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

Ah, America. Where else in the postmodern West can you find snake-handling preachers; earnest middle-aged women at Unitarian churches who talk about astrology; bookstores full of novels about the rapture; entire seminaries given over to dispensational scholasticism; men with long beards, fur hats, and yarmulkes; priests in cassocks; camp meetings; church suppers with cabbage and lime Jell-O salads; stolid Presbyterians, sweet Methodists, fire-breathing Baptists, and homeschooling Catholics; liberal Jesuits; Jewish Buddhists, Black Muslims, and more”all mixed together in the urban centers, suburban sprawl, and endless rural emptiness of our continent-spanning country?

It’s a remarkable scene, and one that defies easy generalizations: about our national piety and impiety, about the various orthodoxies and heterodoxies, about the fissiparous denominationalism that coexists with religious tolerance, and about the political imagination that infuses politics with theology while also treating the separation of church and state as a sacred national principle.

American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us is bound to dissatisfy, for no book can master this remarkable reality, but it is a good and useful book nonetheless. Sociologists Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell conducted a large-scale “Faith Matters” survey, which provides both a broad and a fine-grained view of the contemporary scene. Using this survey, other data, and personal visits to congregations, Putnam and Campbell venture some generalizations that, while never fully satisfactory, can refine and challenge our own intuitions, experiences, and general hunches.

Best known for Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community , Putnam has long worried about the question of social solidarity. What holds people together, inclining them to contribute to the common good? The sociological term is “social capital,” a metaphor that suggests a reserve of sentiments and habits that we draw on to preserve unity and goodwill even when we’re drawn into the conflicts that come from cultural differences or when economic and political competition sets us as at odds with one another.

Putnam’s concerns about the divisive tendencies of a modern, pluralistic society, and his desire to identify unifying, reparative resources, set the agenda for American Grace . As he and Campbell report: “Americans are increasingly concentrated at opposite ends of the spectrum”the highly religious at one pole, and the avowedly secular at the other. The moderate religious middle is shrinking.” Half a century ago, Paul Blanshard wrote bestselling books warning against the threats Catholicism posed to American democracy. Today, bestselling books warn about either the dangers of religious faith of any sort or the threats posed by secular humanism. We once argued about what kind of religion is best; now it’s the very idea of religious belief that is up for debate.

This change reflects what is perhaps the most important aspect of recent social history. From the end of the Civil War until the 1960s, the wealthiest and best-educated Americans remained largely loyal (in public if not in private) to a plastic, not very demanding, but nonetheless theologically serious form of Christianity that came to be known as mainline Protestantism. This loyalty frayed during the post“World War II years and collapsed in the aftermath of the 1960s. Today, America has an elite culture removed from and often antagonistic toward religious influences.

The cultural divide between the religious and the irreligious has come to characterize important dimensions of American political life. For example, Putnam and Campbell found that 70 percent of those who never say grace before meals identify as Democrats, while slightly more than 20 percent who never say grace identify as Republicans. Meanwhile, among those who say grace daily, 40 percent identify as Democrats and 50 percent identify as Republicans.

The same pattern holds for self-reported religiosity. The more religious you say you are, the more likely you are to say you’re a Republican. Conversely, the less religious you say you are, the more likely you are to mark yourself down as a Democrat.

Why do religious observance and conviction now lean toward the Republican Party, while nonobservance and nonbelief tilt hard toward the Democratic side? Putnam and Campbell’s data show that religiosity is not correlated to positions on foreign and immigration policy. The correlation is modest when it comes to the classic conservative concern about the role and size of government. But when it comes to religiosity and abortion, and religiosity and same-sex marriage, the correlations are strong. Religious? You’re very likely to be against both. Nonreligious? You tend to be okay with both.

The authors never push much beyond survey results with respect to the hot-button issues of abortion and gay marriage, which is a shame. They do, however, gesture toward Stephen Mockabee’s notion that the culture wars in America are a function of two very different sensibilities, one of which emphasizes authority and obedience, and the other of which prizes independence and self-reliance. There’s something to this distinction, and it can help us understand our current cultural and political divide.

On the one hand, we see an ideal of human flourishing as individual independence and self-determination, even to the point of clashing with and overturning traditional social attitudes and institutions that invariably limit personal freedom. It’s a venerable American view, going back to Emerson and Whitman.

On the other hand, we see a very different and older ideal of human flourishing, one that emphasizes discipline. As Aristotle recognized, strength of character is akin to strength of muscles: It results from rigorous and sustained training by a good coach. Left to our own devices, we get morally flabby. Therefore, we need to be morally trained toward an adult sense of responsibility, both to take adequate care of ourselves and to recognize our duties toward others. This insight leads to a much more favorable view of the limiting, disciplining structures of authority.

It’s not hard to see why religiosity tends to make us sympathetic to something like Aristotle’s view. After all, religious people (whether Christians, Muslims, or Jews) recognize that we fail and need guidance, and we believe that God provides a reliable and authoritative pedagogy for the soul, a pedagogy that will (at least partially) deliver us from our destructive self-love.

That’s not the same, of course, as believing that the social norms of middle-class America”or, for that matter, those of any other nation or culture”are divine or even correct. The prophetic strands in the Bible provide clear witness against easy conformity to the status quo, which is why the Emersonian impulse to achieve independence from dominant ways of thinking has a legitimate role to play.

But the basic religious disposition”grateful reception of God’s commandments”remains. It’s a view of life that makes religious people sympathetic to the idea that there ought to be authoritative norms. In this view, efforts to promote personal freedom must always serve a higher loyalty rather than simply clear away obstacles to self-expression. This inclines the religious person to identify with the party of established mores, which today means the Republican Party.

Whatever one’s voting habits, the sentiment of piety encourages grateful reception of divine authority rather than a self-reliant reinvention of self and society. Not only does an affirmation of moral and religious authority give us the hope of something greater for ourselves (after all, self-command never gets you beyond yourself), it also creates the conditions for a culture of responsibility and a sentiment of solidarity based on concern for the well-being of others. In short, a disposition that affirms the abiding authority of moral norms tends to build social capital.

That’s pretty much Putnam and Campbell’s conclusion about what religion contributes to public life, although they don’t say it in so many words. The most controversial part of American Grace can be found in their conclusion that, by and large, faith makes people better citizens: more generous, more civically engaged, and more trusting of others.

And not just a little better. In their survey, Putnam and Campbell asked people whether they agreed with the following statement: “These days people need to look after themselves and not overly worry about others.” Sadly, 48 percent of secular people agreed. By contrast, only 26 percent of people with a high degree of religious conviction agreed. Recognizing our common needs and dependence: It’s hard to imagine a sentiment more necessary for a healthy society.

Unfortunately, Putnam and Campbell mishandle the civic virtue of tolerance. They fail to recognize that a limitless tolerance encourages ideas and activities that destroy social capital. After all, the do-and-say-and-be-anything-you-want mentality, which often hides behind the rhetoric of tolerance, encourages us to think of ourselves as the defining center of our experience.

Traditional forms of moral authority can be co-opted by worldly powers, often with the acquiescence of the religious themselves. Religious and moral principles can be perverted and misused. Yet a social vision with a robust view of moral authority has intrinsic strengths. An ethic of independence and self-reliance seeks to empower the individual to make of the world what he wants and desires; this all too easily encourages each individual to imagine, “It’s all about me.” Obedience to moral and religious truth engenders an attitude that repairs rather than undermines social solidarity: “We are meant to serve.”

A disposition to serve the needs of others can have secular sources. Modern liberalism gives a very important role to the sovereign authority of justice, for example, and this has motivated many to transcend their self-interest. But surely religious practices are peerless in this regard. The very act of worship is organized around the truth that “it’s not all about me” and so contributes, in a particularly powerful way, to an enduring form of social capital that society needs: a culture of solidarity and responsibility.

R.R. Reno is a senior editor at First Things and author of Fighting the Noonday Devil: And Other Essays Personal and Theological (Eerdmans).