American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us

Book Review: American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell with Shaylyn Romney Garret

Hardcover: 688 pages Publisher: Simon & Schuster (October 5, 2010)

Like Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam, American Grace is full of readable charts, graphs and much data. In this book, these data are complemented by colorful vignettes of congregations such as Saddleback, Trinity in Boston (the corporate parish), Our Savior Lutheran in Houston (“a deliberately Lutheran Church, the most conservative in the world”) and many others, the work of Shaylyn Romney Garrett.

In Chapters 3, and 4, the authors paint a compelling portrait of importance of religion, both its stability and dynamism, in the last half of the 20th century America. These chapters establish the narrative framework of the book, serving both as introduction and overview.

1. America has been, is, and will likely continue to be a very religious nation. This is especially so in comparison to European and other advanced economies. Although religious attendance has declined since its peak in the 1950s, “at its present rate of decline it will take several centuries to reach that of most European nations.”

2. The dynamism of the reliable escalator of increasing religious observance over the individual lifespan (beginning with less observance in the twenties, greater observance during child raising years as well as again during the retirement period) is strong influenced by what happens to each generation in their teens, twenties and thirties. Each generation gets on their lifetime escalator of increasing religious observance at very different levels of initial observance.

3. The 1940s and 1950s and Civic Religion: “Flux is a constant in American religion, there is no normal period.” “Virtually all experts agree that the period from the late 1940s to the early 1960s was one of exceptional religious observance.” Adult church membership increased from 49% in 1940 to 69% in 1960. In 1952, seventy five percent of Americans told pollsters that religion was very important in their lives, and in 1957, eight one person said that religion was relevant (both all time highs). The 1950s were the high tide of civic religion, the cold war against Godless communism when “under God” was placed in our Pledge and “in God we trust” on our coins. Religion was a part of civic involvement across partisan and denominational lines.

The upsurge in religious involvement of the 1950s was concentrated among people in their twenties where weekly church attendance increased from 31% in 1950 to 51% in 1957 (another all time record). “It was the GI generation who as young husbands and fathers, together with their wives, led the surge to church in the late 1940s and 1950s.” “They would form the bedrock of American religious and civic institutions for the ensuing half century.” They entered the life time escalator of religious involvement at very high starting levels!

4. The Long Decade of the Sixties (which lasted into the seventies) was the “perfect storm for American institutions of all sorts –political, social, sexual, and religious.” “Religious institutions along with most other institutions suffered a dramatic loss of confidence and self-confidence.” A survey of clergy in 1971 found 40% of those under forty had considered leaving. Mainline churches declined in numbers of members; Catholics declined mostly in attendance.

The authors give particular emphasis to premarital sex as an indicator of changing values. The fraction of Americans believing it was not wrong went from 24% in 1969, to 47% in 1973, then a slow drift to 62% in 1982.  The sexual revolution affected the young most of all. Many young people in their twenties fell away from church attendance, and slowly returned as the life time escalator produced its effects. “Throughout their lives boomers attend religious services about 25-30 % less often than their parents had done at the same stage of life.”

5. In the 1970s, and 1980s, the increase in Evangelical Protestants and the rise of the Religious Right are seen by the authors as an aftershock to the changing values with regard to sexuality, again using premarital sex as a key variable.

The increase in Evangelical Protestants occurred for four reasons. First, they were far slower than Catholics and Mainline Protestants to lower their birth rates. Second, they did a far better job of keeping their children in the faith. Third, they recruited people who were appalled by changing values with regard to sexuality. Finally they had aggressive and creative leadership.

Their increase paralleled a stabilization of church attendance in the 1970s and 1980s. Again college educated young people were a strong indicator of societal trends; they reconnected with organized religion during these decades.

“Despite the mountains of books and newspaper articles about the rise of the evangelicals, in absolute terms the change was hardly massive, except by comparison with the collapsing mainline Protestant denominations.” “The evangelical boom that began in the 1970s was over in the early 1990s, nearly two decades ago.”

6. The rise of the Religious Nones and the youth disaffection from religion in the 1990s and 2000s are seen by the authors as an after shock response to the rise of the Religious Right.

The involvement of religious conservatives in politics caused many people (mostly independents and liberals politically) to dissociate themselves from organized religion, leading to the rise of those reporting no religious affiliation (Religious Nones). As most polls have shown in recent years, Republican candidates are more strongly supported by weekly church goers, in large part because Republicans have successfully marketed themselves as religion friendly.

This reaction against the “politicizing” of religion has been particularly strong among young people, causing a drop not only in religious attendance and but in religious identity among adolescents and people in their 20s.Therefore they begin much lower on the escalator; they may even have trouble getting on the escalator at all.

7. The authors give a good description of the Religious Nones, who in their 2006 survey come in third (17%) after Evangelicals (30%), Catholics (23%) and before Mainline Protestants (14%) and Black Protestants (9%). These are not atheists and agnostics (only 5 out of the 3,108 people in the sample chose those labels). These are alienated from current religious institutions but not from God. Given the high number of religious entrepreneurs in this country, the authors seem fairly confident that some will discover ways to serve these people. They are the big untapped religious market; many former Catholics among them.

There is much, much more in this book beyond Chapters 3 and 4.

Their 2006 survey included a Spanish version and sufficient Hispanic sampling that separate analyses of Anglo and Latino Catholics are done where appropriate. They included several  Latino Catholic parishes among their vignettes.

As we might expect from Putnum, a leader in the study of social capital, there is an excellent treatment of congregations as sources of social capital. A must reading for all those interested in community.

Important treatments include gender, race. ethnicity and well as immigration, the entry of women into the labor force, and growing income disparity. A major drawback is that both authors are political scientists; therefore the relationship of politics and religion gets overemphasis.

Many Catholics tend to view the last half of the 20th Century of American religion through Vatican II and John Paul II. Reading these two chapters is a very good place to begin discussing and rethinking our past from the standpoint of the broader American experiences.

The reviewer, Jack Rakosky, has an interdisciplinary doctorate in psychology and sociology, and spent twenty years in applied research and program evaluation in the public mental health system. His current interests are spirituality and voluntarism, especially among highly educated people at retirement age.


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