A review of American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell

Robert Putnam, author of the widely discussed Bowling Alone (2000), and David Campbell, a Notre Dame political scientist, have teamed up to write a sweeping, impressive analysis of religious change in the United States since World War II. Among other topics, American Grace covers the growth of religious polarization; the influence of religion on gender, race, and class relations; the politics of congregational life; the effects of inter-faith marriage and friendships on religious faith; the influence of religion on charity and political tolerance; and the effects of secularization. This wide assortment is united, however, by a common interest. Putnam and Campbell wonder what holds us together as a nation in spite of the fact that America is both more devout and more religiously diverse than other modern democracies.

Part of the answer is that most congregations tend to deemphasize politics. This is even true in evangelical churches, where Putnam and Campbell describe politics as "a sideshow" rather than "the main attraction." Only 24% of evangelicals report that their churches register voters or distribute voter guides, and fewer than a third say they hear sermons on political topics as often as once a month. Even members of relatively politicized liberal congregations, such as Reform synagogues and black churches, do not report hearing much about politics on the Sabbath. Fewer than half of African-Americans, for example, say they hear a "politically tinged" sermon at least once a month. This does not mean congregations tend to be apolitical, as Putnam and Campbell are careful to stress. Most congregations, for instance, are politically homogeneous places that reaffirm common political beliefs and commitments through informal social networks. Clearly, however, most Christians are not drawn to a political gospel.

Putnam and Campbell's findings also remind us that the link between politics and religion would be far stronger if liberal believers and congregations were more numerous. In fact, only 2% of Americans both identify themselves as political liberals and attend a politically active congregation. The Christian Right is far more influential not because it is powered by an unusually politicized gospel, but because the vast majority of churchgoers are conservative. Perhaps Americans United for the Separation of Church and State should take some comfort from the weakness of the religious Left.

Though few Americans are pressed into partisan conflict in the course of worship, they are encouraged to share their time and money with others. Putnam and Campbell conclude that "religious Americans are, in fact, more generous neighbors and more conscientious citizens than their secular counterparts." Religious citizens, for example, are more than twice as likely to volunteer to help the needy than secular Americans, even after controlling for such predictors of charity as education and income. Their annual giving to charitable causes is also "vastly larger," according to Putnam and Campbell. When charitable giving is measured as a fraction of annual income, "the average person in the most religious fifth of Americans is more than four times as generous as his or her counterpart in the least religious fifth." Religious citizens give more than secular Americans to nearly every kind of charity, but are especially generous to organizations serving people who are poor, young, or both.

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These findings add weight to a growing literature showing a strong link between religiosity and charity. Putnam and Campbell, however, push further than any prior study by identifying the causes of the charity divide. It is not fear of hellfire or a desire for eternal bliss that inspires believers to give their time and treasure. Nor do particular theological beliefs have any independent effect on giving or volunteerism.

Instead, religious believers tend to possess greater empathy than secular Americans, which is a powerful predictor of charity. They are far less likely, for instance, to agree with the statement, "These days people need to look after themselves and not overly worry about others." This empathy is cultivated in religious social networks: Putnam and Campbell find that having close friends in one's congregation is the most powerful predictor of personal charity.

What differentiates those believers whose lives become woven into religious social networks? It's not age, sex, income, or education. Rather, they are more likely to possess "fundamentalist religious convictions" and less likely to develop deep friendships with citizens outside their faith. This does not mean that citizens with close religious friends are bunkered fundamentalists, since their wider circle of friends is usually marked by religious diversity. But the most charitable Americans do tend to place faith communities at the center of their lives and identities. Thus, theology does seem more significant than Putnam and Campbell allow even though it doesn't have a direct effect on charity. It is evangelical and theologically conservative churches, after all, which are so good at cultivating tightly knit religious communities through Bible studies and small groups.

Such communities might pose a threat to national harmony and personal freedom if they were not, as the authors discover, so tolerant of other religions. The source of that tolerance is that even the most devout Americans tend to be connected to family members and friends who do not share their faith. "[R]ather than cocooning into isolated religious communities," write Putnam and Campbell, "Americans have become increasingly likely to work with, live alongside, and marry people of other religions." Because it is "difficult to damn those you know and love," the vast majority of Americans now believe that Heaven is a rather inclusive paradise. 89% of Americans think people of other faiths can go to Heaven. Even 83% of evangelicals think so, though only a slight majority says that non-Christians can go to Heaven. Most modern American Christians, then, do not really believe that Jesus is "the way, the truth, and the life" or that "no man cometh unto the Father, but by me." Though this development may bode ill for the future of Christianity, it's good for inter-faith harmony. As Putnam and Campbell conclude, "Devotion plus diversity, minus damnation, equals comity."

Yet, as these data suggest, perhaps there is so much inter-faith tolerance precisely because most Americans' religious metaphysics are all, basically, the same. They believe in a common God who works through different faiths and rewards the just. It is this common faith that explains why a majority of Americans don't really care if their children marry outside their faith. After all, more or less all paths lead to Heaven and righteousness. Most religious Americans tolerate other faiths, therefore, because there is very little to tolerate—they are devoted to the same religion. Red Sox and Yankees fans should be so compatible.

About a tenth of Americans, on the other hand, do believe their faith is the one true religion. They really care if their faith is passed on to their grandchildren and seek moral guidance from church teachings rather than their personal conscience. These "true believers" are somewhat less tolerant, moderately less enthusiastic about religious diversity, and about twice as likely to want to keep offensive books out of local public libraries. In fact, religiosity in general reduces tolerance for unpopular groups, such as racists and Communists.

Putnam and Campbell believe that America combines religious tolerance and pluralism because there are so few true believers and so many intertwined citizens of distinct but not opposed faiths. "This is America's grace," they conclude. America would almost certainly suffer from greater religious conflict if there were more true believers pushing mutually exclusive claims about ultimate truths. But this counterfactual suggests an alternative reading of their evidence: perhaps American tolerance does not overcome religious diversity, but reflects an underlying religious unity. If our metaphysical differences ran deeper, practicing tolerance would be both more important and more difficult.

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Though there is little danger of significant theological discord over the fate of our souls in the hereafter, Putnam and Campbell emphasize that two issues—gay marriage and abortion—continue to drive a wedge between religious and secular voters in the here-and-now. Yet even these issues seem likely to be less polarizing over time. Today's religious youth, for example, are more accepting of homosexuality than their parents are, while today's secular youth are more supportive of abortion restrictions than are their parents. Putnam and Campbell speculate that "religiosity could cease to be a source of political division" if such trends continue.

In fact, the authors seem so comforted by America's cultural and political harmony that they even express a desire for more faith-based agitation. They especially lament the unwillingness of Christians to stem the tide of growing class inequality by calling for more income redistribution. "The failure of American religion (and especially evangelicals) to mount a more vigorous campaign against class disparities," Putnam and Campbell conclude, "could be seen as a sin of omission." It is also an odd failure from Putnam and Campbell's perspective. Evangelical revivalism, after all, has always been coupled with a fervent egalitarian impulse.

This is about as close as American Grace comes to any kind of polemic—and it's unpersuasive. Like so many scholars who write about abortion politics, Putnam and Campbell fail to see the deep egalitarian impulses at work in the pro-life movement. They believe that evangelicals and Catholics are preoccupied with abortion because it is a "potent symbol for a morally traditionalist worldview," not because it has something to do with justice, equality, human rights, or anything as tangible as dead human beings.

Their own findings cast doubt on this conclusion, however. The most religious Americans have remained staunchly pro-life even though they are no longer gender traditionalists. Religious women, for instance, enter the workforce at the same rate as secular women. Attitudes have changed dramatically, too. As Putnam and Campbell conclude: "American religion adapted to the revolutionary change in gender relations with surprisingly little dissent." Meanwhile, today's youth are less pro-choice than their parents even though they are overwhelmingly secular and liberal on social questions. This shows that opposition to abortion is increasingly disconnected from any kind of traditionalist worldview. Whatever one might think of abortion ethics, it's not some crabbed moral traditionalism that drives pro-life sentiment.

Evangelical revivalism did in fact inspire a passion for equality—specifically, fetuses' equal right to life. The most dramatic manifestation of this passion was the rescue movement, which called on evangelicals to blockade abortion clinics. It was, by some standards, the largest campaign of civil disobedience in American history, resulting in some 33,000 arrests. Putnam and Campbell are, of course, entitled to wish such zeal could be channeled into different causes. But that wish amounts to substituting their own political preferences for other people's—rather than deriving from a rigorous sociological attempt to understand the modern evangelical movement as it understands itself. Whatever one's interpretive disagreements with the authors, American Grace is unquestionably an excellent, even groundbreaking, book—lucid, accessible, and analytically careful. It stands as the single most comprehensive account of American religion in the modern era. All those who study the subject are in the authors' debt.