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American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us [Hardcover]

Robert D. Putnam , David E. Campbell
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (57 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

This massive book eschews the narrow, monographic approach to sociological study in favor of an older, more useful model: the sweeping chronicle of national change over time. Harvard professor Putnam (Bowling Alone) and his University of Notre Dame coauthor Campbell (Why We Vote) argue two apparently contradictory theses persuasively: first, that a "new religious fault line" exists in America, a deep political polarization that has transcended denominationalism as the greatest chasm in religious life; and second, that the culture (especially its younger generation) is becoming so much more accepting of diversity that thesis #1 will not tear America apart. The bulk of the book explores in detail cultural developments--the boom of evangelicals in the 1970s and 1980s, largely concluded in the early 1990s; the rise of feminism in the pews; the liberalization of attitudes about premarital sex and homosexuality, especially among the youngest generations; and what may prove to be the most seismic shift of all: the dramatic increase of "nones," or people claiming no institutional religious affiliation. Putnam and Campbell (with their researcher, Garrett) have done the public a great service in not only producing their own mammoth survey of American religion but also drawing from many prior statistical studies, enabling readers to track mostly gradual change over time. (Oct. 5) (c)
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From Booklist

*Starred Review* In recent controversy over the national motto, In God we trust, Putnam and Campbell see a symptom of profound change in the national character. Using data drawn from two large surveys, the authors plumb these changes. The data show that the tempestuous sixties shook faith in religion and that the seventies and eighties incubated a strong resurgence of devotion. But the two most recent decades add another twist, as young Americans have abandoned the pews in record numbers. Still, despite recent erosion of religious commitment, Americans remain a distinctively devout people. And devotion affects life far from the sanctuary: Putnam and Campbell parse numbers that identify religious Americans as more generous, more civically engaged, and more neighborly than their secularly minded peers. But the analysis most likely to stir debate illuminates how religion has increasingly separated Republicans from Democrats, conservatives from progressives. Readers may blame the Christian Right for this new cultural fissure, but survey statistics mark liberal congregations as the most politicized. But whether looking at politics or piety, the authors complement their statistical analysis with colorful vignettes, humanizing their numbers with episodes from the lives of individual Protestants and Catholics, Jews and Mormons. An essential resource for anyone trying to understand twenty-first-century America. --Bryce Christensen


American Grace is a monumental work, an elegant narrative built on a solid foundation of massive research. This surprising, absolutely fascinating, and ultimately uplifting portrait of the changing role of religion in American life deserves the widest possible audience. It is a triumph.”

—Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

“Religion is perhaps the most significant but little understood force in American life, and this new book goes a long way toward illuminating how faith affects our politics and our culture. Robert Putnam and David Campbell have produced an original and thought-provoking work.”

—Jon Meacham, author of American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation

“Perhaps the most sweeping look yet at contemporary American religion.”

—Michelle Boorstein, The Washington Post

American Grace is an instant canonical text. It is indispensable for any grasp of our pluralistic religious culture. And it inspires us to deepen our ecumenical democracy!”

—Cornel West, Center for African American Studies, Princeton University

“This remarkable book does to religion what the Kinsey Report did to sex: document , dissect and assess the role religion—broadly defined to include disbelief and uncertainty—plays in our national experience. Whether you are a fundamentalist or atheist (or anything in-between) this book matters, because religion matters.”

—Alan Dershowitz, author of The Genesis Of Justice and The Trials Of Zion

“In American Grace, Robert Putnam and David Campbell analyze survey data and congregational profiles to give us a comprehensive look at religion in our country, and reach conclusions that will provide much thought for reflection. For those interested in the role of religion in society, this is an important book to read. It will be the topic of much discussion.”

—Jim Wallis, President of Sojourners and author of God's Politics and Rediscovering Values

“For anyone interested in the role of religion in America’s civic life, Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s American Grace is a must read. I am confident that their findings from rich case studies and sophisticated analysis of original national surveys will be of great value to academics, politicians, community organizers, religious and non-religious leaders, and American citizens who wonder about why and how religion continues to matter so much in American civic and private life.”

—Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, CSC, President Emeritus of the University of Notre Dame

“This is the best overview of American religion in the last half century that I have ever read. If you care about American religion, you must read this book.”

—Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, President, Union for Reform Judaism

“A big, multifaceted work. . . . Intellectually powerful.”

—Robert Wright, New York Times Book Review

About the Author

Robert D. Putnam is the Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University. Nationally honored as a leading humanist and a renowned scientist, he has written fourteen books and has consulted for the last four US Presidents. His research program, the Saguaro Seminar, is dedicated to fostering civic engagement in America.

David E. Campbell is the John Cardinal O'Hara, C.S.C. Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame as well as a research fellow with the Institute for Educational Initiatives. He is the author, coauthor, or editor of several books, and his work has also appeared in the Journal of Politics, Public Opinion Quarterly, and the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.  He lives near South Bend, Indiana.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

American Grace



In the 1950s, the Fraternal Order of Eagles teamed up with movie director Cecil B. DeMille for a unique promotion of the epic movie The Ten Commandments. In a form of reverse product placement, the Eagles and DeMille donated monuments of the biblical Ten Commandments to communities all around the country. Rather than putting a product in the movie, the primary symbol of the movie was instead placed in prominent locations—in public parks, in front of courthouses, and in the case of Texas on the grounds of the state capitol. These monuments reflected the zeitgeist, as the 1950s brought public, even government-sanctioned, expression of religion to the fore in many ways. This was also the decade in which “In God We Trust” became the official national motto, and the Pledge of Allegiance was amended to include the words “under God.”

Those monuments stood for decades without causing a fuss. In recent years, however, they have led to court battles over whether their location on publicly owned land violates the constitutional prohibition on a government establishment of religion. In other words, fifty years ago these displays were so noncontroversial that they could safely be used as a marketing ploy for a big-budget Hollywood movie. Now they are the subject of litigation all the way to the Supreme Court.1

Something has changed.

In 1960, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy had to reassure Protestants that they could safely vote for a Catholic. (At the time 30 percent of Americans freely told pollsters that they would not vote for a Catholic as president.) At the same time, Kennedy won overwhelming support from his fellow Catholics, even though he explicitly disagreed with his church on a number of public issues. In 2004, America had another Catholic presidential candidate—also a Democratic senator from Massachusetts, also a highly decorated veteran, and also with the initials JFK. Like Kennedy, John (Forbes) Kerry also publicly disagreed with his church on at least one prominent issue—in this case, abortion. But unlike Kennedy, Kerry split the Catholic vote with his Republican opponent, and lost handily among Catholics who frequently attend church. Kennedy would likely have found it inexplicable that Kerry not only lost to a Protestant, but in George W. Bush, an evangelical Protestant at that. Writing about the religious tensions manifested in the 1960 campaign, political scientist Philip Converse described the election as a “flash of lightning which illuminated, but only momentarily, a darkened landscape.”2 Kerry’s candidacy was another flash of lightning, but the landscape it revealed had changed significantly. In 1960, religion’s role in politics was mostly a matter of something akin to tribal loyalty—Catholics and Protestants each supported their own. In order to win, Kennedy had to shatter the stained glass ceiling that had kept Catholics out of national elective office in a Protestant-majority nation. 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. Church-attending evangelicals and Catholics (and other religious groups too) have found common political cause. Voters who are not religious have also found common cause with one another, but on the opposite end of the political spectrum.

Again, something has changed.

This book is about what has changed in American religion over the past half century. Perhaps the most noticeable shift is how Americans have become polarized along religious lines. Americans are increasingly concentrated at opposite ends of the religious spectrum—the highly religious at one pole, and the avowedly secular at the other. The moderate religious middle is shrinking. Contrast today’s religious landscape with America in the decades following the Second World War, when moderate—or mainline—religion was booming. In the past, there were religious tensions, but they were largely between religions (Catholic vs. Protestant most notably), rather than between the religious and irreligious. Today, America remains, on average, a highly religious nation, but that average obscures a growing secular swath of the population.

The nation’s religious polarization has not been an inexorable process of smoothly unfolding change. Rather, it has resulted from three seismic societal shocks, the first of which was the sexually libertine 1960s. This tumultuous period then produced a prudish aftershock of growth in conservative religion, especially evangelicalism, and an even more pronounced cultural presence for American evangelicals, most noticeably in the political arena. As theological and political conservatism began to converge, religiously inflected issues emerged on the national political agenda, and “religion” became increasingly associated with the Republican Party. The first aftershock was followed by an opposite reaction, a second aftershock, which is still reverberating. A growing number of Americans, especially young people, have come to disavow religion. For many, their aversion to religion is rooted in unease with the association between religion and conservative politics. If religion equals Republican, then they have decided that religion is not for them.

Religious polarization has consequences beyond the religious realm, because being at one pole or the other correlates strongly with one’s worldview, especially attitudes relating to such intimate matters as sex and the family. Given that American politics often centers on sex and family issues, this religious polarization has been especially visible in partisan politics. A “coalition of the religious” tends to vote one way, while Americans who are not religious vote another.

The current state of religious polarization has led social commentators to use heated, even hyperbolic, language to describe the state of American society. The bestseller lists are full of books highly critical of religion, countered by pundits whose rhetoric decries a public square made “naked” by religion’s absence.3 In an overused metaphor, America is supposedly in the midst of a war over our culture.4

And yet, when one ignores these venomous exchanges, and looks instead at how Americans of different religious backgrounds interact, the United States hardly seems like a house divided against itself. America peacefully combines a high degree of religious devotion with tremendous religious diversity—including growing ranks of the nonreligious. Americans have a high degree of tolerance for those of (most) other religions, including those without any religion in their lives.

Religion’s role in America thus poses a puzzle. How can religious pluralism coexist with religious polarization?

The answer lies in the fact that, in America, religion is highly fluid. The conditions producing that fluidity are a signal feature of the nation’s constitutional infrastructure. The very first words of the Bill of Rights guarantee that Congress—later interpreted to mean any level of government—will favor no particular religion, while ensuring that Americans can freely exercise their religious beliefs. In the legal arena, debates over such matters as whether the Ten Commandments can be displayed on public property hinge on the interpretation of the Constitution’s words. More broadly, the absence of a state-run religious monopoly combined with a wide sphere of religious liberty has produced an ideal environment for a thriving religious ecosystem. Religions compete, adapt, and evolve as individual Americans freely move from one congregation to another, and even from one religion to another. In the United States, it seems perfectly natural to refer to one’s religion as a “preference” instead of as a fixed characteristic.

This state of flux has actually contributed to religious polarization. A fluid religious environment enables people seeking something different to leave one religion for another, to find religion for the first time, or to leave religion altogether. This churn means that people gradually, but continually, sort themselves into like-minded clusters—their commonality defined not only by religion, but also by the social and political beliefs that go along with their religion.

The malleable nature of American religion, however, means that these clusters are not bunkers. Instead, the same fluidity that contributes to religious polarization means that nearly all Americans are acquainted with people of a different religious background. Even if you personally have never gone through a religious change, you likely know someone who has. Furthermore, that someone is likely to be more than a passing acquaintance, but rather a co-worker, a close friend, a spouse, or a child. All of this religious churn produces a jumble of relationships among people of varying religious backgrounds, often within extended families and even households, which keeps religious polarization from pulling the nation apart.

The contrast between John F. Kennedy in 1960 and John Kerry in 2004 is thus doubly revealing. It not only highlights the new ways that religion divides American society but, more subtly, it also reminds us that old divisions are largely forgotten. In 1960, Kennedy faced overt hostility to his Catholicism, even in polite company. We find it no coincidence that this was also a time when there were many social barriers to relationships between C...
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