American Grace
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American Grace

How Religion Divides and Unites Us

Robert D. Putnam, David E. Campbell

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eBook - ePub

American Grace

How Religion Divides and Unites Us

Robert D. Putnam, David E. Campbell

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American Grace is a major achievement, a groundbreaking examination of religion in America. Unique among nations, America is deeply religious, religiously diverse, and remarkably tolerant. But in recent decades the nation's religious landscape has been reshaped. America has experienced three seismic shocks, say Robert Putnam and David Campbell. In the 1960s, religious observance plummeted. Then in the 1970s and 1980s, a conservative reaction produced the rise of evangelicalism and the Religious Right. Since the 1990s, however, young people, turned off by that linkage between faith and conservative politics, have abandoned organized religion. The result has been a growing polarization—the ranks of religious conservatives and secular liberals have swelled, leaving a dwindling group of religious moderates in between. At the same time, personal interfaith ties are strengthening. Interfaith marriage has increased while religious identities have become more fluid. Putnam and Campbell show how this denser web of personal ties brings surprising interfaith tolerance, notwithstanding the so-called culture wars. American Grace is based on two of the most comprehensive surveys ever conducted on religion and public life in America. It includes a dozen in-depth profiles of diverse congregations across the country, which illuminate how the trends described by Putnam and Campbell affect the lives of real Americans. Nearly every chapter of American Grace contains a surprise about American religious life. Among them: • Between one-third and one-half of all American marriages are interfaith; • Roughly one-third of Americans have switched religions at some point in their lives; • Young people are more opposed to abortion than their parents but more accepting of gay marriage; • Even fervently religious Americans believe that people of other faiths can go to heaven; • Religious Americans are better neighbors than secular Americans: more generous with their time and treasure even for secular causes—but the explanation has less to do with faith than with their communities of faith; • Jews are the most broadly popular religious group in America today.
American Grace promises to be the most important book in decades about American religious life and an essential book for understanding our nation today.

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Scienze sociali



In the 1950s, the Fraternal Order of Eagles teamed up with movie director Cecil B. DeMille for a unique promotion of the epic movie The Ten Commandments. In a form of reverse product placement, the Eagles and DeMille donated monuments of the biblical Ten Commandments to communities all around the country. Rather than putting a product in the movie, the primary symbol of the movie was instead placed in prominent locations—in public parks, in front of courthouses, and in the case of Texas on the grounds of the state capitol. These monuments reflected the zeitgeist, as the 1950s brought public, even government-sanctioned, expression of religion to the fore in many ways. This was also the decade in which “In God We Trust” became the official national motto, and the Pledge of Allegiance was amended to include the words “under God.”
Those monuments stood for decades without causing a fuss. In recent years, however, they have led to court battles over whether their location on publicly owned land violates the constitutional prohibition on a government establishment of religion. In other words, fifty years ago these displays were so noncontroversial that they could safely be used as a marketing ploy for a big-budget Hollywood movie. Now they are the subject of litigation all the way to the Supreme Court.1
Something has changed.
In 1960, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy had to reassure Protestants that they could safely vote for a Catholic. (At the time 30 percent of Americans freely told pollsters that they would not vote for a Catholic as president.) At the same time, Kennedy won overwhelming support from his fellow Catholics, even though he explicitly disagreed with his church on a number of public issues. In 2004, America had another Catholic presidential candidate—also a Democratic senator from Massachusetts, also a highly decorated veteran, and also with the initials JFK. Like Kennedy, John (Forbes) Kerry also publicly disagreed with his church on at least one prominent issue—in this case, abortion. But unlike Kennedy, Kerry split the Catholic vote with his Republican opponent, and lost handily among Catholics who frequently attend church. Kennedy would likely have found it inexplicable that Kerry not only lost to a Protestant, but in George W. Bush, an evangelical Protestant at that. Writing about the religious tensions manifested in the 1960 campaign, political scientist Philip Converse described the election as a “flash of lightning which illuminated, but only momentarily, a darkened landscape.”2 Kerry’s candidacy was another flash of lightning, but the landscape it revealed had changed significantly. In 1960, religion’s role in politics was mostly a matter of something akin to tribal loyalty—Catholics and Protestants each supported their own. In order to win, Kennedy had to shatter the stained glass ceiling that had kept Catholics out of national elective office in a Protestant-majority nation. By the 2000s, how religious a person is had become more important as a political dividing line than which denomination he or she belonged to. Church-attending evangelicals and Catholics (and other religious groups too) have found common political cause. Voters who are not religious have also found common cause with one another, but on the opposite end of the political spectrum.
Again, something has changed.
This book is about what has changed in American religion over the past half century. Perhaps the most noticeable shift is how Americans have become polarized along religious lines. Americans are increasingly concentrated at opposite ends of the religious spectrum—the highly religious at one pole, and the avowedly secular at the other. The moderate religious middle is shrinking. Contrast today’s religious landscape with America in the decades following the Second World War, when moderate—or mainline—religion was booming. In the past, there were religious tensions, but they were largely between religions (Catholic vs. Protestant most notably), rather than between the religious and irreligious. Today, America remains, on average, a highly religious nation, but that average obscures a growing secular swath of the population.
The nation’s religious polarization has not been an inexorable process of smoothly unfolding change. Rather, it has resulted from three seismic societal shocks, the first of which was the sexually libertine 1960s. This tumultuous period then produced a prudish aftershock of growth in conservative religion, especially evangelicalism, and an even more pronounced cultural presence for American evangelicals, most noticeably in the political arena. As theological and political conservatism began to converge, religiously inflected issues emerged on the national political agenda, and “religion” became increasingly associated with the Republican Party. The first aftershock was followed by an opposite reaction, a second aftershock, which is still reverberating. A growing number of Americans, especially young people, have come to disavow religion. For many, their aversion to religion is rooted in unease with the association between religion and conservative politics. If religion equals Republican, then they have decided that religion is not for them.
Religious polarization has consequences beyond the religious realm, because being at one pole or the other correlates strongly with one’s worldview, especially attitudes relating to such intimate matters as sex and the family. Given that American politics often centers on sex and family issues, this religious polarization has been especially visible in partisan politics. A “coalition of the religious” tends to vote one way, while Americans who are not religious vote another.
The current state of religious polarization has led social commentators to use heated, even hyperbolic, language to describe the state of American society. The bestseller lists are full of books highly critical of religion, countered by pundits whose rhetoric decries a public square made “naked” by religion’s absence.3 In an overused metaphor, America is supposedly in the midst of a war over our culture.4
And yet, when one ignores these venomous exchanges, and looks instead at how Americans of different religious backgrounds interact, the United States hardly seems like a house divided against itself. America peacefully combines a high degree of religious devotion with tremendous religious diversity—including growing ranks of the nonreligious. Americans have a high degree of tolerance for those of (most) other religions, including those without any religion in their lives.
Religion’s role in America thus poses a puzzle. How can religious pluralism coexist with religious polarization?
The answer lies in the fact that, in America, religion is highly fluid. The conditions producing that fluidity are a signal feature of the nation’s constitutional infrastructure. The very first words of the Bill of Rights guarantee that Congress—later interpreted to mean any level of government—will favor no particular religion, while ensuring that Americans can freely exercise their religious beliefs. In the legal arena, debates over such matters as whether the Ten Commandments can be displayed on public property hinge on the interpretation of the Constitution’s words. More broadly, the absence of a state-run religious monopoly combined with a wide sphere of religious liberty has produced an ideal environment for a thriving religious ecosystem. Religions compete, adapt, and evolve as individual Americans freely move from one congregation to another, and even from one religion to another. In the United States, it seems perfectly natural to refer to one’s religion as a “preference” instead of as a fixed characteristic.
This state of flux has actually contributed to religious polarization. A fluid religious environment enables people seeking something different to leave one religion for another, to find religion for the first time, or to leave religion altogether. This churn means that people gradually, but continually, sort themselves into like-minded clusters—their commonality defined not only by religion, but also by the social and political beliefs that go along with their religion.
The malleable nature of American religion, however, means that these clusters are not bunkers. Instead, the same fluidity that contributes to religious polarization means that nearly all Americans are acquainted with people of a different religious background. Even if you personally have never gone through a religious change, you likely know someone who has. Furthermore, that someone is likely to be more than a passing acquaintance, but rather a co-worker, a close friend, a spouse, or a child. All of this religious churn produces a jumble of relationships among people of varying religious backgrounds, often within extended families and even households, which keeps religious polarization from pulling the nation apart.
The contrast between John F. Kennedy in 1960 and John Kerry in 2004 is thus doubly revealing. It not only highlights the new ways that religion divides American society but, more subtly, it also reminds us that old divisions are largely forgotten. In 1960, Kennedy faced overt hostility to his Catholicism, even in polite company. We find it no coincidence that this was also a time when there were many social barriers to relationships between Catholics and Protestants. John Kerry ran in a different world. By 2004 his Catholicism presented no problems for Protestants. We again find it hardly coincidental that in the years between Kennedy and Kerry, Americans of many different religious backgrounds increasingly came to connect with one another—as neighbors, friends, and spouses. That electoral flash of lightning in 2004 thus illuminated more than the changed political topography; it also exposed an altered social landscape. Interreligious personal connections have resulted in a social web interwoven with different religions and people with no religion at all—with implications far beyond presidential politics.
Over the last fifty years, American religion has thus experienced two countervailing transformations. The first is the emergence of a new religious fault line in American society. Left on its own, such a fault line could split open and tear the nation apart. The second change, however, is precisely why the fault line has not become a gaping chasm. Polarization has not been accompanied by religious segregation—either literally or even metaphorically. To the contrary, rather than cocooning into isolated religious communities, Americans have become increasingly likely to work with, live alongside, and marry people of other religions—or people with no religion at all. In doing so, they have come to accept people with a religious background different from theirs. It is difficult to demonize the religion, or lack of religion, of people you know and, especially, those you love. Indeed, interreligious relationships are so common that most Americans probably pay them little mind, and consider them unremarkable. But their very commonness makes them remarkable indeed.
Polarization and pluralism are the principal themes in the recent history of American religion, but they hardly exhaust all that has changed, is changing, and will change in the nation’s religious environment. The sheer vitality of religion in America means that it is ever evolving, although that evolution takes place against a backdrop of some constants too. We begin by asking how and why American religion became polarized, and close by asking—and answering—how polarization and pluralism can coexist. But to get from polarization to peaceful pluralism, we consider a number of other questions along the way:
To what extent do Americans engage in religious mixing and matching?
Which religions win, and which lose, in the religious marketplace? Historically, who have been the winners, and who the losers?
What keeps people in their congregations, and why do they switch from one to another? How have religious entrepreneurs responded to the second aftershock, which is pushing people—young people especially—away from religion?
How has religion engaged three major trends in American society: the revolution in women’s rights, rising income inequality, and growing ethnic and racial diversity?
What happened to cause religious devotion to be so strongly associated with partisan politics, and what will the future likely hold for the connections between religion and politics?
How does politics happen, or not, inside a congregation? How can religiosity be so closely associated with partisan politics when overt politicking from the pulpit is rare?
Who is right: those who make the case for the positive contribution of religion to civil society, or those who make the case against?


Any discussion of religion in America must begin with the incontrovertible fact that Americans are a highly religious people. One can quibble over just how religion, and religiosity, should be gauged, but, by any standard, the United States (as a whole) is a religious nation. In general, Americans have high rates of religious belonging, behaving, and believing—what social scientists call the three Bs of religiosity.5 Eighty-three percent of Americans report belonging to a religion; 40 percent report attending religious services nearly every week or more;6 59 percent pray at least weekly; a third report reading scripture with this same frequency. Many Americans also have firm religious beliefs. Eighty percent are absolutely sure that there is a God. Sixty percent are absolutely sure that there is a heaven, although fewer (52 percent) have this level of certainty about life after death. Slightly fewer, 49 percent, are certain that there is a hell.
Yet it is also important to note...