American Grace, written by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, found in recent poll a dramatic decrease in the number of Americans who self-identify as having a religious faith. A group referred to as the “nones” – those who have no religious faith, secular, went from 7% to 17% in the last few years.
The numbers in the polls suggest that the more fundamentally religious a person becomes, the less trusting they also become. With those who are secular, the polls found they trust and are more tolerant in general of different groups of people.
Are these findings cause for religious organizations to throw in their philosophical towel? Do Americans have to worry about a future of secularization? Maybe not, American Grace delves into a variety of topic areas. They explain the roles religion has played in the past in areas such as ethnicity, and gender, and how those same areas are affected by religion today. If “American Grace” does anything, it gives thorough explanations for why demographic and religious groups feel a certain way in their variety of polls and vignettes.
In this review I will show the changes in mindset, what predictions the book had, and a few of my own. Overall, I found the information on the nones informative, as well as the conclusions Putnam and Campbell found in regards to trust, pluralism and freedom of choice. The rest of the book, while also informative, seemed over-the-top and lacking a concise point in regards to the topic of religion and its dealings with politics.
Bill J. Leonard is a professor of church history at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity. In his review of American Grace he questioned the idea of the nones in more detail. Asking who they are and what their identity might suggest for the church. From my reading I have discerned that Putnam and Campbell credit the level of trust to the radical change in numbers.
Leonard suggests that the increase in the level of nones is evidence of America’s turn towards pluralism, an ideal he said that religious communities across the theological spectrum have accepted and implemented in other countries. Leonard defines new pluralism in regards to politics as, “a religious and non-religious diversity, so extensive, so widespread, that those who challenge it sound more like bigots than faithful dissenters.” In other words, religious rights and secular lefts have caused people to cease religious activity altogether.
Putnam and Campbell said, “because the rise of the new nones was so abrupt, this increase seems unlikely to reflect secularization in any ordinary sense, since theories of secularization refer to developments that transpire over decades or even centuries, not just a few years” (pg. 127). They were unable to conclude with certainty that the increase of nones is at least in part evidence of a “backlash against conservatism.”
Dr. Robert Cornwall- Senior Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church- said a persons’ view of God will dramatically impact how the relate with other people. “We seem to have found consistent expectations about other people’s behavior and God’s behavior. If God loves us, then we love and trust others, but if God sternly judges us, then we sternly judge and distrust others.” (American Grace, p. 468-471).
Cornwall also said American Grace presents an overly optimistic of the American people. He said angry groups of people lead movements like the Tea Party, which have come to represent the majority. He said the problem is trust and it’s a serious issue, which he said gives religious liberals with progressive mindsets serious ammunition.
Another survey conducted by Gallup News, an international research publication, said in a study on American opinion on religion and its importance to people. The poll found 54% of Americans say religion is very important in their lives, whereas 70% of the same people said religion is losing its influence in American life. The summary of past polling shows that this is one of the highest fluctuations in Gallup history. In 2000, 59% of Americans said religion was very important, where only 36% of people polled thought religion was losing its influence in American life.
Looking at the numbers from American Grace and Gallup News, a reader could deduct that the increase in secular lifestyle has caused a downward cycle in religious importance in the American day-to-day life. Putnam and Campbell say nones fall left-of-center politically and/or religiously, and parallel the increase of the religious and/or political right. The authors suggest that younger generations see religion “as judgmental, homophobic, hypocritical and too political.” (American Grace p. 121).
Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Relations Research Institute (PRRI), conducted several surveys of various Americans with questions that revolved around politics in the theological spectrum. His findings showed mixed beliefs towards Leonard’s idea of pluralism.
Jones found that 57% of Americans are opposed to allowing New York Muslims to build an Islamic center and mosque two blocks from ground zero, but 76% say they would support Muslims building a mosque in their local community if they followed the same regulations as other religious groups. 45% of Americans say the values of Islam are at odds with American values and way of life, while a plurality, 49 %, disagree. Another finding, the least pluralistic, said nearly 6-in-10 Americans affirm American exceptionalism, that God has granted America a special role in human history. Those affirming this view are more likely to support military interventions and to say torture is sometimes justified, a far cry from the findings in American Grace.
Thomas E. Rutheford, author of "Heaven Help the Single Christian," said the American persona, it seems, isn't worth much without the American obligation: choice. This country was founded on democracy, even if the ways democracy was gained promoted violence, death and destruction. It seems ingrained into the American psyche that freedoms such as choice are owed, not earned. This belief plays into both politics and religion. (Rutheford).
America was also founded on religion, like other countries, but unlike other countries it has held on to the ideals of morality. In American Grace, Putnam and Campbell found that in Western Europe and Japan, the favored non-choice in reference to religion, and were generally disinterested, where 30 to 40 % of the American population still attends a weekly worship service. Although there has been a steady decline in church interest, the findings in American Grace find that it would take a couple of centuries before America became as secularized as Great Britain, where only 5-8 % are regular service-goers. (American Grace and Rutheford).
Sheena Iyengar cited in her book "The Art of Choosing," that people in strict religions are actually happier than those in liberal ones. She interviewed fundamentalist religions (Calvinism, Islam and Orthodox Judaism), conservative (Catholicism, Lutheranism, Methodism and Conservative Judaism), and liberal (Unitarianism and Reform Judaism).“The presence of so many rules didn’t debilitate people; instead it seemed to empower them. Many of their choices were taken away, and yet they experienced a sense of control over their lives.” (Sheena Iyengar, The Art of Choosing, New York: Twelve, 2010, p. 28) (Rutheford).
Robert Wright, in his October 2010 article titled "Religious Persuasion" in the New York Times, said that Putnam and Campbell had bad timing in writing their book at first glance. "Between the completion of their manuscript and its publication, the dispute over the Islamic center in Lower Manhattan erupted, followed by the Koran-burning controversy, and somewhere along the way a New York cabdriver was stabbed, apparently for being a Muslim." (Wright).
Wright made this assumption from the first chapter of American Grace, which states “America peacefully combines a high degree of religious devotion with tremendous religious diversity.” And it seems to render moot one of their main goals: to illuminate the source of this interfaith tolerance. He said the book brings to light the struggles in interfaith tension that Americans face. (Wright).
Wright calls to attention that America has a history rich in religious strife. In his article, Wright compares American Protestants in their relationship with with Roman Catholics in the past as peaceful as present day Pentecostals in Florida to Muslims. Another example given was a Massachusetts convent that anti-Catholic rioters destroyed. Catholics caused a huge civil uproar in Philadelphia with rumors that they wanted to take Bibles out of public schools. Violence from these rumors alone led to approximately two dozen deaths and two churches were demolished. (Wright).
Putnam and Campbell go into detail about how each generation worked to smooth the religious and political tensions. In the '60s former president John F. Kennedy had to let Protestants know if was okay to vote for a Catholic candidate. The authors went on to say that in current times, Catholics and Protestants often belong to the same team, and, "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." (American Grace) (Wright).
So where should Americans go from here? Are churches ready to join hands with others in a kumbayah ceremony with music and incense offerings? Should politics excuse itself out of the church? Putnam and Campbell discuss a variety of questions in the final chapter of American Grace. Overall, the book finds that people who practice religious activities are more willing to bend their doctrine to suit their more secular and religious-tolerant needs. Putnam and Campbell say, "most Americans are intimately acquainted with people of other faiths.” (American Grace). (Wright).
Along the same lines, Wright said that people who have evangelical friend have a more tolerant idea of evangelicals, and gaining a nonreligious friend brings more tolerance toward the nonreligious. Wright said, "Muslims suffer from an additional problem. If most Americans don’t personally know any Muslims, they’ve seen some on TV, Osama Bin Laden, for starters. That may help explain why, though 54 percent of evangelicals say non-Christians can go to heaven, only 35 percent say Muslims can." (Wright).
Wright said there are two basic schools of thought on religious strife- essentialists and optimists. "Essentialists believe that religions have a firm character, grounded in Scripture and theology and doctrine, and that religious conflicts are thus deep-seated and enduring. The more optimistic view is that clashing beliefs aren’t the big problem; underlying the conflict, and driving it, are less ethereal and in some cases more pliable issues: economic grievances or insecurities, resentment of perceived arrogance, fears of domination." (Wright).
Putnam and Campbell fall under the optimist category. With their focus on communication and how it impacts the social and political context. Wright says, in that sense, the American Grace subtitle is subtly misleading. "This intellectually powerful book suggests that religion per se is often not the thing that actually divides us." (Wright).