A prayer for moderation

Sunday, December 12, 2010


How Religion Divides and Unites Us

By Robert D. Putnam

and David E. Campbell

Simon & Schuster. 673 pp. $30

Even as a religion reporter, I was surprised by some of the findings in this hefty new book about American religion by political scientists Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell.

Among them: Secularism is increasing most rapidly among the less educated (the opposite of what happened in the 1960s and '70s); the growth of evangelicalism ended nearly two decades ago; and evangelicals diverge most from the rest of the country in their opposition to premarital sex, not in their views on abortion or same-sex relationships.

In his seminal book "Bowling Alone" (2000), Putnam focused the country's attention on its deteriorating community life. "American Grace" will probably spark similarly fierce debates. It has already commanded attention from some evangelical leaders, who have sounded the alarm about growing secularism. Yet the book seeks to tamp down the culture wars (its conclusions are expressed in the most non-inflammatory language possible). Most of its findings have already appeared elsewhere, but "American Grace" is still perhaps the most sweeping look yet at contemporary American religion. It lays out the broad trends of the past 50 years, assesses their sociological causes and then does a bit of fortune-telling.

After World War II, the authors explain, America was such a religiously moderate nation that one couldn't predict someone's politics based on whether he or she attended church. Then came what Putnam and Campbell call the "shock" of the 1960s, when intense social change and experimentation pushed many Americans away from organized religion. That was followed in the 1970s and '80s by a strong reaction - the rise of religious conservatives and their political activism; church construction and Bible publications boomed. In the 1990s and 2000s a growing percentage of Americans told pollsters they had no religion, and the estrangement of young people from organized religion was higher than in previous generations.

"American Grace" depicts a country losing its religious moderates as the highly religious and the highly secular migrate to opposite poles and shape their religious identity to match their politics. Putnam and Campbell also find a growing group of unaffiliated, undecided believers floating around in the center.

The authors cheer a contrary trend - a growth in religious mixing in marriage that they argue reinforces tolerance and moderation. But there are millions of religious conservatives for whom interfaith marriage is a major problem. I suspect that some of their leaders will use Putnam's stature and this book as an excuse to reemphasize orthodoxy.

Seen through the authors' sociological lens, religion in America is inherently subject to changing currents. In the past half-century, some of the major forces influencing religion and politics were the women's movement, the income gap and increasing diversity caused by immigration. The book encourages speculation about which current trends will be tomorrow's religious influences.

Though it's written in an easy-to-digest, journalistic style, "American Grace" is more like a textbook than a popular title. But it is packed with fun facts: The intensity of one's religious belief is more predictive of one's politics than religious denomination; about 60 percent of people who switched religious identities didn't do so because of marriage; 89 percent of Americans believe heaven is not just reserved for people of their own faith. The book also brings to life complex issues such as how politics play out in a synagogue in suburban Chicago and in a megachurch in Minneapolis.

The authors aren't shy about declaring their agenda: peace. They detail how religious mixing has taken place in their own families and see the trend as the solution to the puzzle of how to maintain tolerance and diversity. The rise in religious blending and diversity, they say, is the "American Grace" of the title. But sometimes they seem to be cheering a bit too loudly.

Michelle Boorstein covers religion for The Washington Post.

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