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Book Review: American Grace by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell (Simon & Schuster)

Religion v. Science.  A Mormon Republican Nominee?  The Catholic Church and Contraception.  Such are the topics that continue to dominate the American headlines as the nation heads toward another presidential election where “so-called” values voters become the focus in hotly-contested Republican primary states.   A surface-level survey of American attitudes towards religious experience would have the casual onlooker think that America is deeply divided–both about the legitimacy of religion in the public square and whether to believe in God at all–to its social detriment.

Such is not the argument of political science scholars Putnam and Campbell, who recently authored American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (2010).  Composed of survey upon survey, not to mention countless visits to American religious communities, American Grace melds sound sociological empiricism with deeply personal anecdotes to articulate broad conclusions about the state of religious experience in the United States.

Putnam and Campbell conclude that religious experience and religiosity are alive and well in the United States, although the coming of age of the millennial generation presents a unique challenge to the maintenance of widespread religiosity across the nation.  Pages and pages of empirical studies based on recurring surveys demonstrate that America remains unique amongst other Western nations when it comes to how its citizens understand and practice religion.  Indeed, “Americans have high rates of religious belonging, behaving, and believing.”

The authors acknowledge that religious experience in America is deeply complicated: historical tradition, race, gender, generational differences, geography, and most importantly–personal relationships–impact the who, what, where, when, and why of religious experience.  Yes, pluralism pervades America.  But the potential for that pluralistic reality to develop into strife is tempered by friendships that implicitly recognize the value of religious diversity.  “Most Americans are intimately acquainted with people of other faiths.”  E pluribus unum is not a myth after all.

Putnam and Campbell’s research leads to some striking conclusions, all of which cannot fit into this space.  But I’ll mention a few to tickle your interest and entice you to pick up the book: (1) The current state of religious polarization is due to three “seismic societal shocks”: the earthquake of the liberation movement in the 1960s, “a prudish aftershock of growth in conservative religion” in the 1980s, and another aftershock characterized by the youngest generation’s association of political conservatism and religiosity, resulting in a disavowal of religion not seen before; (2) the modern assumption that members of religious communities are significantly “behind” the rest of Americans when it comes to civil rights issues is not accurate; (3) the composition of the Catholic Church is changing before our eyes with the rise of Latino Catholics, who are fervently replacing the void left by disenchanted Anglo-American Catholics; (4) the millennial generation is more likely to support same-sex marriage while being less comfortable with abortion than their parents; (5) generally speaking, religious individuals are more active citizens than their secular counterparts; and (6) inter-religious relationships and “civil religion” are the glue that prevents an otherwise pluralistic nation from significant–and to some degree expected–religious tension.  According to the authors, “America’s grace” is its “web of interlocking personal relationships among people of many different faiths.”

This is a classic work in the study of religion in America.  The authors are loyal to the empirical methods that drove their studies and are willing to communicate the good and the bad about American religion.  It is neither nostalgic nor hostile in its presentation and should be read by anyone seriously interested in the place of religion in the lives of American citizens.