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Quick and Dirty Review: American Grace

Being sick and flat on my back last weekend had the unexpected positive side effect of giving me time to read the absolutely incredible American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, by Robert Putnam and David E. Campbell.  This book is an absolute tour de force of information and analysis that is going to be essential for anyone doing political theology in an American context or who is looking at any aspect of American religious or congregational life.

Going back to the 1960s, religiosity in America (whose sine qua non the authors say at the present time is the likelihood that one prays over one’s food at mealtimes) had no correlation towards either end of the political spectrum.  Political liberals were as likely to be religious as conservatives and there was a wide divergence of political opinion found across the various religious traditions.  However, during what the authors call “the long Sixties,” by which the y mean the period from 1960 to the mid 1970s, religious affiliation began to decline and secularization began to take root in American culture in ways that it never before had done. This was a crucial period in American  political life for a variety of reasons, but the mark that it left on religious life was indelible.

According to Putnam and Campbell, there were two “aftershocks” which occurred in the wake of the secularization of the long Sixties.  The first took place from the mid 70s to the mid 80s and was characterized by a shift right-ward politically among religious people in reaction to the growing secularization of the country.  This period witnessed an explosion in white evangelical congregations and the mega churches which began popping up seemingly everywhere. The research indicates, however, that since the 90s continuing down to the present, there has been another aftershock, a backlash in American society against religious participation due to the fact that being religious has come to be identified with being Republican since the mid 70s (see aftershock #1).  The result of both of the aftershocks has resulted in what the authors call “the God gap” between political parties, with religious people being far more politically conservative while non-religious people are more liberal.

The two issues that have come to be associated with being religious as well as being political conservative and with being non-religious and being politically liberal, according to the survey data compiled by the authors, are, not surprisingly, the hot-button issues of abortion and homosexuality.   According to the authors, the high water mark for white evangelicals was the early 90s.  They have maintained their position as being larger than the liberal mainline churches, but that is deceptive, because of the shrinkage of religious participation overall is increasing.  The people who are leaving organized religion behind, whom the authors dub as “the Nones” overwhelmingly believe in God, and have much of traditional Christian beliefs, but are totally frosted by the association of religion in America with Republican politics, although the authors found very little evidence of politics in the formal structures of church life on either end of the political spectrum, and where they did find it, it was more on the left, in Jewish and Black Protestant churches.  Nonetheless, political values are still disseminated in congregational life by what they call “echo chambers,” by which they mean large groups of people who share the same religion and politics whose discourse reinforces on a regular basis the norms of that particular community.  It is this kind of thing to which the Nones have reacted, particularly with regard to the issue of homosexuality.  The evidence shows that white evangelicals are heading for an interesting time, generationally speaking, inasmuch as the success that they have had since the 70s with young people adopting their values, has hit a real wall, with young people increasingly moving in the opposite direction politically.  Liberal mainliners, however, hit the wall about 30 years ago, so are in an even more complex situation in the culture, although their move to embrace gays and lesbians might make switching from white evangelical churches easier at some point.  For now, however, people are just dropping out.

This is a huge book—almost 700 pages–with nuggets of fact and a treasure trove of analysis on every page.  It will repay anyone who takes the time to study it.  Pastors especially should work through it in order to get an understanding of the religious landscape  I think it is going to be one of those books that we will be coming back to again and again in coming years as we try to get a handle on what’s happening in American religion today.

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