Changing Faiths

American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, Simon & Schuster, 673 pages, $30

American Grace is a scrupulously researched, extensively documented, and utterly clear book filled with findings that should rattle the assumptions of anyone, religious or secular, who cares about religion in American public life.

Findings like these:

  • "The evangelical boom that began in the 1970s was over by the early 1990s, nearly two decades ago. In twenty-first century America expansive evangelicalism is a feature of the past, not the present."
  • "Cohorts of whom barely 5 percent say they have no religious affiliation are being replaced by cohorts of whom roughly 25 percent say they have no religion, massively increasing the nationwide incidence of nones."
  • "The more often you say grace, the more likely you are to find a home in the Republican Party, and the less likely you are to identify with the Democrats."
  • "Most Americans today are religious feminists."
  • "There is little overt politicking over America's pulpits and, to the extent it happens, it is more common on the political left than the right."
  • "Religious Americans are, in fact, more generous neighbors and more conscientious citizens than their secular counterparts. On the other hand, they are also less tolerant of dissent."
  • "Regular churchgoers are more likely to give to secular causes than nonchurchgoers, and highly religious people give a larger fraction of their income to secular causes than do most secular people."
  • "A whopping 89 percent of Americans believe that heaven is not reserved for those who share their religious faith. Americans are reluctant to claim that they have a monopoly on truth."

American Grace is not, however, a collection of believe-it-or-not findings about American religion. It tells a story and makes coherent arguments. The social science of many chapters takes on flesh and blood in congregational profiles that range from Episcopal churches in Massachusetts to a venerable African American church in Baltimore and booming "megachurches" in Minnesota and California, from Chicago Catholic parishes turning Hispanic to a liberal suburban synagogue and a Utah Mormon ward incorporating an unusual number (for Mormons) of Democrats. And the book comes with more than a hundred striking graphs.

The book's story is one of a religious earthquake and two aftershocks. The earthquake was the disaffection from religion occurring in "the long Sixties." Church attendance plummeted. So did the percentage of Americans saying that religion was "very important" in their life. At every stage of their life, boomers would always lag behind their parents by 25 percent to 30 percent in regular churchgoing. The authors know well that these were the years of the civil-rights, anti-war, and women's liberation movements, of pot, acid, the pill, Roe v. Wade, and Watergate. But with a refreshing directness and only a bit of embarrassment, they emphasize sex. Between 1969 and 1973, the fraction of Americans stating that premarital sex was "only sometimes wrong" or "not wrong at all" doubled, from 24 percent to 47 percent, a startling change in four years -- and then drifted up, never to decline. Attitudes toward premarital sex turn out to be one of the strongest predictors of a host of other political and religious changes, including that of the first great aftershock, the evangelical upsurge of the 1970s and 1980s.

That reaction to "the long Sixties" has been extensively analyzed. Less so the second great aftershock, the rise of the "nones" after 1990 when young people, in particular, began rejecting identification with any religion, though not necessarily with a variety of religious beliefs and practices. More and more young Americans, according to polls, came to view religion as "judgmental, homophobic, hypocritical, and too political," overly focused on rules rather than spirituality. "The Richter rating of this second aftershock is greater than that of the first aftershock and rivals that of the powerful original quake of the Sixties," Putnam and Campbell write.

The second aftershock, however, only exacerbated the so-called God gap. The slightly shrinking evangelical camp became all the more identified with Republican conservatism. The new nones, mostly of a liberal stamp to begin with, increased the identification of Democrats with secularism.

Not that the identification of religious groups with one party or another was new in American history. A century ago a Methodist (outside the South), whether churchgoing or not, was more than likely a Republican; a Catholic, whether churchgoing or not, was more than likely a Democrat. What is new is the identification of religiosity itself, regardless of faith, with political partisanship. Today a churchgoer, whether Methodist or Catholic, is more likely to be a Republican while their indifferent or lapsed counterparts are more likely to be Democrats.

What changed? Issues of family and personal, especially sexual, morality that were always religiously salient became politically salient, that is, posed sharp choices between the parties. This was particularly the case with abortion and same-sex marriage. Would recent history be different if the conflicts over abortion and same-sex relationships had been fought out as much within the parties as between them, as has often been the case with free trade, military spending, Middle East policy, aid to education, and a number of other issues? "When abortion was emerging as a major issue during the 1970s," Putnam and Campbell note, "Democrats were somewhat more likely to oppose abortion than Republicans because, in that period, Catholics were overwhelmingly Democratic and pro-life. It was not until the Democratic and Republican parties took distinctive stands on abortion in the 1980s that the issue became a predictor of party sympathies."

How does this new link between religiosity and political partisanship actually work on the ground? Knowing that "the image of the highly politicized church, especially among evangelicals, is entrenched in the folklore of contemporary politics," Putnam and Campbell go out of their way to test the data behind their conclusion that there is very little overt politicking in America's houses of worship, the major exceptions being Jewish and African American congregations.

They take similar care in concluding that religious Americans are more generous and active citizens than secular Americans, although George Washington and Alexis de Tocqueville might have predicted as much. Churchgoing Americans, it turns out, are twice as likely as their demographically matched secular neighbors to volunteer to help the needy and to be civically active. Not only do those in the most religious fifth of Americans give four times as high a proportion of their annual income to charity as those in the least religious fifth, but they give a higher proportion even to specifically secular causes. Neither this generosity nor this activism has to do with ideology. Cross-checking with other surveys, Putnam and Campbell conclude that on measures of generosity and civic engagement, religious liberals rank as high or higher than religious conservatives and higher than secular liberals.

But in examining the links between both religiosity and partisan politics and religiosity and civic contributions, Putnam and Campbell highlight something beyond simple religiosity, something featured in Putnam's best known book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community -- the catalytic role of social networks. What translates traditional religious teaching into partisan politics is seldom overt politicking from the pulpit but rather the religious social networks -- "echo chambers," the authors call them -- of fellow congregants, who are increasingly like-minded about politics. What makes religious folks collect clothes for the poor, donate to the United Way, and attend town meetings is not just theology or exhortations by the clergy; it is involvement in the life of the congregation, having family and friends there, talking about religion with them, and participating in small groups. "Devout people who sit alone in the pews are not much more neighborly than people who don't go to church at all," they find. "Statistics suggest that even an atheist who happened to become involved in the social life of a congregation (perhaps a spouse) is much more likely to volunteer in a soup kitchen than the most fervent believer who prays alone." As their title suggests, Putnam and Campbell are relatively sanguine about America's religious future. Polarization and partisanship are not going away -- evangelicals, for example, make up in zeal and high church attendance what they are losing in numbers -- but they think partisanship will be muted for reasons having to do with "switching, matching, and mixing." American religion is a great churn. Putnam and Campbell estimate that "roughly 35-40 percent of all Americans and 40-45 percent of white Americans have switched at some point away from their parents' religion." People change their allegiances, intermarry, and have close friends and relatives of other faiths.

Putnam offers himself as exhibit A. He and his sister were raised as Methodists. At marriage, he converted to Judaism. His children were raised as Jews; one married a Catholic who is now secular, and the other's spouse was secular but converted to Judaism. Putnam's sister married a Catholic and converted to Catholicism. Her three children became evangelicals! No wonder that so many Americans refuse to believe, regardless of the tenets of their religion, that those of differing conviction are bereft either of spiritual truth or hope of salvation.

In fact, having family or friends of another religious tradition turns out to have a spillover effect, increasing acceptance of other traditions not represented in one's immediate circle. But it is not yet clear whether this acceptance extends to "foreign" faiths such as Islam. And in attending to overall patterns, Putnam and Campbell may be underestimating the potential impact of militant minorities. They report, for example, "During the 2000 presidential campaign, only 5 percent of churchgoers reported hearing their clergy endorse a candidate." Only? In an Ohio or Florida, that margin can determine who sends this nation into war or bankruptcy. And who can say that the two aftershocks of the last four decades won't be followed by another?

No doubt, other criticisms will be made of American Grace. Its statistical methodology will be poked and probed. Its theological descriptions will be found a bit rough and ready. Its historical framing could stretch across the Atlantic and back in time. No matter. This is an indispensable analysis of religious polarization, partisanship, and pluralism in American life.