American grace How religion divides and unites us

Robert D. Putnam

Book - 2010

Examines the impact of religion on American life and how that impact has changed in the last half-century.

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New York : Simon & Schuster 2010.
1st Simon & Schuster hardcover ed
Physical Description
673 p. : ill., maps ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references (p. 571-647) and index.
Main Author
Robert D. Putnam (-)
Other Authors
David E. Campbell, 1971- (-), Shaylyn Romney Garrett
Review by Choice Review

In the follow-up to Bowling Alone (CH, Dec'00, 38-2454), Putnam and Notre Dame political scientist Campbell offer a rich empirical study of the role of religion in the US. They use the Faith Matters survey and other national data to explore why a highly religious nation is not divided by religious conflict. They conclude that most Americans have people of other faiths in their close social networks--"Aunt Sally" and "my pal Al"--which makes religious diversity seem positive and not scary. Indeed, people embedded in religious communities are the most civic minded and civic acting--the people, that is, most likely to build up US society. There are intolerant tails of the distribution of faith--5 percent who reject all religion and 10 percent who reject other religions. Most Americans, though, accept other religions and think religious diversity is good for the US. Putnam and Campbell conclude, "Praying together seems to be better than either bowling together or praying alone." A substantial contribution to the sociology of religion in the US that advances the conversation about social capital. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels/libraries. B. Weston Centre College

Copyright American Library Association, used with permission. Review by New York Times Review

AT first glance, the authors of "American Grace" would seem to suffer from very bad timing. Between the completion of their manuscript and its publication, the dispute over the Islamic center in Lower Manhattan erupted, followed by the Koran-burning controversy, and somewhere along the way a New York cabdriver was stabbed, apparently for being a Muslim. All this gives a quaint air to their declaration, in the book's first chapter, that "America peacefully combines a high degree of religious devotion with tremendous religious diversity." And it seems to render moot one of their main goals: to illuminate the source of this interfaith tolerance. Actually, though, the story told in this book, by the social scientists Robert D. Putnam of Harvard and David E. Campbell of Notre Dame, is urgently relevant to the recent surge in interfaith tension. True, America's tradition of peaceful religious coexistence is largely about harmony among Christian denominations, and so doesn't speak directly to the question of Islam's place in America. But it's also true that there was a time when many American Protestants viewed Roman Catholics no more charitably than a certain Pentecostal preacher in Florida views Muslims. In the 19th century, a Massachusetts convent was destroyed by anti-Catholic rioters, and civil unrest in Philadelphia - set off by rumors that Catholics wanted to rid the public schools of Bibles - led to some two dozen deaths and the destruction of two churches. The question of how this changed, how Protestants came to stress their commonality with Catholics, is, generically speaking, the question of the day: How do mutual fear, hostility and suspicion give way to amity, or at least tolerance? How do supposedly deep doctrinal chasms recede from view? The answers offered by Putnam and Campbell deserve the attention of everyone concerned about America's future cohesion. This is a big, multifaceted work, with scores of graphs, as well as narrative vignettes that put flesh on the book's analytical skeleton. (A tour through the Rev. Rick Warren's Saddleback megachurch, for example, helps explain the power of state-of-the-art evangelism.) The topics covered range from the dynamics of conversion to the role in religion of gender, ethnicity and class to the question of how civically engaged believers are. (Putnam gained fame for his lament, in "Bowling Alone," about the seeming decline of civic engagement.) But the dominant theme is, as the subtitle puts it, "How Religion Divides and Unites Us." Putnam and Campbell pay particular attention to the past half-century, which has shown how fluid fault lines can be. In 1960, the marriage of a Protestant to a Catholic was often unwelcome on both sides of the aisle, and the presidential candidate John F. Kennedy faced intense Protestant skepticism. Today churchgoing Catholics and Protestants often feel as if they're on the same team. They tend toward conservatism on social issues, opposing a liberal coalition that includes lapsed Catholics, mainline Protestants of often modest devoutness and growing legions of the avowedly nonreligious. Putnam and Campbell write, "By the 2000s, how religious a person is had become more important as a political dividing line than which denomination he or she belonged to." This leads to a puzzle. If the devoutly religious increasingly constitute one big family, why aren't Muslims a part of it? Why was the would-be 9/11 Koran burner not an atheist but a minister from an evangelical church (if, in fairness to mainstream evangelicals, an eccentric evangelical church)? Why are Newt Gingrich and other politicians who aim to harness fear of Muslims directing their message toward evangelicals with, apparently, some success? The answer may lie in the final chapter. Here the authors explain the observation they started the book with: America's religious diversity hasn't generally involved much intolerance. Indeed, believers seem willing to bend basic doctrines in the name of interfaith amity. Most Christians, even most evangelical Christians, believe that non-Christians can go to heaven, notwithstanding the New Testament's repeated assertions that Christ is the only path to the Kingdom of God. The authors' explanation for this bigheartedness is common-sensical: "Most Americans are intimately acquainted with people of other faiths." Americans have, on average, at least two friends who don't share their faith, and at least one extended-family member who fits that description. And who wants to tell friends or relatives that they're going to hell - or even believe that a friend or relative is going to hell? More broadly: getting to know an adherent of an otherwise alien faith tends to humanize the aliens. Obviously, there's a chicken-and-egg issue here. Are we tolerant because of our diverse social networks, or do we have diverse social networks because we're tolerant? Putnam and Campbell, aware of the problem, wield an analytical tool that, though not dispositive, is unusually subtle. They conducted surveys with the same large pool of people in consecutive years and tracked changes in both social milieus and attitudes. They conclude, for instance, that gaining an evangelical friend leads to a warmer assessment of evangelicals - by seven degrees on a "feeling thermometer," to be exact - and gaining a nonreligious friend brings four degrees of added warmth toward the nonreligious. In this view, a recipe for being viewed coolly is to be a religious group that is both small and geographically concentrated; that way, most Americans don't have a chance to meet anyone from your group. This is the authors' posited explanation for why Buddhists, Mormons and Muslims get particularly low feeling-thermometer readings. Of course, Muslims suffer from an additional problem. If most Americans don't personally know any Muslims, they've seen some on TV - Osama bin Laden, for starters. That may help explain why, though 54 percent of evangelicals say non-Christians can go to heaven, only 35 percent say Muslims can. Even so, the authors' 2007 survey found that evangelicals, like mainline Protestants, viewed Muslims no more coolly than they viewed Buddhists. But black Protestants viewed Muslims more positively than they did Buddhists, perhaps, the authors point out, because many black Christians are acquainted with black Muslims. The claim here isn't that mere social contact is Miracle Glue. Drawing on longstanding social theory, the authors suggest that certain ingredients - sharing a goal, for example - make acquaintance, more likely to bring affinity. Still, given that many Muslims are aligned with evangelicals and churchgoing Catholics on various social issues, that particular ingredient would seem to be in place; maybe the contact itself is what's mainly lacking. There are two basic schools of thought on religious strife. Essentialists believe that religions have a firm character, grounded in Scripture and theology and doctrine, and that religious conflicts are thus deep-seated and enduring. The more optimistic view is that clashing beliefs aren't the big problem; underlying the conflict, and driving it, are less ethereal and in some cases more pliable issues: economic grievances or insecurities, resentment of perceived arrogance, fears of domination (like the perceived threat of Western cultural or political hegemony, or of worldwide Shariah). Putnam and Campbell are closer to the second camp. Repeatedly, they show how fluid religious doctrine and practice are, how responsive to social and political context. In that sense, their subtitle is subtly misleading; this intellectually powerful book suggests that religion per se is often not the thing that actually divides us. This view, though common in academia, is hardly gospel among the public at large. But it may turn out to be gospel in the literal sense of the term: good news. According to 54 percent of evangelicals, non-Christians can go to heaven; but only 35 percent say Muslims can. Robert Wright, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author, most recently, of "The Evolution of God" and the editor in chief of

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [October 10, 2010] Review by Booklist Review

*Starred Review* In recent controversy over the national motto, In God we trust, Putnam and Campbell see a symptom of profound change in the national character. Using data drawn from two large surveys, the authors plumb these changes. The data show that the tempestuous sixties shook faith in religion and that the seventies and eighties incubated a strong resurgence of devotion. But the two most recent decades add another twist, as young Americans have abandoned the pews in record numbers. Still, despite recent erosion of religious commitment, Americans remain a distinctively devout people. And devotion affects life far from the sanctuary: Putnam and Campbell parse numbers that identify religious Americans as more generous, more civically engaged, and more neighborly than their secularly minded peers. But the analysis most likely to stir debate illuminates how religion has increasingly separated Republicans from Democrats, conservatives from progressives. Readers may blame the Christian Right for this new cultural fissure, but survey statistics mark liberal congregations as the most politicized. But whether looking at politics or piety, the authors complement their statistical analysis with colorful vignettes, humanizing their numbers with episodes from the lives of individual Protestants and Catholics, Jews and Mormons. An essential resource for anyone trying to understand twenty-first-century America.--Christensen, Bryce Copyright 2010 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission. Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

This massive book eschews the narrow, monographic approach to sociological study in favor of an older, more useful model: the sweeping chronicle of national change over time. Harvard professor Putnam (Bowling Alone) and his University of Notre Dame coauthor Campbell (Why We Vote) argue two apparently contradictory theses persuasively: first, that a "new religious fault line" exists in America, a deep political polarization that has transcended denominationalism as the greatest chasm in religious life; and second, that the culture (especially its younger generation) is becoming so much more accepting of diversity that thesis #1 will not tear America apart. The bulk of the book explores in detail cultural developments-the boom of evangelicals in the 1970s and 1980s, largely concluded in the early 1990s; the rise of feminism in the pews; the liberalization of attitudes about premarital sex and homosexuality, especially among the youngest generations; and what may prove to be the most seismic shift of all: the dramatic increase of "nones," or people claiming no institutional religious affiliation. Putnam and Campbell (with their researcher, Garrett) have done the public a great service in not only producing their own mammoth survey of American religion but also drawing from many prior statistical studies, enabling readers to track mostly gradual change over time. (Oct. 5) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved Review by Library Journal Review

Religious life in America has gone through remarkable changes in the last half century, and Putnam (public policy, Harvard; Bowling Alone) and Campbell (political science, Univ. of Notre Dame; Why We Vote) bring together a mound of sociological survey data to sift out the nature of those changes: the rise of the megachurch, the growth and plateauing of evangelicalism, the decline in mainline Protestantism and Anglo-Catholicism, and the 21st-century surge in the ranks of those claiming no religious affiliation. Putnam and Campbell trace these changes to the great liberalizing shock of the 1960s and subsequent pendulum swings first to the right, now to the left, through which "libertines and prudes have successively provoked one another." Religious communities have become increasingly identified with political conservatism, even as individual religious identity has become more fluid. Nonetheless, Americans have become more religiously plural and tolerant in recent decades, and this, state the authors, is America's grace. VERDICT American Grace does for this decade what Robert Bellah's Habits of the Heart did for the 1980s and Wade Clark Roof's Spiritual Marketplace did for the late 1990s. A monumental and insightful sociological analysis of the current religious climate and how it developed. Highly recommended.-Steve Young, McHenry Cty. Coll., Crystal Lake, IL (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted. Review by Kirkus Book Review

Impressive study of American religious diversity.Putnam (Public Policy/Harvard Univ.; Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, 2001, etc.) and Campbell (Political Science/Univ. of Notre Dame; Why We Vote: How Schools and Communities Shape Our Civic Life, 2006, etc.) begin with the obvious assertion that America is and has always been a religiously diverse nation, and seek to learn in what ways this is true today, and also why this diversity is not particularly problematic in modern America. The authors draw much of their data from the recent, comprehensive Faith Matters surveys, along with previous statistical surveys on faith in America. They punctuate the narrative with in-depth vignettes of particular congregations, ranging from a conservative Lutheran megachurch in Houston to a Reform synagogue near Chicago. The authors are interested in the entire religious history of America, but they focus primarily on the last half-century, using statistical research and anecdotal information to explain the decline of mainline Protestantism, the rise and leveling off of Evangelical Christianity, the demographic transformation of Catholicism and the recent rise of innovative movements such as the Emerging Church. Putnam and Campbell also examine religion in politics (and vice versa), the changing role of women in America's faith landscape and religious activity as an indicator of civic involvement. The text is highly readable, and the authors are not afraid to come to clear conclusions. In describing the rarity with which partisan political views are actually trumpeted from the pulpit, the authors state bluntly, "Most people come to church to hear about God, not Caesar. Too much talk of Caesar risks driving them away." The authors' conclusion describes why, despite America's religious diversity, "America is graced with the peaceful coexistence of both religious diversity and devotion." Since Americans are intimately acquainted with others of diverse backgrounds more today than ever before, these relationships lead to acceptance of individuals as well as of groups of people.A valuable contribution to the conversation surrounding faith in America.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.