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American Grace

Will religion push us closer – or pull us apart?

By Chuck Leddy / November 15, 2010

American Grace By Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell Simon & Schuster 416 pp., $30

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In his bestselling “Bowling Alone,” Harvard professor Robert Putnam explored social isolation in the United States. Putnam’s new book (with coauthor David Campbell), American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, is a treasure-trove of data about religious practice in the US, most of it derived from the massive Faith Matters surveys that Putnam himself helped organize.

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Over the past 50 years, the authors say, the US has seen an increasing political polarization of the religious and the nonreligious, particularly when it comes to abortion and homosexuality: “Sixty-five percent of the least religious Americans believe in a woman’s unfettered right to choose when it comes to abortion, a position held by only thirteen percent of the most religious ... [and] [n]early nine out of ten highly religious people say that homosexual activity is always wrong, in contrast with two out of ten secular Americans.”

The authors trace these strong political divisions to two major historical moments, first a conservative/religious backlash to the counterculture of the 1960s and, second, an antireligious/secular backlash to the growing political involvement of religion in the 1980s. “Liberal sexual morality [of the 1960s] provoked some Americans to assert conservative religious beliefs and affiliations,” the authors explain, “and then conservative sexual morality [in the 1980s] provoked other Americans to assert secular beliefs and affiliations.” As highly political religious groups like the Moral Majority gained electoral influence, more Americans (especially younger ones) “came to view religion ... as judgmental, homophobic, hypocritical, and too political.”

There actually is a “God gap” in present-day American politics, the authors agree: “The Republicans have forged a coalition of the religious ... [and] issues like abortion and same-sex marriage have brought this religious-political coalition together.” But things may be changing. They point to newer trends that show a greater acceptance of diversity. Both religious and secular Americans increasingly accept racial and gender equality, the data show. Moreover, “more Democratic candidates have begun using religious rhetoric and symbolism to neutralize the Republican advantage among churchgoers.”

In addition to presenting massive amounts of data in the form of charts, graphs, and tables, the authors visit several congregations to see how American religion works at the ground level. For example, at the Rev. Rick Warren’s massive Saddleback Church (in Republican-dominated Orange County, Calif.), they see a megachurch thriving by offering retail religion, featuring huge video screens, baby-sitting service, user-friendly sermons on time management, and even “a miniature Golgotha atop a grassy hill, and a stream outfitted with a remote-controlled demonstration of the parting of the Red Sea.”

Much of the book’s data is simply fascinating. In the Roman Catholic Church, for example, Anglo Catholics are leaving but Latin Catholics are flooding in, pushing the church in a more socially conservative direction. The data also shows that religious people are generally more civic-minded than nonreligious people, and also more satisfied with their lives.

The book ends on an optimistic note. Religion is becoming more tolerant, the authors claim, because of American patterns of intermarrying, changing faiths and congregations, and participating in inter-religious interactions. The “mixing, mingling, and marrying” among differing religious Americans “have kept America’s religious melting pot from boiling over,” they write.

Only time will tell whether the hardening trends or the softening trends – both of which the authors document and expertly interpret – will prevail, but there’s little doubt that religion will continue to play a huge role in American politics.

Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer and member of the National Book Critics Circle.

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