Thursday, March 3, 2011

E unum pluribus

In American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, Robert Putnam and David Campbell limn the soul of a nation

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site.

Harvard University political scientist Robert D. Putnam's 2000 book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community was one of those books -- like David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd (1950) or Daniel Bell's The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976) -- that captured a zeitgeist. Its key concept of "social capital," and the thesis that it was in gradual decline, has defined academic discourse across a series of disciplines for over a decade now. Though it may now be a little dated (my students routinely argue, to my mind unconvincingly, that social networking is in effect a new and effective form of social capital), it will continue to serve as an artifact of turn-of-this-century American life.

Putnam's next two books, co-edited anthologies, deepened the inquiry into the issues he explored in Bowling Alone. But now he has teamed up with Notre Dame political scientist David E. Campbell to produce American Grace, a comprehensive look at the contemporary landscape of religion in U.S. life. Written in collaboration with other researchers, and based on two large-scale surveys in 2006 and 2007, it will likely serve as a widely cited landmark study for decades to come.

Loosely speaking, the argument of American Grace follows that of Bowling Alone. Just as the latter tracked civic engagement over the course of a lifetime and multiple generations, so too does American Grace chart -- literally, in a profusion of elegantly simple graphs -- religious engagement in U.S. society.  As with civic engagement, Putnam & Co. find both that religious commitment tends to intensify over the course of a lifetime, but that there has been a gradual but unmistakable ebbing of religiosity among the young. Because the young begin at a lower base line level, any rise in commitment later in life is not likely to catch up to where their elders are at the same stage of life. At the moment, this ebbing is not obvious or dramatic, because it is more than balanced out by older generations. But over time it will likely prove significant.

This demographic rhythm seems to transcend politics, though the authors make clear that social currents nevertheless shape its course. In particular, the cultural shocks of the 1960s -- specifically the sexual revolution and its concomitant developments -- have proved enormous. This "shock" was followed by an "aftershock" we have come to know as the evangelical revival of the 1970s and 80s, which lent a neoconservative cast to American religion, important exceptions like Black Protestants notwithstanding. This aftershock, in turn, was followed by the less obvious but important one of the rise of the "nones," religiously unaffiliated young Americans, whose orientation is in effect a backlash against the conservative backlash. The authors go to great pains to make clear that U.S. religion has never broken down along simple party lines, and does not now, either. But in important respects, this perception is important enough to comprise a partial reality of its own.

In any case -- and this is a key message of American Grace -- social divisions over religion in U.S. life are ultimately less important that its role as a crucial form of social glue. The authors marvel that a nation as religiously fractured as this one has not descended into sectarian strife. The reason they offer, one reminiscent of James Madison's argument in The Federalist #10, is that Americans seem to regard pluralism itself as a shared value. This belief has only been intensified by what the authors call "the Aunt Sally Principle" (the role of religious intermarriage in fostering ecumenical ties) and "the my Friend Al Principle" (the growing incidence of bridging social capital across sectarian lines). Moreover, they say, there are signs of ideological convergence on some of the most contentious issues in religious life. More and more of the faithful, for example, are moving leftward toward a more inclusive approach toward homosexuality, and rightward toward a more skeptical view of abortion rights (as indeed are some "nones"). Religious people tend to be less tolerant in some respects than secular ones, but also more generous with their time and treasure. The honest-broker tone of the book adds to its credibility, though their belief in the civic benefits of faith in public life is clear.

Which is why, notwithstanding the sunny tone of American Grace, it's hard not to be haunted by it. Like Frederick Jackson Turner hailing the value of the frontier even as he declares it closed, one can't help but wonder what will become of a nation whose social capital, religious and otherwise, is draining in tandem with its economic capital. The authors repeatedly make clear that sociological trends rarely move in a straight line, and any student of U.S. history is aware that periodic reawakenings are a staple of it. Maybe it's time to pray for a revival.