Grace Notes

David A. Pendleton March/April 2012

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.” So say professors Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell in American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, a comprehensive and evenhanded account of American faith and how it has changed over time.

Consider recent history. In 1960 John F. Kennedy had to break through a “stained-glass ceiling” to secure his party’s nomination and become president. By 2004 Catholic senator John F. Kerry drew as much support from Protestants as Catholics to clinch the Democratic nomination for president. In 2008 Catholic senator Joe Biden’s vice presidential nomination yielded nary a negative comment as to his religious affiliation. And it is possible that Mormon Mitt Romney may be the Republican presidential nominee in 2012. No doubt “the nation’s religious landscape has been reshaped.” And however much religion has changed, it is alive and well.

Drawing from both comprehensive longitudinal social science surveys and extensive anecdotal appraisals, the authors critically report on things religious in the United States, yielding both quantitative and qualitative findings. One need not be versed in Bayes’ theorem, Simpson’s paradox, or regression equations to follow the narrative, but the solid statistical underpinnings of American Grace1 provide for a firm foundation. The various individual surveys chimed their own distinctive notes, perhaps striking some as cacophonous, but to the authors a harmonious whole, a religious E pluribus unum, if you will.

Those less mathematically inclined will especially appreciate the book’s dozen in-depth profiles of varied faith communities. The vignettes of religious life add rich texture to the work. Whether with numbers or narrative, the authors provide an insightful, penetrating, and ably expressed story.

Described are an American people who over time have behaved with increasing courtesy toward and acceptance of the mounting multiplicity of religious communities—a situation both derived from and supportive of the religious freedom sustained by an open and diverse culture and secured by law.2 America has been the leading destination of both entrepreneurs seeking to make their fortunes and erstwhile persecuted worshippers seeking the good fortune of simply being left alone.

This country has been home to indigenous Native Americans, settled by Puritans, and successively the adoptive home to waves of Anglicans, other Protestants, dissenters, freethinkers, and then Catholics from Ireland and more recently Mexico. It is, as Putnam and Campbell say, “deeply religious, religiously diverse, and remarkably tolerant.” No surprise here, but as with Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray, there is more than meets the eye; like a scholar examining a palimpsest, a different text awaits discovery beneath the surface.

Digging deeper, the authors detail widespread personal interfaith relationships softening institutional loyalties and prejudices, interfaith marriages increasingly the norm, and religious boundaries ever more permeable. The resulting pluralism may worry fundamentalists (Christian, Jewish, and Muslim) but for the authors “personal pluralism means that America is graced with religious harmony.” The sheer variety of options precludes any single religious community’s hegemony. As one might surmise from James Madison’s Federalist No. 10, factions are natural, but their very multiplicity is the key to their mitigation.

Pluralism is a “puzzle” for some, a bad word to others. Sociologist Peter Berger’s Heretical Imperative opined that pluralism constituted modernity’s “crisis.” But not so for these authors: pluralism need not entail paralysis between the opposing polarities of “theological rigor and theological vacuity.” Religious heterogeneity can enhance a community and need not impede reasoned and coherent articulations of faith. Modernity’s pluralism doesn’t terminate but only expands humankind’s quest for transcendent meaning.

Some grieve the changed and changing American “varieties of religious experience,” to borrow a phrase from William James. But not Putnam and Campbell, who neither revel in nor regret their findings. They simply report; we decide—and however much institutional faiths might wish to turn back the religious clock, the upside has been demonstrable increases in interfaith dialogue, acceptance, and cooperation.

“In 1960,” recall Putnam and Campbell, “religion’s role in politics was mostly a matter of something akin to tribal loyalty—Catholics and Protestants each supported their own.” But far from “cocooning into isolated religious communities, Americans have become increasingly likely to work with, live alongside, and marry people of other religions—or people with no religion at all.”

In 1741 Jonathan Edwards preached impassioned jeremiads to ecstatic crowds of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Today “God is more avuncular than angry, and it turns out . . . that this sort of everyday theology has real implications for the ways in which Americans get along with one another.”

Americans increasingly identify themselves as having no religious affiliation at all. The shorthand for such folk is “none,” after the survey box so many check. These “nones” cause those desperately seeking certainty to worry over a society increasingly indifferent to cherished beliefs of its Founders. George Washington, after all, is reported to have said, “Religion and morality are the essential pillars of civil society.”

The authors fret not at all about doubt, because for “some deeply religious people, the absence of doubt is not the best measure of religious commitment.” Even Augustine held that doubt is but “another element of faith.” Absolute certainty is not the norm of faith; increasingly subtlety, ambiguity, and paradox are seen as core to, not contradictory of, faith.

American Grace tells its story in four sections. The first describes the old and the new in American religion. From visits to traditional Protestant parishes to tours of trendy southern California’s Saddleback “megachurch,” American faith manifests itself in both antiquated and avant-garde formats. The second section explores the underlying social currents which have swept every corner of American society, influencing conceptions of women’s rights, social justice, and racial equality. The third section dissects politics and the church, examining the complex interaction between priests and politicians, political campaigns and places of worship. The fourth and final section queries how the United States continues to “combine religious diversity, religious commitment, and religious tolerance, especially in a period of religious polarization.”

Will Herberg’s classic book Protestant, Catholic, Jew: An Essay on American Religious Sociology proposed that religion was as much about identity as about faith, with denominations indebted to identifiable patterns of immigration. There was no single national melting pot but three (Protestant/Catholic/Jew). Putnam and Campbell add twenty-first-century nuances to Herberg’s 1955 thesis, finding that while “no faith” has become yet another melting pot, Americans who chose to believe are increasingly open to nonchristian faiths (Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism).

 “Switching, Matching, and Mixing” is the title of a chapter that captures the current situation. Here the authors unpack the statistics indicating increasing conversions and interfaith marriages. Now more than ever before, faith is a journey, not a fixed destination. Those who have never read Blaise Pascal corroborate his claim that those seeking God have already found God. While denominational or religious inertia never dictated the inheritance of faith, it exerted a stabilizing influence on families. Many young people held fast to the faiths of their fathers and eternal verities of their mothers.

Today roughly one third of Americans have switched religions at some point in their lives. “Women,” for example, “are no likelier to remain faithful to the religion of their parents than men, college grads no more than high school dropouts, and so forth.” And if “we count marriages between two different mainline Protestant denominations (say, Methodists and Lutherans) or two different evangelical denominations as mixed, then the intermarriage rates are . . . 40 percent currently mixed and 60 percent originally mixed.” As the authors stated in an interview promoting American Grace: “Most new marriages now are interfaith marriages.”

For the authors, change and diversity are not just slogans. Putnam, former dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, was raised Methodist and converted to Judaism. Campbell, a practicing Mormon, is a professor at the University of Notre Dame. Both have friends and family who practice various religions. Living and working in religiously diverse environments is not merely theoretical; it is their world.

As the American population spreads itself ever thinner over the expanse of faith options, how a faith is lived within any particular tradition is increasingly variable. American Muslim women are seen in public without head scarfs; their male counterparts have been known to eat and drink water during daylight hours of Ramadan. American Hindus patronize McDonald’s. Reform Jews such as Rabbi Peter Knobel emphasize “the autonomy of the individual” as core to Judaism and ethics as “imposed by one’s own reasoning rather than by tradition.” Orthodox Jews would beg to differ. Similarly, Christians even within the same denominations increasingly find themselves avowing contradictory doctrines. Conservative Protestants and liberal Protestants invest markedly different meaning in the identical creeds they recite in church—and their stands on social issues may be ever further apart.

Traditional doctrinal formulations or conformist mores are not mandatory with the next generation. “There has been a liberalizing trend on same-sex marriage, with younger Americans far more accepting of homosexuality generally, and same-sex unions specifically, than their elders. On abortion, though, we see evidence of a conservative tilt among young people, even though they are also the most secular age group in the population.” Their admiration for the ethical imperatives of the Sermon on the Mount is unencumbered by institutional obligations.

Discussing church and state relations, the authors offer a clichéd prediction: “Religion and politics [will] align in new ways, as political entrepreneurs work to construct new coalitions. The change will be in how religion affects our politics, not whether it does.” This is the reverse of the man-bites-dog story. But sometimes sophisticated studies confirm common sense.

Not all conclusions are as banal, and one may actually anger readers: “Religious liberals more often experience a loving god, and they are among the most socially trusting of Americans, whereas religious conservatives more often experience a judgmental God, and they are among the least trusting of Americans, especially if they are not observant.”

Their finding that as “people build more religious bridges they become warmer toward people of many different religions, not just those religions represented within their social network” may be more aspirational than descriptive, yet it does shed light on how behavioral changes are the cause and consequence of theological change over time.

“A leading, perhaps even the primary, reason that America manages to be both highly religious and highly religiously diverse is that most Americans do not believe that those with a different religious faith are damned,” conclude Putnam and Campbell. The takeaway message of American Grace might be succinctly summarized in a social harmony calculus: “Devotion plus diversity, minus damnation, equals comity.”

Whether social harmony is inevitable is uncertain. That it is desirable is obvious. We pray with Putnam and Campbell that peace and religious freedom will prevail.

David A. Pendleton, a lawyer, writes from Honolulu, Hawaii.

1 General Social Survey, the National Election Studies, the Pew Religion and Public Life surveys, and other sources of data were relied upon by Putnam and Campbell.
2 The First Amendment of the Constitution provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof .”

Article Author: David A. Pendleton

David A. Pendleton has served as a schoolteacher, college instructor, trial lawyer elected state legislator, and policy advisor to a state governor, and now adjudicates workers' compensation appeals in Honolulu, Hawaii.