Feature

American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us by David Campbell & Robert D. Putnam

The authors' thorough study of the role of religion in Americans’ lives yielded some surprising discoveries.

(Simon & Schuster, 688 pages, $30)

Politics is chasing a whole generation away from America’s churches, said NPR.org. At least that’s what sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell discovered while conducting a thorough new study of the role of religion in Americans’ lives. Though the resulting book mostly emphasizes how tolerant Americans are of diverse religious views, the authors couldn’t help noticing that the share of young Americans claiming no religious affiliation has jumped from 10 percent in 1990 to 27 percent today. That politics played a role surprised Campbell and Putnam. “It seemed implausible that people would make choices that might affect their eternal fate based on how they felt about George W. Bush,” they write. But it was clear that the religious Right had made many young adults uneasy with the very idea of becoming churchgoers.

God shouldn’t give up on those kids yet, said David A. Hollinger in the San Francisco Chronicle. Americans “move in and out of religious affiliations with dizzying frequency,” and Putnam and Campbell argue that this lack of deep commitment makes us both more likely to eventually find a church that suits us and more accepting of other people’s faiths. Putnam and Campbell never flatly state the clear implication of their findings: that religion “is most compatible with a diverse, democratic society if people regard it as disposable.” But the idea is there.

It’s a distressing theme to see being pushed by a book that otherwise celebrates the positive effects of religion, said Wilfred McClay in The Wall Street Journal. Putnam and Campbell frequently stress that “religious Americans make better neighbors” than the nonreligious by most every measure. Not only are they more generous, more civically active, and more trustworthy, they’re happier, too. While Putnam and Campbell clearly favor “easygoing, non-threatening, non-boat-rocking religion,” they never say whether such bland religious faith can be expected to last. In disparaging more ardent believers, they risk devaluing “the very thing they are trying to defend.” 

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