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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.

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