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A Country at Prayer

What’s the difference between faith, and having faith in religion?

Nov 29, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 11 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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American Grace

A Country at Prayer

Photo Credit: Getty Images

How Religion Divides
and Unites Us
by Robert D. Putnam
and David E. Campbell
Simon & Schuster, 688 pp., $30

Well, here it is, at last, at almost 700 pages—the enormous sociological survey of American religion, compiled over the past several years by Harvard’s Robert D. Putnam and Notre Dame’s David E. Campbell. And the most surprising thing about the book may be how unsurprising it actually proves. American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us contains almost no data that common sense and a little careful observation wouldn’t have told you about faith in the United States today.

Take, for example, Putnam and Campbell’s conclusion that African-American churches and Jewish synagogues, with their endorsements of the left, more commonly engage in open politicking than evangelical megachurches or Catholic parishes, with their endorsements of the right—although none of America’s houses of worship practice politics as openly as they did 60 years ago. Or take, for another example, the now-documented fact that regular churchgoers give more often to secular causes, and give a larger fraction of their income to secular causes, than do non-churchgoing and secular people. Or the fact that people who say grace before meals—an interesting and well-chosen marker of religiosity—are much more likely to be Republicans than Democrats, and the political gap between the grace-saying and the graceless is growing. Or that the evangelical boom that started in the 1970s is fully over, “a feature of the past, not the present.” Or that “a whopping 89 percent of Americans believe that heaven is not reserved for those who share their religious faith.” Or that the generations “of whom barely 5 percent say they have no religious affiliation” are being replaced by new generations “of whom roughly 25 percent say they have no religion”—a massive increase among the young of what Putnam and Campbell call “the nones.”

If any of this comes as a shock, you simply haven’t been paying attention. But that’s almost always the effect of good quantitative sociology: It confirms good qualitative sociology—the observations and the guesses of the people who, though they haven’t been counting, have nonetheless been watching. You won’t be surprised by anything in American Grace, not by its dozens of graphs and careful statistics, nor by the vignettes of congregations that alternate with the statistical chapters and flesh out the narrative.

In the end, Putnam and Campbell’s conclusions come to no more than this: Americans are generally religious, Americans are generally tolerant, and the general decline of religiosity among young people is usually explained, by those young people, as a fear of religion’s apparent lack of tolerance. Even the antireligious younger generations are more pro-life than their parents (suggesting the fight against legalized abortion is winning), although they are much more approving of homosexuality (suggesting the fight against same-sex marriage is losing). 

Of course, if the facts aren’t surprising, the question still remains of what we are to make of those facts. Robert D. Putnam first came to wide attention with his 1995 Journal of Democracy essay “Bowling Alone” (expanded into a book in 2000). It was the most widely noticed of the many communitarian cries of those years, using the disappearance of bowling leagues as a figure for the general decline of participation in civic organizations in the United States. And the communitarian worry has never left Putnam’s mind. American Grace is most concerned with the social dynamics that religion encourages. Religious people, the book argues, donate more, volunteer more, and attend town and school board meetings much more—but that’s not because of any theology. It’s because of the social networking born in religious practice, and the proof, for Putnam and Campbell, lies in the fact that “devout people who sit alone in the pews are not much more neighborly than people who don’t go to church at all.”

Thus, for example, the book’s chapter on “Religion and Good Neighborliness” demonstrates that American believers express less tolerance of directly opposite views than do nonbelievers. It also shows, however, that this lessened tolerance isn’t acted upon, and the result is that by every other measure, believers make far better neighbors than nonbelievers. What’s more, the pro-religious statistics hold true across all lines of age, race, gender, and income.

To which one wants to say: Yes, but .  .  . There’s a problem with communitarians’ claiming of religion, and it’s the problem that faces all theories of religion’s social utility. Public order in a democracy—the liberalism that needs a people of virtue to maintain itself—seems to require the bulk of citizens to believe in God. As George Washington famously warned in his Farewell Address, “Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” 

But no one ever believed in God for the sake of public order in a democracy. Especially not Americans. The social benefits of religion are a derived effect: The nation receives them when it has people who believe in God, not when it has people who believe in the social benefits of believing in God.

Perhaps Putnam and Campbell, performing their sociological work, should be forgiven for measuring only what sociology can measure, but the errors and gaps in American Grace are always on the side of gentle, get-along religion—like the bad arithmetic of the proverbial French waiter, whose mistakes are somehow always in his favor. Putnam and Campbell demonstrate that religion is less divisive than it’s portrayed by the media—so much less, in fact, that it serves to lessen divisions that would be stronger without religion. That’s the “grace” of the book’s title. But they cannot answer the question of where that grace comes from, because they have deliberately excluded the theological language in which the answer might be phrased.

American Grace demonstrates that the “God Gap” in politics is large—and growing. That seems, of course, to run counter to the book’s conclusion of religious comity and the contribution of believers to national unity. The problem, as Putnam and Campbell see it, is good old-fashioned sex. In just a few years after 1969, the percentage of Americans who held that premarital sex was not wrong leapt from 24 percent to 47 percent, and the trend has continued upward ever since. The great evangelical response of the 1970s and ’80s proved unable to stop it and thereby triggered the political divisiveness that continues to this day: “libertines and prudes,” locked in battle, “have successively provoked one another.” Both sides in the political battle, the book argues, have failed to understand the great purpose of religion in providing the social benefits of community.

As an analysis, this won’t do— primarily because it cannot explain Putnam and Campbell’s own data about the pro-life views of the newer generations. The Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade skewed American constitutionalism, American law, and American politics. Why should we be surprised that here it is again, skewing the sociology of American religion? This abortion-caused breakdown of the neat data collected in American Grace looks like a problem to Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell. But it might well be taken as evidence of what the book is missing: a hard effect of theology, a consequence of strong views. The authors can’t quite bring themselves to see that America needs its believers to believe something, in order to gain the good social effect of having believers. And here is a measure of that fact: We must accept religion’s potential divisiveness before we receive religion’s potential easing of divisiveness.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that this is exactly the solution to the problem of religion written into the Constitution. Perhaps that’s a small American grace, but it’s a real one.

Joseph Bottum is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.

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