American Grace; How Religion Divides and Unites Us

American Grace; How Religion Divides and Unites Us by Robert Putnam & David Campbell. Simon & Schuster, paper 2012.

Robert Putnam wrote a famous book in 2000 that changed our way of thinking about volunteering in American life. Bowling Alone; The Collapses and Revival of American Community argued that while volunteerism has always been a feature of American life and particularly during the war years, it has, nevertheless, been waning as that generation has aged. The one exception to the general rule is volunteering within religious organizations. This new book looks at American religious life suggesting where there is surprising unanimity about religious matters amongst the differing religious traditions.


Putnam and co-author David Campbell distinguish eight religious traditions, and they are ranked in terms of their percent of the U.S. population: 1. White Evangelical Protestants (Most readers would know them as fundamentalists.), 2. Roman Catholic, 3. ‘Nones’ (There are a lot of us!), 4 .Mainline Protestants, 5. African-American Protestants, 6. Other Faiths (e.g. Moslems and Hindus), 7. Jews, and 8. Mormons.  (If you are dubious of categorizing, this is not the book for you.)


This is not a sorting out of congregations. Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists would array themselves over several of Putnam’s traditions. Roman Catholics are divided (often by parish) between Latino and Anglo Catholics. The complexity increases as the authors keep sorting. So you also to have faith in sorting and sampling techniques.


The authors argue that the various political and social movements of the 1960s and 70s – sex, drugs, and rock‘N’roll – and the accompanying youthful disengagement from American postwar prosperity and assurances gave rise to “aftershocks.” These various social trends led to widespread disengagement with religious life. Think about the civil rights movement and how that variously effected religious traditions. Or changing gender roles. Remember that women have been the workhorses of congregations. Yet only belatedly have they risen to positions of authority within their churches. Roman Catholics and Mormons still bar them from the “priesthood.”


Court rulings have tended to reduce the power of church over civil society; some critics argued that this separation has left the public square ‘naked.’ (The metaphor ‘nakedness’ is ironic; much of the religious divide has been an aftershock to the ‘moral decadence and sexual permissiveness’ of the 1960s). This diminished influence explains, in part, the rise of revival evangelicalism in response.  Remember Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Earlier Dwight Moody.

The Roman Catholic Church has always been subject to dropouts –lapsed Catholics, more so than in other religious traditions. It received large numbers of immigrants in the late nineteenth century, Irish, Italians, and Poles – more recently Latinos. While ethnic identity was a strength in building Roman Catholicism, ethnicity couldn’t prevent and might even have facilitated the exit of their children and grandchildren. They could identify with your ethnicity, while shedding their religion.


Putnam and Campbell talk about religious innovators and entrepreneurs, for example the tent revival and traveling evangelists of bygone decades. These itinerant preachers led to “new faiths” such as Pentecostals and Seventh-day Adventists. For those who would argue that religion too often has been an “opiate’ which slowed reform, American Grace reminds us that evangelical preachers and their movements also prompted social reform and equality.


Churches are friendly places. They are well-structured to encourage friendships amongst their parishioners.  They also encourage generosity. The authors are able to show that the religiously active not only contribute to causes sponsored by their church, they are also more generous in civil involvement and giving. This is good because they are often hostile to the government ‘s social welfare net.


With the exception of Black Protestants and Jews, the religiously involved are more likely to vote Republican. This is particularly true of White Evangelical Protestants: 73% voted for George Bush in 2004 as opposed to 15% of Black Protestants. These voting differences are regional. The Southeastern U.S. is both more evangelical and more Republican.


Putnam and Campbell argue that racism is declining in all of religious traditions. But it is also true that religious affiliation is strongly associated with race and ethnicity. They remind us of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s quip four decades ago that 11 a.m., Sunday morning is the nation’s most segregated hour.  And we are still largely living in that America. This reflects the continuing religious divides that the authors have described, but also our growing economic inequalities and physical segregation.


Who goes to heaven? Over 90% of those polled – Mormons, Mainline Protestant, Jews, Catholics, and Black Protestants – believed that individuals who have lived a moral life can go to heaven even if they are practitioners of another religious tradition. Only White Evangelical Protestants were lower and they were 83% assuring that such was possible.

When Robert Putnam revealed these percentages to a group Missouri Synod Lutheran theologians, an Evangelical Protestant Denomination, they were shocked to find that most of their congregants believed there are many paths to heaven. One of the theologians spoke up saying that their laity were wrong, and another suggested that as teachers of the Word, they had failed mightil

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