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The Book 'American Grace' and How the Young View Religion

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By Michael Gerson
Friday, May 8, 2009

There is a book that everyone will be talking about -- when it appears over a year from now. "American Grace: How Religion Is Reshaping Our Civic and Political Lives," being written by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, is already creating a buzz. Putnam, the author of "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community," is the preeminent academic expert on American civic life. Campbell is his rising heir. And the book they haven't yet finished will make just about everyone constructively uncomfortable.

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At a recent conference of journalists organized by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Putnam outlined the conclusions of "American Grace," based on research still being sifted and refined. Against the expectations of hard-core secularists, Putnam asserts, "religious Americans are nicer, happier and better citizens." They are more generous with their time and money, not only in giving to religious causes but to secular ones. They join more voluntary associations, attend more public meetings, even let people cut in line in front of them more readily. Religious Americans are three to four times more socially engaged than the unaffiliated. Ned Flanders is a better neighbor.

Against the expectations of many religious believers, this dynamic has little to do with the content of belief. Theology is not the predictor of civic behavior; being part of a community is. People become social joiners and contributors when they have friends who pierce their isolation and invite their participation. And religious friends, says Putnam, are "more powerful, supercharged friends."

Yet this kind of religious affiliation has declined among many since World War II, especially among the young. The change was not gradual or linear. It arrived, according to Putnam, in "one shock and two aftershocks."

The shock came in the 1960s. As conservatives have asserted, the philosophy of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll is an alternative to religious affiliation (though some of the rocking religious would dispute the musical part). Baby boomers were far less religious than their parents were at the same age -- the probable result, says Putnam, of a "very rapid change in morals and customs."

This retreating tide of committment affected nearly every denomination equally, except that it was less severe among evangelicals. While not dramatically increasing their percentage of the American population, evangelicals did increase their percentage among the religious in America. According to Putnam, religious "entrepreneurs" such as Jerry Falwell organized and channeled the conservative religious reaction against the 1960s into the religious right -- the first aftershock.

But this reaction provoked a reaction -- the second aftershock. The politicization of religion by the religious right, argues Putnam, caused many young people in the 1990s to turn against religion itself, adopting the attitude: "If this is religion, I'm not interested." The social views of this younger cohort are not entirely predictable: Both the pro-life and the homosexual-rights movement have made gains. But Americans in their 20s are much more secular than the baby boomers were at the same stage of life. About 30 to 35 percent are religiously unaffiliated (designated "nones," as opposed to "nuns" -- I was initially confused). Putnam calls this "a stunning development." As many liberals suspected, the religious right was not good for religion.

The result of the shock and aftershocks is polarization. The general level of religiosity in America hasn't changed much over the years. But, as Putnam says, "more people are very religious and many are not at all." And these beliefs have become "correlated with partisan politics." "There are fewer liberals in the pews and fewer unchurched conservatives."

The political implications are broad. Democrats must galvanize the "nones" while not massively alienating religious voters -- which is precisely what candidate Barack Obama accomplished. Republicans must maintain their base in the pew while appealing to the young -- a task they have not begun to figure out.

But Putnam regards the growth of the "nones" as a spike, not a permanent trend. The young, in general, are not committed secularists. "They are not in church, but they might be if a church weren't like the religious right. . . . There are almost certain to be religious entrepreneurs to fill that niche with a moderate evangelical religion, without political overtones."

In the diverse, fluid market of American religion there may be a demand, in other words, for grace, hope and reconciliation -- for a message of compassion and healing that appeals to people of every political background. It would be revolutionary -- but it would not be new.

michaelgerson@cfr.org


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