Monday, November 22, 2010

A Book Review: American Grace

American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us
Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell
Simon & Schuster: New York
c. 2010, 688pp. US$30.
ISBN: 10: 1416566716

In this exhaustive study of religious beliefs and practices in the United States, Professors Robert D. Putnam (of Harvard) and David E. Campbell (of Notre Dame) have provided a convincing aerial overview one of the most vital, dynamic, and fluid components of contemporary culture. Based upon a two-step, comprehensive interview survey (Faith Matters 2006, 2007) involving the participation of more than 3,000 subjects nationally, this comprehensive survey presents a series of findings that both affirm the importance of organized religion and at the same time call attention to important tensions (‘shocks’ and ‘aftershocks) that challenge its traditional role. Religious pluralism in America, they conclude, is thriving, yet shares a remarkable coexistence with polarization.

The authors concur that, unique among citizens of post-industrial societies in the world, Americans are an especially religious and religiously observant people—with more than 83% reporting that they belong to a specific religion, 59% reporting that they pray at least once a week, 40% reporting attendance at weekly services, , and nearly one-third responding that they read scripture once a week. This surprising depth, breadth, and resilience of American religious beliefs and practices, the authors attribute in part to the unique nature of United States society. The absence of a religious monopoly combined with an atmosphere of religious liberty has enabled faith involvement to flourish for more than two centuries.

At the same time that the authors point up to both the vibrant diversity and relative tolerance of contemporary American society with regard to religion, they also note three specific “societal shocks” that have generated current tensions and the emergence of a “fault line” separating evangelical Christians from others . The first, they maintain, was the period of “the sexually libertine 1960s,” which subsequently produced “a prudish aftershock of growth in conservative religion, especially evangelicalism, and an even more pronounced cultural presence for evangelicals, most noticeably in the political arena.” They assert that this evangelical revival emerged in the 1970s and began to recede by the early 1990s— sparked more by personal moral concerns rather than hot-button political issues: “Abortion and same-sex marriage are the glue holding the coalition of the religious together.”

The second aftershock from the Long Sixties—one which they assert is still reverberating—is that “a growing number of young people have come to disavow religion. “The politicization of religion has triggered a negative reaction among osme, mostly young, Americans… they perceive it as an extension of partisan politics with which they do not agree.” America is still a relatively religious country, but one with a growing “swath” of secularism, with approximately 15% of their respondents reporting no religious affiliation whatsoever.

Paradoxically, Putnam and Campbell maintain, that both religious pluralism and religious polarization somehow manage to coexist within American society. This, they explain, “lies in the face that, in America, religion is highly fluid…. Religions compete, adapt, and evolve as individual Americans freely move from one congregation to another, and even from one religion to another.” One third to one-half of all marriages, they maintain, are interfaith. Roughly one-third of Americans have changed religious affiliation during their lifetime. When it comes to religious identity and affiliation, they maintain, brand loyalty in terms of denominational identity is weak and traffic moves freely in and out of specific groups and communities. The consequent churn may cause people to realign into specific, like-minded clusters—but not necessarily bunkers—of coreligionists. On a grassroots level, they cite the Aunt Susan principle: we all have an Aunt Susan in our lives: “the sort of person who epitomizes what it means to be a saint, but whose religious background is different from our own.”

In terms of their consideration of the state of the Catholic Church in US society, the authors point to the maintenance of a steady, consistent bloc of about 25% of all Americans who identify themselves as Catholics—a proportion which has remained relatively unchanged over decades. At the same time, they are quick to note that this proportion has been maintained largely through immigration of Latinos. In contrast, “Anglo Catholics” have been leaving the Church in droves: “In terms of people in pews, the Catholic Church has lost roughly one-quarter of its strength over the last thirty-five years.” Elsewhere, their assessment is even more blunt: “…roughly 60 percent of all Americans today who were reared as Catholics are no longer practicing Catholics, half of them having left the church entirely…” This assessment is not news to anyone who has been following the institutional Church since Vatican II, but it is nevertheless disconcerting for this observant Catholic to see it verified so baldly.

Putnam and Campbell have established in an empirical way what historians and other cultural observers have already noted over time about the vitality and resilience of religious beliefs, values, and practices in American life. In this seminal work, they have effectively described the environment and named the issues at play in our own era.//

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