American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us

American religion is a conundrum. Americans manage to combine deep religious devotion with wide religious diversity, all the while remaining remarkably tolerant of each other. What factors have shaped the current religious landscape in the United States? What characteristics do people of faith have, in comparison to those of other faiths and those with none? And what explains America’s unique combination of diversity, devotion, and tolerance?

These are the questions that Robert Putnam, Harvard professor of public policy and the sociologist who shone a spotlight on American community in Bowling Alone, and David Campbell, professor of political science at Notre Dame, set out to answer in their book American Grace. In short, the authors seek to provide a definitive snapshot and analysis of the state of contemporary religiosity in America. They ask about the relationship between religion and politics, between religion and civic values, whether religion plays a divisive role or brings people together and, in the opening chapters, how America got to where it is today, religiously speaking. The breadth of the book’s ambition, along with its hefty dimensions (the main text runs to 550 pages) and steepled hands on the cover, convey the intention clearly: this is to be the new bible for sociologists of religion.

The majority of the book is based on two large surveys (3,108 participants in the first, and 1,909 in the second) conducted in 2006 and 2007. The sample drawn for the first was representative of the population of the United States and was randomly selected. The second followed up with as many of the individuals surveyed in the first as possible, and asked most of the same questions. Therefore, the authors argue, it is possible to see how some measures change (like church attendance) between one year and the next. This second survey is important because it enables the authors to “test” whether one variable alters with another: if making a friend of another religion coincides with a warmer view of that religion, for example, then one might plausibly hypothesize that making friends with people of another faith leads to warmer feelings for others of that same faith. This is not enough to establish causality, but it does give useful hints that would not emerge without the second survey.

The book also includes three chapters of “congregational vignettes” written by Shaylyn Romney Garrett (who is not credited on the jacket) that provide a documentary-style picture of a number of U.S. religious institutions, from Saddleback Church to Beth Emet synagogue. These don’t quite constitute qualitative research—there is no real analysis of the data, and the vignettes are poorly integrated into the rest of the book—but they provide valuable insight into what life is like inside a cross-section of U.S. congregations.

The “historical backdrop” that comprises much of the opening of American Grace is perhaps the least compelling for those who follow trends in religion even casually. The authors contend that contemporary American religion has become associated with partisan politics in a way that wasn’t the case some decades ago. This is due to what they term an “earthquake and two aftershocks.” What first shook things up was the cultural liberalization of the “long ’60s,” during which God was declared dead by Time magazine, followed by the backlash in the 1970s and ’80s that saw the rise of religious conservatism (the “Moral Majority”). The second aftershock came in the ’90s and 2000s, as the children of the Moral Majority, who didn’t share their parents’ conservative views, also disaffiliated from religion (which they associated with those political views).

This, the authors argue, has led to the current polarized landscape in which a person who is more religious is far more likely to be conservative on certain hot-button issues, while secularists are more likely to be religious liberals. This polarizing trend has also given rise to the religious “nones” (people who don’t identify as members of any particular religion) who now make up 17 percent of the population. Crucially, these “nones” are not necessarily atheists—most say they believe in God and the afterlife, but don’t affiliate with a specific religion. Indeed, readers of the Humanist may despair to discover that “atheists and agnostics comprise a vanishingly small proportion of the U.S. population”—only five out of the 3,108 people surveyed in the first round chose either label.

The authors’ core findings are conveyed in admirably clear prose, and statistical instruments are explained in an accessible way. Apt metaphors (like the “earthquakes” described above) are used to advance understanding. Particularly admirable is the caution with which the authors present their discoveries. They explicitly state that the correlational data on offer here is insufficient to support claims of causation. Nonetheless, the authors don’t shy away from providing tentative hypotheses regarding causation, and rival interpretations of the data are often explored. This intellectual integrity lends the authors significant credibility, which is just as well, as some of their findings might raise an eyebrow.

It will stun few that the issues that correlate most strongly with intensity of religious belief are to do with sexual morality, and particularly attitudes to premarital sex (the strongest correlation) and homosexuality (the second strongest). Abortion, surprisingly, is less strongly correlated with intensity of religious belief than these other issues. Essentially, if a person believes that premarital sex and homosexuality are “always wrong” they are far more likely to be religious than not, and these attitudes track intensity of religiosity very cleanly. There is evidence, though, that homosexuality is becoming more acceptable even among the most religious youth, while abortion is viewed as more problematic even among the most secular youth. This gives the authors the sense that, in the future, these dividing lines will cease to be useful when it comes to mobilizing religious and secular communities.

It was a shock to me to learn, though, that while there are strong relationships between religiosity and certain political values, very little overt politicking seems to occur from the pulpit. The image of the evangelical pastor praising George W. Bush from the rostrum, while handing out Republican-leaning voter guides and organizing anti-abortion marches is, apparently, a grotesque distortion of the reality of most American congregations. As a gay man who was appalled to watch Mormon involvement in the campaign to pass California’s Proposition 8 same-sex marriage ban, I was stunnedto discover that Mormon temples are the least likely to engage in overt political exhortation. Where the explicitly political does appear in church, it is more likely to be in more left-leaning congregations, in Jewish synagogues and Black Protestant churches.

Also potentially surprising is the remarkable fluidity of religious life in America—people switch religions frequently (roughly one-third have done so at one point in their lives), interfaith marriages are common (between one-third and one-half of all U.S. marriages), and Americans tend to know and befriend people of other faiths or people with none. This turns out to be important in addressing suspect characterizations of an America boiling over with religious tension.

Describing what they call the “My Aunt Susan” and “My Pal Al” principles, the authors suggest that the constant churn of religious life in America—the high rate of conversions, interfaith marriages, and friendships—leads to greater tolerance of people of other faiths than might be expected in such a devout nation. Specifically, they point out that the vast majority of all American believers think that good people of other faiths—even non-Christians—can go to heaven. Even more strikingly, only 13 percent of Americans believe that “one religion is true and others are not.” These figures should give pause to those who are prone to see religious belief as necessarily intolerant.

Nonreligious Americans are regarded about as “warmly” on a “feeling thermometer” as evangelicals, registering above 50 percent on the scale, but under the mean of 55 percent. This suggests that nonbelievers are moderately unpopular relative to other religious groups, but not regarded coolly in an absolute sense. Lest this seem to contradict highly publicized polls showing the extreme unpopularity of atheists, note that the authors eschew that term, using only the more anodyne “people who are not religious.” (I’ll explore the potential implications of this decision in greater depth in a bit.)

This type of religious tolerance, whereby high levels of devotion are leavened by high levels of interreligious mixing (through marriage, friendship, and so on), is what the authors call America’s “grace.”

One finding that might make humanists bristle is the fact that religiosity is linked to greater civic engagement. The authors present compelling evidence that people who attend church more often are “better neighbors” who tend to give more money to both religious and secular charities, and volunteer more of their time to causes they consider worthwhile. They are more likely to be civically active in their community, more likely to vote, and are more likely to be active in party-politics.

Lest this stick in the craw, however, it is critical to note that all of these effects can be explained by involvement in religious social networks—it’s not down to religious belief. If you hold strength of religious conviction constant, those who attend church more, have more friends at church, and are engaged in more church-based activities are “better neighbors.” Someone who doesn’t believe in God will tend to show the same civic-mindedness if, for whatever reason, they are as engaged in religious communities as much as someone who has greater religious conviction. Conversely, a deeply religious person who is nota member of a church community doesn’t display the same level of “neighborliness.”

Therefore, Putnam and Campbell suggest, “close, morally intense, but nonreligious social networks could have a similarly powerful effect.” Ethical Culture Societies and Freethought churches could potentially count as such and could therefore foster the civic practices the authors venerate. However, the authors lament, such societies are too rare, and their members too few, for them to make any firm statements regarding this possibility. To me, this sounds like a challenge!

But there are weaknesses in the authors’ analysis. First, when investigating the civic-mindedness of survey respondents, the authors didn’t ask specifically which charities individuals were giving to, nor did they investigate to which organizations they were volunteering their time. This is problematic, because it isn’t necessarily the case that every donation of time or money represents a civic good. Depending on your political persuasion, someone who spends hours working the phones for the Discovery Institute while donating handsomely to Focus on the Family might not strike you as a “good neighbor.” Which causes a person espouses with their money and time is an important indicator of the extent to which their contribution strengthens civic life, and the authors do not collect sufficient data to clarify this issue.

Furthermore, the statistical invisibility of atheists, agnostics, and humanists may have something to do with the way the authors framed their survey question. They asked, “What is your religious preference? Is it Protestant, Catholic, another type of Christian, Jewish, some other religion, or nothing in particular?” This isn’t an easy question to answer if you happen to have no religion whatsoever. Answering “nothing in particular” to the question “what is your religious preference” is to say you have no particular preference, not no particular religion. If one answers “nothing in particular,” no clarifying questions are asked—the survey skips right to asking about the person’s family and its members’religious preferences. While other items probe for belief in God specifically, it’s unfortunate that little effort is made to discover if the respondent is broadly humanistic in outlook. Even the question regarding belief in God is strangely worded, asking “Are you absolutely sure you believe in God, somewhat sure, not quite sure, not at all sure, or are you sure you do not believe in God?” If one responds, “I am not at all sure I believe in God,” what does that really mean?

Finally, the authors don’t address the question of why “atheist” and “agnostic” are so very rarely used in respondents’ self-descriptions. The distrust of atheists, as attested to by numerous other polls (consider the Mosaic Project’s 2006 study, for example), is an extremely salient feature of American religious life—a topic that the New Atheist authors have pushed to the forefront as the religious issue of our time. The stigma attached to overt disbelief seems a critical issue when seeking to understand U.S. religion, and yet the authors completely fail to address it.

Regardless, this is a magisterial summary and an impressive analysis of the state of religious life in the United States today. Humanists who want to better understand their religious neighbors, and who want hard data regarding what the American people believe and what they pray to when they bow their heads, should read this book.

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