FAITH WITHOUT FANATICISM
A Review of Robert D. Putnam and David Campbell's
American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us
"King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women besides Pharaoh's daughter.... As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been." (1 Kings 11: 1, 4)
Relationships matter, for they shape our loves and our loves direct our lives.
This is the primary conclusion of Harvard professor Robert D. Putnam in his massive study (550 pages) of American religion, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. Every several years there is a must read book about the state of American religion. James Davison Hunter's To Change the World and Robert Putnam's American Grace are two that fit this description.
Scholarship is sometimes viewed as thinly veiled
biography. Putnam and his co-writer David Campbell's life stories reflect many
of the book's conclusions. Putnam was raised in an observant Methodist home,
but later converted to Judaism at marriage. His children were raised as Jews.
Putnam is best known for his book on social trust, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community
American Grace is largely a
statistical study of the changes in American religion over the past fifty
years. Illustrating the points being made analytically through survey research
are descriptive congregational vignettes. For a study of its kind, the book is
extremely readable, filled with interesting nuggets and factoids, and sweeping
in its scope and conclusions. Its focus is predominately
Putnam finds little decline in levels of American religiosity. "In terms of private religious behavior one finds virtually the same rock-steady levels of religiosity" (71). Unlike Hunter, he uses aggregate individual statistics and does not discuss the institutional social location or cultural capital these religious beliefs or believers have in public life. Hunter might retort that even if individual religious fervor is high, its social location has radically shifted from the past as religion today is being treated as a kind of personal hobby.
Putnam uses a seismic metaphor to frame his analysis: an earthquake with two major aftershocks. The earthquake was the Sixties. "The Sixties represented a perfect storm for American institutions of all sorts -- political, social, sexual, and religious" (91).
The first aftershock began in the 1980s with an upturn in religiosity characterized by the alignment of religiosity and conservative politics. To Putnam, the rise of the Religious Right was a cultural aftershock stemming from the upheaval of the Sixties.
This in turn was met with another aftershock beginning in the 1990s and 2000s where young Americans became disaffected from religion because of its political orientation. This reaction is clearly described in David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons' Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity. "Young Americans," reports Putnam, "came to view religion as judgmental, homophobic, hypocritical, and too political" (121). The consequence of this second aftershock is a large disaffection of young Americans from religion. Today 20 to 30% of post-boomers identify themselves as religious nones (123). The distinguishing characteristic of these new nones among the millennials after 1991 is their stance on homosexuality.
This is the big picture framework of the analysis: an earthquake with two aftershocks. This recent alignment between religion and partisan politics is historically unique, though it is an experience that has characterized the entire lives of post-boomer youths. "Religiosity has partisan overtones now that it did not have in the past. While there are exceptions, the most highly religious Americans are likely to be Republicans; Democrats predominate among those who are least religious" (369). Saying grace at meals corresponds highly to partisanship, he finds. "The creation of a new coalition of the religious represents a major change in the foundation of the American political system," and the God gap is widest for those under the age of 35 (377).
Religiously fueled partisanship is historically
a dangerous mixture. Sociologist James Davison Hunter suggests that culture
wars can become much more volatile in his
Before the Shooting Begins (1994).
However, there is an even more pervasive reason
Putnam believes partisanship will decline and that is due to the everyday lived
experience of pluralism. The high degree of intermarriage, consumer attitudes
toward religious choosing, the growing religious diversity of one's immediate
social networks have tended to mute religious conflict in
These finding may be a comfort to Harvard public
policy professionals, but they are hardly a comfort for orthodox believers. It
is an indictment more than an encouragement to the church. American
Christianity has never been very belief oriented. In general, theological
rigor, comprehension, and concern for it have declined since the early 19th
century. Religious conviction has become a consumer choice riddled with
expressive individualism and couched as therapeutic self-help -- the
In large measure, the evangelical church has
served as an accelerant to these tendencies. "The
Another sobering finding is that while high-octane rhetoric has been devoted to the issue of same-sex marriage, an issue relevant to only a small faction of the U.S. population (the CDC reports about 2-3%, while researchers at the University of California put the number of homosexuals in America as low as 1.7%), meanwhile huge shifts have taken place on attitudes toward sex before marriage -- what the Bible calls fornication. "The best evidence is that the fraction of all Americans believing that premarital sex was 'not wrong' doubled from 24% to 47% in the four years between 1969 and 1973 and then drifted upward through the 1970s to 62% in 1982" (92). Today attitudes toward sexuality are the best indicator of church attendance. It appears that many in the church have taken their eye off a far more pervasive problem among a far larger number of Americans.
So Putnam's cheery "faith without
fanaticism" may play well in
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Used here by permission of Dr. John Seel.
Seel is a cultural renewal entrepreneur investing in people and projects that
foster human flourishing and the common good. Dr. Seel interest in culture
began as the son of medical missionaries in
John is also the
president of nCore Media, a high tech start-up that provides supercomputing
solutions to the entertainment industry for special effects and CGI rendering (www.ncoremedia.com). nCore Media is based in
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