In American Grace, co-authors Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell set out to resolve a puzzle: Why is it that America’s religious diversity hasn’t produced as much strife as one finds in other religiously diverse countries? The answer, they conclude, lies in our religious integration. Rather than retreating to separate religious bunkers, Americans have become more likely to work with, live alongside, and marry people of other religions—or, increasingly, people with no religion at all. In the process, they have found it easier to accept—and certainly more difficult to demonize—those with different religious beliefs. As Putnam and Campbell put it, “Interreligious relationships are so common today that most Americans probably pay them little mind, and consider them unremarkable. But their very commonness makes them remarkable indeed.”

Between the puzzle and the proposed answer lie more than five hundred pages packed with data and argument illuminating not only the main highways but also intriguing byways on the American religious map. Putnam and Campbell draw their findings from many sources, but principally from two original data sets, the “Faith Matters” surveys. (Full disclosure: I had a modest role early in the survey-design process.) The study was conducted in two rounds: nine months after they answered a first round of questions the respondents were contacted again for follow-up questions. This procedure enabled the authors to probe causal relationships among changes that occurred during the period between the first and second rounds. The result is a path-breaking contribution to our understanding of religion in the United States.

Putnam and Campbell lead off with a broad sketch of American religion today. Along with many well-known facts, we encounter some surprises. Religious polarization is on the rise: the ranks of both the highly observant and the nonobservant (and nonbelieving) are swelling, while the moderate religious middle is shrinking. We are witnessing the rise of the “nones” (those without religious affiliation), who at 17 percent are now the third largest group in the country. (At 10 percent, ex-Catholics are the fourth-largest.) The 1950s were truly exceptional in the level of religious observance, which has declined since, principally in two downward waves—during the 1960s and again during most of the past two decades. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the falloff has been concentrated among the less educated. There is no correlation between religiosity and racial prejudice among whites. And despite what many liberals believe, there is more overt politics in liberal congregations than in their conservative counterparts.

Along with these data are four larger findings. The first is a tight link between religious observance and what the authors call good neighborliness. All other things being equal, observant Americans give more, volunteer more, and are more civically active. Perhaps because they are regarded as more altruistic, they are more trusted than are the less observant. On the other hand, while tolerance has been rising across the board, it remains systematically lower among the most observant.

Second, it turns out that Dwight Eisenhower was a great intuitive sociologist. Intellectuals derided him for his famous 1954 statement: “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply felt religious faith—and I don’t care what it is.” But according to Putnam and Campbell, he was absolutely right. How much religion is the key to neighborliness and civic attachment, not what kind; what matters most is the level of observance, not the content of belief.

Third, religious change in America has come in three large waves, the most recent of which we have just begun to notice. Wave One was the cultural earthquake of the 1960s, which produced Wave Two—a culturally conservative reaction that brought Evangelical groups back into politics full-force for the first time since the 1920s. But the Evangelical boom crested by the early 1990s and has given way to Wave Three, characterized by the declining belief in biblical literalism and growing objections to the political influence of religious leaders. These changes have been especially pronounced among younger Americans. In 1990, the number of young adults who identified themselves as Evangelicals was twice the number of those who described themselves as unaffiliated. By 2000, there were more “nones” than Evangelicals. The authors cite findings from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life suggesting that these changes reflected a conscious rejection of what young Americans saw as the excesses of the Religious Right.

Finally, there is now much more alignment between patterns of religious observance and party identification than there was half a century ago. Indeed, religiosity strongly predicts party affiliation: while the Republican Party is seen as friendly to religion, the Democratic Party is viewed as neutral at best. This happened in part because, as social issues entered the political arena, the parties adopted contrasting stances on questions such as abortion and rights for homosexuals. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the impact of this sorting-out process has been greater among more educated, higher-income voters. Most significantly for political purposes, those who make religious choices based on their opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage tend to care more about these issues than do those who base their choices on support for these two things.

That brings us to the book’s major task—understanding why rising religious diversity doesn’t create more acute conflict in the United States today. Pretty clearly, it doesn’t. Despite levels of religious diversity and observance far higher than in the 1920s, religious chauvinism has declined dramatically. Today, 89 percent of Americans believe that those of faiths other than their own can get to heaven, and 87 percent believe that those without any faith at all can be good Americans.

As we’ve seen, Putnam and Campbell point to the breakdown of religious segregation—or, put affirmatively, to the rise of interpersonal connections across religious boundaries—as the principal explanation. Interreligious marriages, which are especially powerful solvents, have increased markedly in the past century. And these bonds have what the authors call spillover effects: when A and B form an interfaith friendship or marriage, they are likely to develop warmer feelings toward members of other religious groups not represented in their dyad.

I find that explanation suggestive but not entirely compelling. Sociologists estimate that nearly a third of Iraqi marriages are unions between members of different sectarian or ethnic communities. In Baghdad especially, these groups had been geographically intermingled for a long time. Many Iraqis believed that these social bonds would prevent intercommunal strife after the U.S. invasion of their country. Alas, they were wrong, with tragic consequences for families, neighborhoods, and the entire country. This suggests that while social bonds may be necessary conditions for peaceful coexistence, they are not always sufficient.

Putnam and Campbell’s thesis is an example of a broader family of views with a common assumption—namely, that social patterns drive political outcomes. I want to raise the possibility that the causal arrow also points in the other direction, that political structures frame social outcomes. Despite occasional bows toward our constitutional structure, the authors give short shrift to the ways in which regime-specific political factors can shape sociological patterns. To offer a fully compelling account of religion in America, Putnam and Campbell would have to bolster their analysis by specifying the structural, constitutional, and normative conditions within which interreligious bonds can encourage mutual acceptance.


Related: Further Adrift, by Peter Steinfels

Published in the 2010-10-22 issue: 

William Galston is Ezra Zilkha Chair and Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of Liberal Purposes and Liberal Pluralism, both published by Cambridge University Press. Galston served as deputy assistant for domestic policy under President Bill Clinton, 1993–95.

Also by this author
Continental Divide

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Religion
Culture
Culture
Books
Books
Collections
Collections