therapy that aimed at healing the soul along with the psyche (Muravchik 2011, p. 77). Muravchik's second case study of AA's development of a democratic lay-led group therapy for treating compulsive drinking shows how group therapy functions as fellowship and how fellowship has a therapeutic effect. AA's rise to preeminent and legitimate therapy for chronic inebriation helped to “build civil society since the eve of World War II” (Muravchik 2011, p. 110). Moreover, AA is fostering the spiritual engagement of its members and thereby helped religiously indifferent and disenchanted members to accept a “Higher Power” or “God's presence” as an external force that could help them to get and stay sober (Muravchik 2011, p. 155). Her final case study takes a closer look at the Salvation Army and how they employed therapeutic approaches in their evangelization of homeless men. Their Men's Social Service Centers (MSSCs) deliberately converged Christian fellowship and group therapy, pastoral and therapeutic counseling as well as a Protestant work ethic and work therapy to accomplish their aim of reaching out to “poor, lonely men” (Muravchik 2011, p. 203). Muravchik's findings contest two further assumptions of the critics about the ramification of therapeutic culture, namely its social atomization and its substitution of religious or spiritual orientations.

In this article, I have explored the literature on the therapeutic ethos in American culture, its religious background found in the 19th century's mind cure movement and New Thought, the intertwinement of therapeutic approaches and religious/spiritual concepts and practices in New Age spirituality, and its various interconnections with American Protestantism. In his review essay on religion and the therapeutic ethos in 20th century America, Christopher P. Loss (2002) noted that the interplay between therapeutic and religious cultures in America has remained largely uncharted. According to Loss (2002, p. 75), scholars working on the history of the therapeutic in America are often faced by a “historiographical dilemma.” They tend to adopt the untenable notion of a triumph of the therapeutic that displaced cultural mores, moral values, social commitment, and traditional, especially Protestant religious beliefs (Rieff 1979, 2006; Lasch 1979; Moskowitz 2001). Holifield, Myers-Shirk, and Muravchik have demonstrated that the relationship between religious cultures and therapeutic ethos is not one of replacement or substitution but one of intricate interconnection and entanglement. Their findings indicate the need for further detailed studies of different religious contexts and the way religious and therapeutic discourses interconnect and coalesce in historical and contemporary fields of study. To understand how the Buddhist practices of loving kindness mediation or reading Joel Osteen's inspirational self-help books are embedded in the everyday life and meaning making processes of social actors, we should not assume in advance what therapeutic culture ought to be in relation to religion but rather should trace how this relation has come to be what it is. Further research is needed to understand what therapeutic culture in religious contexts accomplishes for believers and practitioners without presuming that it will replace religion in America in the long run.


  1. 1

    For a general discussion of therapeutic culture, see the collection of essays in Imber (ed.) Therapeutic Culture: Triumph and Defeat (2004), Moskowitz's In Therapy We Trust: America's Obsession with Self-Fulfillment (2001), and Furedi's Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Uncertain Age (2004); for a discussion of how therapeutic culture has become an important aspect of promoting political, social, and cultural goals, see Polsky's The Rise of the Therapeutic State (1991), Herman's The Romance of American Psychology: Political Culture in the Age of Experts (1995), and Nolan's The Therapeutic State: Justifying Government at Century's End (1998); questions of gender and power are addressed in Philipson's On the Shoulders of Women: The Feminiziation of Psychotherapy (1993), in Lunbeck's The Psychiatric Persuasion: Knowledge, Gender, and Power in Modern America (1994) and in Becker's The Myth of Empowerment: Women and the Therapeutic Culture in America (2005); works focusing on the construction of the self are Hewitt's Dilemmas of the American Self (1989), Cushman's Constructing the Self, Constructing America: A Cultural History of Psychotherapy (1995), and Rose's Inventing Our Selves: Psychology, Power, and Personhood (1996); for studies concerning the formation and inculcation of emotions in the context of therapeutic culture, see the collection of essays in Pfister and Schnog (eds.) Inventing the Psychological: Toward a Cultural History of Emotional Life in America (1997) and Illouz's Saving the Modern Soul: Therapy, Emotions, and the Culture of Self-Help (2008).

  2. 2

    Three character types preceded the psychological man in Western civilizations: the ideal of the political man from classical antiquity, the ideal of the religious man passed on from Judaism through Christianity, and the ideal of the economic man as a model of liberal civilization from the Enlightenment era (Rieff 1979, p. 356).

  3. 3

    The designation “Third Great Awakening” was used by writer and journalist Tom Wolfe in his essay “The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening,” first published in The Critic, May–June 1973, and later republished in the New York magazine (1975).

  4. 4

    One of the more famous “patient-disciples” of Quimby was Mary Baker Eddy (1821–1910), who later distanced herself from Quimby and his other disciples and developed her own “science of healing” known as Christian Science. Eddy emphasized that illness and death were unreal, a matter of mere delusion, and that truth only could be found in the mental and spiritual realm (Satter 1999; Griffith 2001).

  5. 5

    For a critical discussion of different scholarly attempts to define New Age as a movement with a common set of ideas and practices, see Sutcliffe (2003, pp. 9–30).

  6. 6

    For a review of more recent works on the topic of Christianity, medicine, and healing in North America, see Pamela Klassen's essay (2009) as well as her own works on the intersection of mainline Protestantism, healing, and therapeutic culture over the course of the 20th century and liberal Protestants' involvement in the development of biomedicine (Klassen 2006, 2011).

  7. 7

    In the last decade, scholars have explored the interrelation of the therapeutic and particular religious traditions beyond the Protestant spectrum. For a study of the role of Jewish (albeit prevailing secular) key figures in the history of psychology, see Heinze's Jews and the American Soul (2004); Gillespie (2001) and Kugelmann (2011) offer a history of the intersection of psychology and Catholicism in America; for a history of the interplay of psychological ideas and “unchurched spirituality” or “metaphysical religion,” see Fuller's essay “American Psychology and the Religious Imagination” (2006) and his book Spiritual, but not Religious (2001) as well as Schmidt's Restless Souls (2005), Albanese's A Republic of Mind and Spirit (2007), and White's Unsettled Minds (2009).


  • Katja Rakow has recently been appointed as a Junior Research Group Leader at the Karl Jaspers Centre for Advanced Transcultural Studies at Heidelberg University where she is supervising and conducting research on Pentecostal megachurches in a global context. She earned her PhD in Religious Studies at Heidelberg University in 2010. Her research interests focus on the transcultural dynamics of religious history and the interrelation of religious discourses and practices with broader cultural patterns. Her fields of study are Tibetan Buddhism in the West and contemporary forms of Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism. Based on her research in the United States, she currently coauthors a publication on the material world of Lakewood Church, a megachurch in Houston, Texas.