American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us

Simon and Schuster, 2012 - 707 pagina's
American Grace is “perhaps the most sweeping look yet at contemporary American religion. It lays out the broad trends of the past fifty years, assesses their sociological causes, and then does a bit of fortune-telling” (The Washington Post).

Unique among nations, America is deeply religious, religiously diverse, and remarkably tolerant. In recent decades, however, the nation’s religious landscape has undergone several seismic shocks. American Grace is an authoritative, fascinating examination of what precipitated these changes and the role that religion plays in contemporary American society.

Although there is growing polarization between religious conservatives and secular liberals today, at the same time personal interfaith ties are strengthening. Interfaith marriage has increased, and religious identities have become more fluid. More people than ever are friendly with someone of a different faith or no faith at all. Putnam and Campbell show how this denser web of personal ties brings greater interfaith tolerance, despite the so-called culture wars.

Based on two of the most comprehensive surveys ever conducted on religion and public life in America (and with a new epilogue based on a third survey), American Grace is an indispensable book about American religious life, essential for understanding our nation today.

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LibraryThing Review

Gebruikersrecensie  - GlennBell - LibraryThing

This is a highly detailed analysis of religion in America. The book is basically an analysis of a faith survey conducted over multiple years. The accuracy of the book is almost entirely dependent on ... Volledige review lezen

LibraryThing Review

Gebruikersrecensie  - MaryAlice411 - LibraryThing

This book isn't something you can sit down and read. At least I couldn't. So much info, not trying to get you to believe anything, but how does religion control our live and politics and how religion ... Volledige review lezen


How a Tolerant Nation Bridges
The Faith Matters Surveys
Data Analysis

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Over de auteur (2012)


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" was added to American currency, 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 Catholics and Protestants. John Kerry ran in a different world. By 2004 his Catholicism presented no problems for Protestants. We again find it hardly coincidental that in the years between Kennedy and Kerry, Americans of many different religious backgrounds increasingly came to conne

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