The Magazine

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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.

Recent Blog Posts