Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Faith and Responsibility

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Faith and Responsibility

Article excerpt

Faith and Responsibility 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 JeIl-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 largescale "Faith Matters" survey, which provides both a broad and a finegrained 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. …

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