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American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us
American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us
Robert D. Putnam; David E. Campbell
Simon & Schuster, 2010
688 pp., 30.00

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James L. Guth and Lyman A. Kellstedt


Why We Get Along

Religion and public life in the U.S.

Americans are seriously religious, but religiously diverse. So why don't we fight more about religion? In American Grace, Robert Putnam and David Campbell offer some tentative answers. While many of their conclusions will be familiar to scholars, seldom have so many insights been assembled in a single package, making American Grace an academic tour de force. The authors cover the vast landscape of American religion in a graceful, comprehensive, and meaty narrative.

The volume's length is justified by the range and importance of the findings. The authors intersperse chapters full of abstract theory and data analysis with extensive vignettes describing religious life in numerous congregations. These include Episcopal parishes in Massachusetts, megachurches in California and Minnesota, a transitional (Anglo to Latino) Catholic parish in Illinois, a black Protestant church in Maryland, a Missouri Synod Lutheran congregation in Texas, a Reform Jewish synagogue in the Chicago area, and a Latter-day Saint ward in Utah. While serving to introduce major topics, the vignettes are of great interest in their own right.

The contributions of American Grace are too numerous for a full recounting, but we can highlight a few. The authors first delineate the course of religious change in the late 20th century, from the high tide of "civic religion" in the 1950s to the "shock" of the 1960s counterculture, which challenged traditional morality and loosened many Americans from their religious moorings. This trauma was followed by the "first aftershock" of revived religious conservatism in the 1970s and '80s, producing a "second aftershock," the abandonment of religion by many young people, turned off by the Christian Right. The authors' explanations may not convince everyone (we doubt the theory that "the Christian Right did it"), but they draw on an immense body of data to support their interpretations.

Putnam and Campbell then document Americans' increasing propensity to "switch, match, and mix" religious attachments. Using the General Social Surveys, they estimate that switching among religious traditions (not denominations) grew from about 19 percent among those born early in the 20th century to about 27 percent of those born at the end. Not only do more citizens deviate from their parental faith, but they differ even more in observance. Thus, while over half the adult children of Mormons and evangelicals remain practicing members of those traditions, Anglo Catholics and mainline Protestants show considerably lower active loyalty, and Jews even less.

Mixed marriages are a prime explanation for defection. Intermarriage not only meets with greater approval today, but has also become more common among all groups except Latino Catholics, black Protestants, and Mormons. Half of all American weddings now unite spouses from different traditions. The consequences for offspring affiliation are obvious: religious socialization is much weaker, and more and more Americans choose their faith (or choose none), rather than inherit one.

And growing religious diversity means more options. After tracing the historic intersections of ethnicity, class, and faith, Putnam and Campbell note that these restrictive ties are breaking down. Evangelicals, for example, no longer feel it necessary to "upgrade" to a mainline denomination as they climb the class ladder. Similarly, the kind of ethnic loyalties binding black Protestants and Hispanic Catholics to their churches no longer have the same power for Scotch-Irish Presbyterians or Polish Catholics, contributing again to a freer religious marketplace.

The increasing fluidity of religious affiliation makes Putnam and Campbell cautiously optimistic about the potential for "bridging" across class and ethnic lines. As a tradition, Catholics are most likely to be in a diverse congregation, given the rapid addition of Latinos to old "European" parishes, but they are followed closely by evangelicals, whose larger congregations also tend to draw diverse memberships. Mainline Protestants, Mormons, and Jews, on the other hand, are much less likely to experience "bridging." Congregational diversity, the authors argue, may help reduce intergroup hostility, although the evidence can be read differently by optimists and pessimists.

As the authors are political scientists, the chapters on politics are of special interest. Pundits often perceive a "God gap" between church-attending Republicans and less observant Democrats, and a further religious divide between "country club" and "Sunday School" Republicans. The authors quickly dispatch the latter claim, arguing that "the two wings are largely one and the same." Indeed, the strongest Republicans are churchgoers with advanced education. But there is a "grace gap" between Republicans who pray before meals and Democrats who don't. Since the 1970s, the correlation between religiosity and Republican identification has increased with each new age cohort, and has been bolstered by some "conversion" among older voters.

What is the source of this religious divide? Putnam and Campbell claim that attitudes toward abortion and homosexuality alone constitute "the glue that holds the [Republican] coalition together." Following earlier analysts, they argue that diverging stands on these moral issues by party élites have prompted voters to "sort" into the "proper" camps. Opinions on other issues, they say, are not strongly linked to religiosity, whether on policies to reduce income inequality, the death penalty, civil liberties, immigration, or foreign aid, and thus do not contribute to this realignment.

Apparently the new religious underpinnings for partisanship do not depend on what happens in congregations. Putnam and Campbell find "little overt politicking over America's pulpits and, to the extent it happens, it is more common on the political left than the right. Nor is there much political mobilization through church channels." Political sermons, congregational protests or marches, and the presence of voter registration materials or guides in church are all infrequent, even in reputedly political traditions like black Protestantism. Religious influence rather takes the subtle form of social reinforcement. As Americans sort into congenial religious and political settings, interaction among believers hardens existing leanings, so that a religious person with many friends in the congregation is very likely to be Republican in most traditions (or, likely a Democrat in a black Protestant church). Thus, American churches form "echo chambers" which enhance internal political homogeneity.

Finally, Putnam and Campbell turn to the wider social implications of religion, pursuing leads from Putnam's celebrated Bowling Alone. They discover that religion fosters civic virtues: churchgoers are more "charitable" in a host of ways, more active in community and political life, happier, and more trusting of others—and, perhaps, more trustworthy themselves. True, they are also less tolerant of dissenters, but that lamentable tendency is declining. Once again, the authors argue that religiosity and its "morally freighted personal connections" explain these beneficent results—not specific theological tenets.

If religion provides all these benefits, why does America seem riven at times by "culture wars"? The authors offer two explanations. First, religious and secular Americans don't particularly trust each other: each regards the other as intolerant. And interreligious prejudice remains, directed primarily at minorities such as Mormons, Buddhists, and Muslims—but even at evangelicals. These dislikes hardly match the polarization between racial groups or even between Republicans and Democrats. Nevertheless, such tensions may spark occasional religious warfare, as exemplified by the struggle over the proposed Muslim center near Ground Zero.

Most of the time, however, "America's Grace" is that a religiously diverse and observant country avoids strife. This happy state derives partly from the persistence of civil religion which, despite carping from secularists, still serves as a unifying force. But more important is the impact of religious diversity itself, which most Americans experience close to home, with friends and co-workers from other religions ("Pal Al"), beloved relatives who do not share their faith ("Aunt Sallie"), and often a cherished spouse from another tradition. Putnam (Jewish) and Campbell (Mormon) offer their own complex "family religious structures" as illustrations.

The fact that "Aunt Sallie," "Pal Al," and your spouse are all admirable people, despite religious differences, may also explain why Americans see many paths to salvation, not just the one embodied in their own faith; indeed, they espouse a practical theological pluralism that would appall many of their clergy. Putnam and Campbell applaud this consensus, suggesting that only a relatively small number of "true believers" reject it—barely a tenth of the populace, concentrated among evangelicals and black Protestants. Predictably, such dissenters are prone to worship, marry and choose friends within their faith. Were they more numerous, they might threaten America's achievement of combining diverse religious faith with interreligious peace.

With books this thoughtful and provocative, it is always tempting to ignore deficiencies. Because Putnam and Campbell take on an impressive array of intellectual issues, they inevitably fall short at points. First, readers will note their failure to address systematically the old but crucial secularization debate. Putnam and Campbell implicitly assume that the United States is an "outlier" or exception to the disappearance of active faith in the developed world, but they pay little attention to this anomalous situation, although their evidence often touches on it directly. The increase in the ranks of unaffiliated Americans, especially among the young, declining religious practice, decreasing religious endogamy in marriage and social life—all suggest that the United States may follow the secularizing trajectory of Europe. Such evidence is welcomed by many liberal theorists and lamented by conservatives.

Despite their unwillingness to get bogged down in the complex secularization debate, the authors cannot resist putting their fingers in at times. At one point, for example, they sound like "religious market" theorists, suggesting that innovative religious entrepreneurs—for which America is famous—may eventually pull the "new unaffiliated" back into active faith. And they may be right. But it seems that those abandoning religion because of dislike for the Christian Right (the authors' explanation) had a pretty anemic faith to begin with and might not be lured back easily by the pale theological pluralism of most contemporary religious traditions.

This dovetails with a more pervasive concern: Putnam and Campbell's persistent dismissal of the content of religious faith. Although their own survey includes a solid battery of belief items, the authors repeatedly deny that what people believe has any major relevance to social or political values, whether partisanship, charitable activities, or civic engagement. We are unconvinced. An old adage among students of religion and politics is that "behavior begets behavior, and belief begets belief." Religious practices like church attendance should foster voting or working in campaigns, while religious beliefs should influence choices on issues, parties, and candidates. Thus, findings in American Grace that churchgoers excel in civic participation are not surprising. But reliance on religiosity may be misleading when explaining political choices. True, abortion and gay rights opinions may be structured by religiosity more strongly than other issues, but the authors ignore the possibility that they might be influenced even more by religious beliefs.

In fact, a simple Christian orthodoxy scale is a significant predictor on issues ranging from a national health care plan to support for a stronger military. And, in study after study, beliefs are better predictors of party affiliation, ideology, and vote choice than mere religiosity.[1] In social science terms, the correlation of religiosity with issue positions, partisanship, and voting decisions is often spurious, an artifact of theological traditionalists' stronger religiosity. In multivariate analysis, religious beliefs often overwhelm the effect of religious participation on attitudes, but not on political behavior, where religious activity usually matters most. The consistent influence of belief on a broad array of issues certainly explains the thorough social and political conservatism of many Republicans (and the uniform liberalism of many Democrats) better than reliance on abortion and gay rights alone—and provides a firmer basis for understanding "culture wars" and partisan polarization.

A final concern is the authors' truncated view of congregational politics. Their finding of infrequent political sermons, few demonstrations, and rare voter guides is accurate as far as it goes (at least in 2006-7), but they neglect the many and subtle ways that clergy communicate to laity or that congregations are mobilized politically. Using broader questions tapping additional types of political communication, we have repeatedly found more—and more varied—political activity among churchgoers than the authors suggest, as well as a persistent "conservative" rather than "liberal" advantage.[2]

Indeed, our findings seem more in tune with their own vignettes. Consider just a few cases: Congresswoman Michelle Bachman giving her "testimony" at Living Word Christian Center, where the pastor himself is vocal on politics; Father Dahm providing social services to parishioners at St. Pius, much like a Chicago ward committeeman; Rev. Dr. Reid's "over-the-top" political engagements at Bethel AME; Jewish rabbis' attack on the "immoral" war in Iraq; and the bitter battle over gay rights at Christ Church Episcopal in Hamilton. Even when politics is not at the forefront, churches are fertile recruiting grounds for political causes, whether by "Lutherans for Life" at Our Savior Lutheran Church, or for the Social Action Committee and ubiquitous study classes at Beth Emet synagogue. And remember that in 2008 (after the authors' research visit), Rick Warren brought Senators Obama and McCain to Saddleback to discuss issues before the congregation (and a national TV audience). Thus, the wide range of political activities described by the authors themselves hardly fit under their limited rubric of political sermons, demonstrations, or voter guides.

These caveats should not deter anyone interested in American religion from reading this challenging volume. For scholars hoping to fathom the connections between religion and public life, for clergy wanting to understand better the people in the pews (and those not there), and for grass-roots believers desiring a broader picture of faith in America, this volume is required reading. We know scholars will pay close attention, as American Grace will help define the long-term agenda for the social scientific study of religion, but we also hope that clergy and laity will take the plunge and read the book. Some, like Putnam and Campbell, may see mostly sunny religious skies in the evidence, while others will find threatening clouds. All will benefit from its insights.

James L. Guth is William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Political Science at Furman University. Lyman A. Kellstedt is professor of political science (emeritus) at Wheaton College. They have collaborated in the study of religion and politics in the United States for over twenty years and have written extensively on the subject for both professional and popular publications.

1. For evidence from the Pew Forum's Landscape Study (2007), the National Survey of Religion and Politics (2008), and the American National Election Study (2008), see the documents at ps.furman.edu/faculty/guth/publications.html.

2. For clergy activities, see James L. Guth, John C. Green, Corwin E. Smidt, Lyman A. Kellstedt, and Margaret M. Poloma, The Bully Pulpit: The Politics of Protestant Clergy (Univ. Press of Kansas, 1997); for the electoral mobilization of church people in the 1996, 2000, and 2004 presidential elections, see James L. Guth, Lyman A. Kellstedt, John C. Green, and Corwin E. Smidt, "Getting the Spirit? Religious and Partisan Mobilization in the 2004 Election," in Allan J. Cigler and Burdett A. Loomis, eds., Interest Group Politics, 7th edition (CQ Press, 2007), pp. 157-181. For comparable evidence on the 2008 election, see the website in note 1.

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