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American Grace

[Templeton Review; October 8, 2010]

When people with strong religious convictions live alongside people who hold different but equally strong views, the results can be explosive. That’s not only a matter of historical record, but a global tragedy as fresh and raw as today’s headlines. The United States, however, somehow defies both human history and faith-based brutality all too common in the contemporary world. What is America’s secret to maintaining social peace, relatively high levels of religious engagement, and increasing diversity?

To answer that question, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, just published by Simon & Schuster, draws on the most comprehensive surveys yet on American religion and public life, taken under the auspices of the Templeton-funded Faith Matters project. Authors Robert D. Putnam, the Harvard researcher best known for the best-selling Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital, and Notre Dame’s David E. Campbell found that a significant reason for our balanced blend of fervor, diversity, and tolerance is the “mixing-bowl” of personal relationships formed among ordinary citizens. We can get along, thanks to “the bridging that occurs among people of different religions,” Campbell says. Roughly half our friendships are with someone of a different religion; half of Americans are married to someone who came from a different faith. Campbell explains, “All that mixing and matching means that we are likely to know, to love, someone of another faith.”

To be sure, the American religious landscape is far from placid. Post-World War II conditions, characterized by settled, widespread faith, have been broken by three historic “shocks.” The first two were widely noted: the sexual revolution of the 1960s, followed by the “aftershock” of the rise of evangelicalism and the Religious Right in the 1980s. A third aftershock, less widely understood, came around 1990, as approval of homosexuality began to increase dramatically (among young people, in particular). A new category appeared in the religious spectrum, which Putnam and Campbell call “the nones.”

American Grace
From left: David Campbell and
Robert Putnam

These nones are not opposed to religion; few would call themselves atheists or even agnostics. Many would even say that religion is important to them. But they don’t attend worship services, and don’t join faith communities. Although they’re likely to come from the left side of the political spectrum, they don’t join liberal churches; their affiliation remains “none”—and they constitute a startling 20 to 30 percent of young American adults.

Is this disinterest in religious practice caused by a general rise in secularization? “We don’t think that at all,” Putnam says. “But when these young people were growing up, church was associated with conservatism on homosexuality and other issues. A large fraction of twentysomethings and thirtysomethings think, ‘I might be religious, but if religion is about intolerance, that’s not me.’” 

Those who expect America to drift toward European-style secularism will be disappointed, the researchers contend. Says Campbell: “America innovates within a faith, and within the style of a faith. Somebody is going to figure it out. The very vibrancy of American religion means it will always be inventive.”
Among other surprising findings in American Grace:

  • Roughly one-third of Americans have switched religions at some point in their lives;
  • Young people are more opposed to abortion than their parents but more accepting of gay marriage;
  • Even fervently religious Americans believe that people in other faiths can get to heaven;
  • Religious Americans are better neighbors than secular Americans—more generous with their time and treasure, even for secular causes—but the explanation has less to do with faith than with communities of faith;
  • Jews are the most broadly popular religious group in America today.

American Grace received strong early reviews. Booklist, for example, called it “an essential resource for anyone trying to understand twenty-first-century America.” That judgment reflects one of the Foundation’s hopes for the Faith Matters project, which carried out the research for American Grace backed by $1.7 million in Templeton Foundation grant funding. The program measures the impact of “religious belonging, behaving, and believing” on social capital—that is, the productive capacity of social relationships. Kimon Sargeant, vice president of human sciences at the Foundation, says, “The Faith Matters project is the most sophisticated and serious attempt that I know of to document how religious networks, beliefs, and institutions contribute constructively to civic life.”

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