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American Grace

Written by Rob Deltete
January 10, 2012

The man The Sunday Times of London has called "the most influential academic in the world" visits Seattle University next week to deliver the Catholic Heritage Lecture (7 p.m., Tuesday, Jan. 17, Campion Ballroom.)  

Robert Putnam, Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University and visiting professor at the University of Manchester (UK), rose to prominence in the 1990s with Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital. Putnam will discuss his latest book, American Grace: How Religion Unites and Divides Us, which he coauthored with David Campbell.

The topic fits perfectly with the theme of this year’s lecture series, “Religion in Secular America.”

Vice President for Mission and Ministry Peter Ely, S.J., says Putnam’s SU lecture “promises to be eye-opening for anyone interested in religion in America. And, of course, it follows the excellent first lecture of this year's series by Patricia O'Connell Killen on religion in the Northwest.”

Father Ely sees a common strand in Putnam’s writing: “The theme that unites so many of his works is the functioning of democracy and especially how democracy allows diverse cultural and religious forces to come together in a productive way.”

 In a special contribution to The Commons, Professor of Philosophy Rob Deltete has written the following review of Putnam’s latest book.

 Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (Simon & Schuster: New York, 2010).

American Grace (AG) is a fascinating study of religion in America today. It’s a fat, intimidating book–550 pages of text and almost 100 pages of notes and references–but a remarkably enjoyable read for those of us who usually expect turgid prose from academic writers in the social sciences. The authors, Robert Putnam, Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard, and David Campbell, who holds a prestigious endowed chair in political science at Notre Dame, write in a graceful, engaging style with enough graphs and charts to help make their points, sometimes dramatically (4.2, 4.10 & 4.12 on 101, 122, & 124, for example), but mercifully put much of the statistical data from their six-year study in notes and appendices. The dust-jacket blurbs, by a variety of notables, are uniformly effusive: One says that AG is “the best overview of American religion in the last half century that I have ever read.” Another says, simply, that it’s “an instant canonical text..., [which is] indispensable for any grasp of our pluralistic religious culture.”

Is AG  really that good?  Putnam and Campbell (P&C) defend large theses, most of which are sociological. Putnam is widely acclaimed in academic circles as its most astute commentator on American civic life for, among other works, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), and Campbell is his heir apparent.  But I am not a sociologist—much less a sociologist of American religion–and so don’t know how original or compelling their theses are. I will therefore largely confine myself to describing two of them in my review.

One of the main theses of P&C is that the religious landscape in the U.S. has changed considerably in the last 50 years, and that the change has not been linear and continuous. In the1950s, religious observance surged as Americans sought to project an image of America as a “God-fearing” nation, this in opposition to the godlessness of Soviet Russia (82-90). It may come as a surprise to some readers of AG that only then was the Pledge of Allegiance modified to include the words “one nation under God” and our currency modified to include the words “in God we trust” (1).

But then what happened was what the authors call “a shock and two aftershocks” (3, 80-82, 91).  The shock occurred in the ‘60s when religious observance plummeted, owing, conservatives allege, to a newly permissive attitude toward sex, drugs, and “alternative” life styles that were alternatives to religious affiliation (92, 97). All religious denominations suffered from the resulting re-orientations, especially among the young, in the late ’60s and early ’70s; but evangelicals managed to rebound with their triumphant call to “re-Christianize” America by recovering its Christian roots (100-103). Here one thinks of the ministries of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. But the first aftershock, in the ’70s and ’80s, also gave rise to the Religious Right, composed mainly of evangelicals with very conservative political agendas. This conservative religious/political crusade flourished for a time in the ’80s; but it did not sit well with a lot of Americans, especially younger ones, many of whom said that “if being religious is a matter of embracing a conservative political ideology, then I don’t want anything to do with religion” (3, 120-121).

The result was a second aftershock: the large-scale rejection of any form of religious affiliation in the 1990s to 2000s by a quarter to a third of American youth. As religious liberals are fond of saying, the Religious Right was not good for religion in America. What happened was a polarization between intensely religious people on one side of the religious divide, and avowedly secular folks on the other, with mainstream moderates in the decline and, for the first time, in the minority (105-106, 132, 548).

A second main thesis of P&C seems to be at odds with the first—that America is unique among nations in being at once deeply religious, religiously diverse and also remarkably tolerant. How can that be if their conclusion about religious polarization in America is also correct? How can it be that America peacefully combines a high degree of religious devotion with tremendous religious diversity—including growing ranks of the non-religious? Why do Americans have a high degree of tolerance for those of (most) other religions, including those without any religion in their lives? How can religious pluralism coexist with religious polarization? (4). Put bluntly: If we are now as polarized as P&C allege, why are we also (largely) so tolerant, which they also allege?

The authors’ answers to these questions come mainly in the last chapter to AG, where they try to explain “how the United States can combine religious diversity, religious commitment, and religious tolerance, especially in a period of religious polarization,” since they admit that this is a real puzzle (35). “How has America solved the puzzle of religious pluralism—the coexistence of religious diversity and devotion? And how has it done so in the wake of growing religious polarization?” they ask. Our ability to do this, P&C say in the last line of AG, is “America’s grace” (550, one of only two references in the entire book to its title).

In the interest of brevity, and given my own meager knowledge of the subject, I won’t try to assess P&Cs factual assertions about the coexistence in America of diversity, tolerance and polarization in matters religious. Let’s assume that they are right. What is the reason for this peaceful coexistence? P&C’s answer is sociological, or, more properly, socio-psychological: We have affectionate feelings toward people that we know and like, even if they don’t share our religious views, and this affection “spills over” favorably to our way of thinking about their religious beliefs. The basic idea here is that we don’t usually spend a lot of time thinking about the details of what the people we associate with believe. It’s not doctrine that matters; it’s whether we feel comfortably connected to them.

There is a certainly something to be said in favor of this explanation of religious tolerance—the authors call it “bridging” (526-534, 547-548)—since the connection can take different forms.  P&C even elevate a couple of them into “principles,” which they call the “Aunt Susan Principle” (526-27, 531, 548) and the “My Friend Al Principle” (531-532). Aunt Susan (not her real name) and I are of very different minds religiously. I’m Catholic and she’s Dutch Reformed, and, among other things, she disagrees entirely with my interpretation of the celebration of the Eucharist. (Bluntly, she thinks that Catholics are cannibals, and she’s told me that.) But Aunt Susan is adorable, absolutely adorable, such a wonderful person in so many ways that if anyone’s going to heaven she is. My friend Al (also not his real name) doesn’t have any religious beliefs—or at least he says that he doesn’t. In fact, he says (maybe to get my goat) that religion is superstitious nonsense. But I really like Al, since he’s my favorite rock-climbing bud and because he does a lot to encourage inner-city kids to take up the sport. How can I believe that he’s damned because he doesn’t embrace Christ as his personal Savior?

P&C’s explanation for American religious tolerance is, therefore, pretty common-sensical, if perhaps too simplistic: We are usually willing to accept (or at least tolerate) the religious views of people who we know and like. The authors admit that not all Americans are so bighearted; there is a sizable number—about 10 percent, mostly evangelicals—that is intolerant because they think that they, and only they, possess the truth (542-547). But P&C conclude that “‘Faith without fanaticism’ accurately describes most Americans” (547).

Without seeking to assess that claim, which I am not competent to do, I instead ask, “Where are Catholics in this mix?” P&C write that the single largest religious denomination in the U.S. is the Roman Catholic Church, with Catholics comprising about a quarter of the religious population, a proportion that remained pretty much steady for decades. But they also think that this steady share obscures a dramatic change within American Catholicism. Over the last few decades, a large number of “Anglo”—i.e., non-Latino–Catholics have been dropping out of or disengaging with the Catholic Church, without being replaced by other Anglo converts. During the same period, however, the number of Latino Catholics has grown enormously, so much so, in fact, that P&C think that the American Catholic Church is on its way to becoming a majority-Latino institution, with “white ethnic Catholics having rushed out of one door...[to be] replaced by Latinos rushing though the other door” (296-306; quotation from 301). A really dramatic chart (9.19, 300) has roughly six of 10 young (18-34 year-old) American Catholics as Latinos.

If that’s true, what’s happened? Surprisingly, P&C don’t attempt any answer, even though some of the data they provide suggests one. It is that Latinos, even younger ones, tend to be a lot more conservative on red-button issues in the U.S. like birth control, abortion and same-sex marriage than do Anglos. More generally, they tend to be more orthodox: they express more confidence in the leadership of the Catholic Church in these matters than do Anglos and a much greater willingness to embrace the view that to be a good Catholic one must agree with the Pope (300-302). Why aren’t young Anglos more compliant? My answer is very tentative and based on my own experience. 

First, my students, most of whom are Anglos, think that the Catholic Church is “obsessed with sexuality” (as one of them put it): contraception, pre-marital sex, masturbation, abortion and same-sex marriage. Second, many of them also think that the Church is, at the same time, hugely hypocritical in ignoring and covering up (even if not condoning) sexual abuse among clergy. In a version of the negative reaction of many young people to the union of evangelical religion and right-wing politics, they say: “If this is what Catholicism is about, I don’t want anything to do with it.” But, third, many Anglos, unlike most Latinos, don’t see anything more in the Church. In particular, they don’t understand (often aren’t even acquainted with) the profound role that the Catholic Church has played, and continues to play, in trying to address issues of poverty and social justice. Latinos are and do: Think of Oscar Romero and the Salvadoran martyrs. To get more young American Anglos attracted to what the Church stands for, and what it has to offer, I think it has to get beyond, in much of the younger mind, just a bunch of repressive sexual “Thou shall nots.” 

AG is a multifaceted work. The topics covered range from the dynamics of conversion to the role in religion of gender, ethnicity and class, to the question of how civically engaged believers of different faiths are. There is something of interest—maybe even surprise—in every chapter.  Some examples: 

  • Americans have, on the average, at least two friends who don’t share their faith and at least one extended family member who doesn’t either [522-523; a nice example (36) is the families of P&C].
  • Between one-third and one-half of all American marriages are interfaith (148-159)
  • Roughly one-third of Americans have switched religions at some point in their lives (137-140, 519-526).
  • Young Americans today are more opposed to abortion than their parents, but more accepting of gay marriage (131-132, 402-406).
  • Even fervently religious Americans (most of them, at least) believe that people of other faiths (even non-Christian ones) can go to heaven, notwithstanding the New Testament’s repeated assertions that Christ is the only path to the Kingdom of God.
  • Religious Americans are better neighbors than secular Americans—more generous in their time and monies, even for secular causes, but the explanation has less to do with doctrinal commitments than with personal and communal attachments (444-458, 471-479).
  • And (perhaps most surprisingly) Jews are the most favorably regarded religious group in the U.S. today (550).

A&C don’t explain the last finding, but it likely has to with their claim that Americans are more likely to know, and like, someone who is Jewish than someone who is Buddhist, Muslim or a Mormon. That’s a factual claim that I am in no position to evaluate; but it does seem intuitively plausible to me to think that getting to know people of alien faiths (or of no faith) tends to humanize the aliens, even if—as it also seems to me—P&C go overboard in trying to quantify things by, apparently, thinking that my gaining an evangelical friend leads to a “7 degree” warmer assessment of evangelicals on my “feeling thermometer” (529)! The idea here, as I understand it, is that we all have “feeling thermometers,” that they register more positively in favor of people we like, because they are close relations or because they share common interests or causes, and that this warm “feeling” spreads over to “bridge” doctrinal religious gaps.

But such warm feelings have not spread (and won’t spread?) to folks with whom we are not acquainted and with whom we therefore do not have any connected relationships. Hence, a recipe for being viewed coolly is to be a religious group that is both small and geographically concentrated; that way, most Americans won’t have a chance to meet anyone in your group. This seems to be the authors’ main explanation for why Buddhists, Mormons, and, especially, Muslims usually get low comfort (thermometer) readings. That seems to me to be too facile an interpretation, especially for Muslims, since there is obviously a lot more going on here (think of Osama bin Laden, e.g.). But people in America often do view fellow Americans with whom they are unacquainted, not only as strangers, but also as religious threats, and do, as a result, have strongly negative feelings toward them.

Despite some reservations, there is much that I like in AG. Is there something special about it?  There is. It’s the vignettes, the “views from the pews” (33), in chapters 2, 7 and 10. Even if you are not all that interested in the historical and sociological course that P&C take, these “snapshots” of current American religious practice are worth the read. The chapter 2 vignettes describe three (very different) Boston-area Episcopal parishes (37-54), and then take readers for an eye-opening tour of Rick Warren’s Saddleback megachurch in Southern California—a tour  that helps to explain the enormous power of state-of-the-art techno-sophisticated evangelism (54-69). The vignettes in chapter 7 describe a very conservative Lutheran church in Houston, where traditional gender roles are rigorously enforced (180-195), a prominent all-black African Methodist Episcopal church just outside of Baltimore (195-211) and a group of Catholic parishes in Chicago, where Latinos have a large presence (211-230). Finally, the vignettes in chapter 10 describe the relation between religion and politics in three very different congregations: a conservative evangelical megachurch in Minneapolis, the largest church in Minnesota (320-334), a synagogue in suburban Chicago (334-351) and a Mormon ward (congregation) in suburban Salt Lake City (351-368).

There are interesting—and often surprising—things to learn from each of these vignettes. For example, I was astonished to learn that Saddleback has more than 100,000 names on its membership rolls and an average weekend attendance of 22,000 (56)! And I was pleased to learn that while there has, in fact, been some “white flight” from Catholic parishes in Chicago, there has also been a concerted effort, on the part of both “Anglos” and “Latinos,” to work together to build multi-lingual ones. Difficult, to be sure. But that, just as surely, is “American grace” at work.

Rob Deltete is professor of philosophy in the College of Arts and Sciences and is a frequent contributor to The Commons.