AMERICAN GRACE- Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell

There is a new book by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell called AMERICAN GRACE: How Religion Divides and Unites Us 673 pp. Simon & Schuster. $30. The book is not earth shattering but it will be standard work that needs to be footnoted and it will be the accepted starting point for discussions.

Putnam whose prior work Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community – showed the breakdown of social networks in the United States. We don’t have bowling leagues, Moose lodges, synagogue men’s clubs, or continuous community activities compared to prior decades. (Anyone dealing with the rise of the new online social networks would need to use this as a base.)

In this new book, Putnam together with Campbell argue that we went from the loss of the religion in the 1960’s, the return in the 1980’s, and then the reaction against the repressiveness in the late 1990’s by people claiming to be atheist or post-evangelical. None of this is new to readers of this blog.

Second, They show that increase in social contact with any group leads to an acceptance into one’s social network. Evangelicals, Catholics, and Jews each now accept each other and assume the others are all going to heaven.

Along the way they gather much of the tidbits about religious life in the US we know from the various surveys. Jews are the most accepted of any group and that most people are both somewhat feminist and religious. (The ADL fleeced American Jewry out of 54 million last year by arguing for the virulent Antisemitism everywhere..) I have included various citations from the NYT review and the review by Peter Steinfels.

There are may other reviews out there but I have also included an interview with Putnam by Albert Mohler the conservative Baptist. It is interesting to show how a conservative Evangelical deals with social science data, especially the fact that his own positions have driven people away. This is interesting because Centrist orthodoxy does not usually allow social data to interfere with ideology.

America has experienced three seismic shocks, say Robert Putnam and David Campbell. In the 1960s religious observance plummeted. Then, in the 1970s and 1980s a conservative reaction produced the rise of evangelicalism and the Religious Right. Since the 1990s, however, young people, turned off by that linkage between faith and conservative politics, have abandoned organized religion entirely. The result: growing polarization.

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.
Putnam and Campbell write, “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.”

Here the authors explain the observation they started the book with: America’s religious diversity hasn’t generally involved much intolerance. Indeed, believers seem willing to bend basic doctrines in the name of interfaith amity. Most Christians, even most evangelical Christians, ¬believe that non-Christians can go to heaven, notwithstanding the New Testament’s repeated assertions that Christ is the only path to the Kingdom of God.

The authors’ explanation for this bigheartedness is common-sensical: “Most Americans are intimately acquainted with people of other faiths.” Americans have, on average, at least two friends who don’t share their faith, and at least one ¬extended-family member who fits that description. And who wants to tell friends or relatives that they’re going to hell — or even believe that a friend or relative is going to hell? More broadly: getting to know an adherent of an otherwise alien faith tends to humanize the aliens.

They conducted surveys with the same large pool of people in consecutive years and tracked changes in both social milieus and attitudes. They conclude, for instance, that gaining an evangelical friend leads to a warmer assessment of evangelicals — by seven degrees on a “feeling thermometer,” to be exact — and gaining a non¬religious friend brings four degrees of added warmth toward the nonreligious.

“Most Americans today are religious feminists.”
Jews are the most broadly popular religious group in America today.

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.”

The discussion between Putnam and Mohler is useful for Orthodoxy. If we apply Putnam’s conclusions to orthodox Judaism then the new skeptics, the post-orthodox, and the fault lines in the community are all due to strong political rabbinical control in which rabbis over extending their bounds by banning Slifkin or Avi Weiss. The turn to right wing politics in both American and Israeli politics was not good for keeping people. Putnam argues that this has not been a secularization trend but a break from the conjunction of religion and politics. The young still like relgion just not the political form in which it was presented. Putnam has the data that this change away from the institutional structures will be as great as the 1960’s losses. (I have been working that assumption with that since this blog started but now I have a footnote.)

Putnam thinks that a successful religious leader is likely to arise who could combine a liberal framework with Evangelical relgion- getting the best of both worlds. Think of combining the Torah and spirituality of Orthodoxy with an open political- social base. The conservative Evangelical Mohler acknowledges that there is wisdom in sociology but then clergy need to learn what to do with the data. Evangelicals should not jump to become judgmental before they have the understanding of what is actually going on in the field.

Mohler askes: if this is true, then what does the future of mission look like? Mohler then hems and haws about what to do with this and states that he is based on the text of the bible and must separate the true message from what may have not been expedient. But he cannot go much further than this.

Putnam: Well you know it’s interesting, if you just read the raw data you have to say we’re in a period, and have been for the last twenty years, of a sharply increasing secularization mostly because the younger generation, unlike previous younger generations, have just stepped sharply away from organized religion. And many people, especially many people on the secular side think of this as finally America’s becoming a secular nation. I actually don’t think that’s quite right.

Many of these young people in their private beliefs have quite conventional religious beliefs. I think they’ve been very turned off, as I said, by the conjunction of politics and religion.. they’ve essentially said well if that’s all religion is about is just about republican and conservative politics that’s not me, I’m out of here.

And if you ask me, I bet you quite a bit that over the next ten, fifteen, twenty years, some successful religious entrepreneurs, people who want to save a lot more souls will be looking at that pool saying, I think I know the kind of religion that would be attractive to them. It would be, it might very well have a lot of the accouterments and liturgy and so on of evangelical religion.

Mohler: One of the most important acts of intellectual stewardship is to learn how to read a book. And as I often say to my students we need to read a book for all it’s worth. And that means putting into context, understanding it’s purpose, being able to judge its credibility, and then considering what kind of intellectual impact it should have on our lives and our thinking…Now we’re going to be looking at this and inevitably evangelical Christians are going to be reading it with a lens, a focus, that is intensely and unapologetically theological, that’s really important, that’s where we have to begin, and that’s where we have to end. But we need to read a work of sociology as a work of sociology. So phenomenology attempts not to make a value judgment of whether people are right or wrong, but simply to come to an accurate understanding of what they believe and why it matters.

I think the genius of this work and where evangelicals are going to find an awful lot of fodder for thought is in the second aftershock

But what Putnam and Campbell come back to demonstrate is that there was another aftershock that began in the 1990’s a response not to the sixties but to that second aftershock. These were folks who said we don’t like the way that conservative Christians would take this country. And indeed, we don’t like what we hear. And he points out some things that evangelicals really need to pay attention to. For instance, he suggests that the growth in evangelical momentum ended in the 1990’s and thus for a period that could be as long as twenty years, we have been in an era of evangelical retreat.

How do we communicate our message? How do we tell people the truth in a way that is hearable and in way that is understandable? Did you notice when he talks about the religious predictor factor of voting.

He said something that I never heard said by a scholar in this field of inquiry before. He said that they determined that when an individual had an incommensurate set of positions with religious beliefs on one hand and political convictions on the other, it was not the case that the religious convictions would drive a change in the political positions. Instead it turns out that the political positions drive a change in the theological worldview. Now for evangelical Christians that comes as an explosive bomb. This is something that needs to get our attention immediately.

A theological lens, we have to look at it with a missiological lens. We have to look at it first of all as Christians and come to understand that when we look at this kind of data it’s telling us what is, not what ought to be. We gain out understanding of what ought to be and what ought to be believed first and foremost from the bible. We’re a people of the book, and so if we’re looking for what to believe we don’t look to this data we indeed look to the word of God. We also look at it with a theological worldview that given our last conversation of the issue about whether it’s the political position that draws the theological conviction or vice versa , we’re the people who know it better be the theological and biblical conviction that drives all the rest.


One response to “AMERICAN GRACE- Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell

  1. 1) Putnam fails to mention the devastation brought about by yippies-hippies from one side and the Weathermen on the other. The labor union left never recovered. Much of the Orthodox rhetoric sounds to me like they are constantly reliving the traumas of that period. Either frum-frum or nihilism and vice, with little in between. 2) Putnam’s claim that the dividing line between religious and non religious is premarital sex is not fully correct. It is pretty much a non-issue beginning with those left of Conservadox . Even in Orthodox blogs when the issue of tefilin dates comes up, most everyone remains sane. Orthodoxy goes ballistic over homosexuality, witness this Rabbi Levin moron. I think the reason is that many find even just imagining homosexual intercourse disgusting, a sort of violation of their bodies. A politician who favors gay marriage becomes by contagion muktzah machmas mius, irrespective of any other issues. 3) They don’t discuss the spectacular failure of stage two feminism. So many Jewish women who are now childless and of a certain age, regret their own decisions. This has accrued to Orthodoxy’s benefit since they seem to have no such problems. These days I think this career talk while still present is quite subservient to family and children, even in non-Orthodox circles. The women don’t start hunting and fishing at 18, but by 28 they become acutely aware of the big 3-0. 4) The idea that religious people are the most benevolent needs to be modified. After all Orthodoxy imports capital and tends to be quite weak in civic and humanitarian activities. The standard bearers of charity remain the great Jewish Reform families. I just read a letter of a great grandchild who said “Thank you zaide for teaching me how to use a trust fund.” What is true is that these rich families form a network, but not one that is temple based. 5) The place where the turn to secularism is felt most are the Conservative synagogues. Everyone is so impressed with independent minyanim-Hadar, but they don’t amount to 50,000 people. Most everyone including the Chancellor is clueless what should be done about the million that remain, when the have turned so sour on congregational life.

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