American Grace: How the U.S. solved the problem of pluralism

Simon Smart reviews American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us

Robert Putnam, professor of political science at Harvard University, is adept at studying American social trends. His book Bowling Alone made the notion of ‘social capital’ a key indicator of the health of a society. But it was during the writing of that book that he noticed something intriguing—the link between religion and community. Putnam’s observations of American people led him to estimate that half of all significant relationships were connected in some way to a religious community. This discovery impelled him towards a comprehensive study of American religious trends, culminating in his latest book, written with David Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.

Putnam and his team interviewed 3000 people twice over two years, firstly in 2006 and then in 2007. They conducted a wide-ranging set of questions about people’s religious lives as well as their civic involvement, social relationships, political beliefs, economic situation and demographic profile. They came up with large amounts of quantitative data, that told them three things: Americans are very devout. No surprises there. Secondly, they are extremely divided religiously. Thirdly, and unexpectedly, Americans display high levels of religious tolerance.

Not being religious himself, Putnam had always assumed that large doses of religion would be toxic to democracy. How was it then that Americans could be so religious, so polarised on religious matters, and yet display high levels of tolerance and acceptance of difference?

The book attempts something of an answer.

Putnam’s research shows that the polarisation of Americans along religious lines is irrefutable. Since the 1980s American religious believers have also become highly politicised—a fascinating story in itself.

American Grace recounts how the shockwave of the 1960s brought a huge shift in religious attitudes. While a whole section of the population abandoned 1950s conservatism and embraced the trappings of 60s libertarianism, the resulting backlash found a home in conservative evangelical Protestantism. It was in the 1980s that this combination was employed to great effect in the political realm, where for the first time, religion and the political party machine became intertwined as conservative politics became closely associated with conservative religion. Politicians and pastors engaged in a dalliance that more and more evangelicals now acknowledge has been disastrous for their cause.

While most people today take it for granted that Evangelical Protestant equates to Republican voter, this is historically unusual. In fact, the authors say, the opposite was always the case. The great progressive movements of American history—the American Revolution, the emancipation of the slaves, the early suffragette movement, the fight for civil rights—were each heavily influenced by, and spurred on through the efforts of people of religious faith.

From the 1970s onwards there has been a reversal of what had become known as the ‘God gap’—once upon a time Democrats used to be the most likely to go to church. Now it’s the opposite.

There’s been a big shift in the religious landscape in the U.S. not the least of which has been a move away from religion by the young. Whereas in the early 1990s around 5 – 7% of people described their religious affiliation as “none”, the figure has risen sharply to 17% today. For the “young nones” as Putnam cheekily describes them, the figure is at 30%. That’s an astonishing change that sets the country up for a sharp decline in religiosity in the coming years.

These young people were lost to religion in the culture wars in which they came of age say Putnam and Campbell. They came to associate protestant religious faith with a narrow band of conservative politics. ‘If religion is mostly about being anti-gay, anti-abortion and conservative, I’m out of here,’ they appear to have said. These people are not atheist, says Putnam. They believe in God and pray to him, but they’ve rejected institutionalised religion.

Church leaders may well bemoan the current trends, but if Putnam’s analysis is correct, the current dynamic of politics and religion may be about to change. It wasn’t until the early 1980s that the two parties made such a big deal of abortion and gay marriage, bringing into line religiosity and partisanship and essentially giving birth to the religious right. Putnam and Campbell suggest that both issues are set to become less potent as political factors, but for opposite reasons. Younger generations, even those who are strongly religious, are less likely to oppose gay marriage. At the same time, statistics indicate that the post-baby-boomer generation is more conservative than their parents on the issue of abortion and more willing to place restrictions on the practice. If that trend continues, then “the coalition of the religious” may well break down and new allegiances take root.

In America at least, the more often you feel drawn to offer thanks before chowing down, the more likely you are to be at home in the Republican Party, and all that goes with that

Any reader interested in America, in religion, or the place of faith in the public square will find much in American Grace to interest them. It is a lively and engaging account of some important and, at times strange, phenomena. One amusing example of the interplay between statistics and real life is the claim of the researchers that they can accurately predict a host of behaviours relating to politics, based on how frequently individuals say grace before a meal. In America at least, the more often you feel drawn to offer thanks before chowing down, the more likely you are to be at home in the Republican Party, and all that goes with that.

Putnam and Campbell are not only skilled researchers, but their interpretation of the data has and will elicit lively conversation and debate.

Scattered throughout the work are ‘vignettes’ describing various places of worship throughout the states. As a means of assisting them in making sense of the data, researchers spent time (sometimes weeks) among religious communities of various stripes. In such a statistically robust study, these vignettes have something of an anecdotal if entertaining feel. The account, for instance, of a very large charismatic church – The Living Word Christian Centre in Minneapolis led by Pastor Mac Hammond, feels almost cartoonish, in its depiction of a regrettable stereotype.

Pastor Mac has built the church up from a group of 12 people in a hotel conference room to an enormous congregation of thousands with an income of $33 million.

Mac Hammond and his wife push the prosperity gospel that God wants you to be rich, and it seems to have worked for them. They own two Florida condos, worth more than $3 million, two homes in Minnesota, a Lexus, a Porsche, three boats and a plane. From this description the reader may well imagine a ‘Steve Martin-type character’ popping up on stage, teeth flashing, ready to accept cheques from the desperate and the gullible. Certainly Hammond’s mega-church promotes a very conservative social agenda, is closely aligned to Republican Party politics, and engages in a literalistic reading of the Bible that also manages to find theological support for the state of Israel.

These vignettes provide interesting snapshots, and, importantly, a human face to different religious expressions and traditions to go with the stats. The chapter on the intertwining of religion and politics, for example, gives an excellent treatment of Reformed Judaism in the Beth Emet Synagogue community in Chicago. The portrait helps explain how people could be very committed to this tradition with either no faith in God, or no strong articulation of such a faith. At the Synagogue people go for the strong community, the life lessons, the ancient traditions and the intellectual rigour it gives them. The reader can begin to understand why these people are almost always more progressive and liberal politically, through a ‘long, collective, communal history,’ and also why Jews might remain very active at the Synagogue long after their observance of law, understanding of Hebrew liturgy, and faith in God has disappeared.

But the most controversial finding in this book is the point delivered most emphatically—that religious people make better citizens and neighbours! “ … for the most part, the evidence we review suggests that religiously observant Americans are more civic, and in some respects simply ‘nicer’”, say Putnam and Campbell. I have written about this aspect of the study here. While such a claim produces rancorous debate, it can’t be denied is that these results point to something unique about a religious community that isn’t found elsewhere, providing something positive and enriching for society.

But the biggest puzzle for Putnam and Campbell was how such a religiously devoted and yet religiously diverse nation could function without major religious conflict, violence and civil disorder. And while the story is complex, it essentially boils down to one identifiable factor, the “Aunt Susan Effect”. That is, Americans all have someone in their lives—a person they love and respect, and perhaps think of as a Saint, who holds to a different religious faith than them, or has no faith at all. They can’t imagine such a person going anywhere else but heaven when they die. This is the bridging factor—most Americans live near, are friends with, or even are married to people of other faiths. As bridges are built across religious divides people are more likely to accept people of different beliefs, and are less likely to find good reasons to allow religious difference to escalate into religious conflict and violence. A more harmonious, if not united, society is the result.

The conclusion and the high note of this study is that America has to a large degree solved the problem of religious pluralism —coexistence of high levels of religious diversity and religious devotion, not by changing the message (even though many do that), but by creating a web of interlocking personal relationships among people of many different faiths. That is the reality in the U.S. It is, as Putnam and Campbell call it, America’s Grace.

Simon Smart is a Director of the Centre for Public Christianity