Featured: AMERICAN GRACE – Robert Putnam / David Campbell [Vol. 4, #3]

February 5, 2011 — 1 Comment


“Breaking  Down the Dividing Walls of Hostility

A review of
American Grace:
How Religion Divides and Unites Us
by Robert Putnam and David Campbell

Reviewed by Mark Eckel.

American Grace:
How Religion Divides and Unites Us
Robert Putnam and David Campbell.
Hardback: Simon & Schuster, 2010

Buy now: [ Amazon ]

AMERICAN GRACE - Putnam / CampbellStudents from junior high through high school to undergrad to graduate programs have heard me incessantly intone this mantra: we must know both what and why we believe.  The person who parrots a point of view without reason is simply doctrinaire.  The person who can explain their belief, on the other hand, better understands their doctrine.  Everyone holds to certain dogma, guiding principles, or an accepted canon of thought.  If one gains no other information from American Grace, it might be this: one’s conduct reflects one’s commitment.

Putnam and Campbell have added their exceptional research skills to divine how faith functions in American life.  Statistical research, based on huge amounts of data, demonstrate their expertise.  Blended research methods tighten threads of interpretive fabric.  Academics needing to validate findings can easily follow the flow of approach and argument.  Internal corrections and limitations are in evidence throughout the book.  Chapters covering broad historical changes set the stage for understanding the present.  Crosscurrents of thought are overlaid on multiple categories within a number of religious affiliations forecasting future developments.  Conclusions are, for the most part, carefully drawn.  The reader is consistently given caveats within which to read the sum of data found at each chapter’s end.  Interpretation of data show general American trends.  But in the end, the average, interested religious person in America would not be at all surprised by any of the broad findings.

For instance, what are the results of people who “switch” or “mix” their belief with another (chapter five)?  If one changes doctrines, it seems obvious that transfer of their religion will not be passed on to their children.  Clearly, personal choice would be more important than one’s creedal past when a person changes faith commitments.  In chapter eleven, religions’ impact on American politics is explored.  Is it a stunning conclusion to concede that a person’s internal commitment will impact their external conduct (418)?  Would it come as a surprise to anyone conversant in religious circles that people who have been individually changed by belief would work against issues of inequality as individuals (chapter eight)?  Why, then, should these results showing personal commitment to redress wrongs be compared to trust in government intervention?  A conclusion such as “religious America has offered little support for public action to redress growing class inequities” (258) is predisposed toward top-down solutions for bottom-up problems.  Why should bureaucratic oversight be blithely accepted by the authors as marking the solution to societal inequity?

While most of what one reads in American Grace comes as no surprise, lack of definition catches the reader unawares.  Examples could be multiplied.  What is the definition of “evangelical” or “moderate” (3, 106, 132)?  What of “polarization” or “pluralism” (chapter 1)?  To suggest that fluidity of religious belief (3) is the cause of religious clashes strikes against the very essence of “polarization.”  Why are gambling, movie attendance, and premarital sex all referred to as “leisure activities” (22)?  Pages 6 and 18 list very important research questions whose meaning must be assumed by the reader.  Perhaps most unnerving are word choices and their corollary ideas.  “What happened to cause religious devotion to be so strongly associated with partisan politics” (7, emphasis mine) is a question linking “devotion” to “partisan.”  Does this assume that non-believing people are not involved in partisan politics?   This is a simple social science question that must be answered before questions are proffered.  Further, a need exists to examine the definition of “religious” beyond external compliance.  Throughout the book Putnam and Campbell wonder why young people are being “pushed away” from religion.  Three primary, cultural influences—celebrity, media, and university professors—are not mentioned, leaving the impression that if a person “switches,” “mixes,” or “leaves” their belief, the onus is left at the door of The Church.

Most disconcerting are categorical statements peppering the book.  To suggest, for instance, that religious Americans have not “led the way in racial tolerance” (319) is a slap in the face to the many who have stood against racism—from the Abolitionists to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to every Evangelical inner-city ministry existing today.  Similar retorts could be made to the untruth that believers “are less staunch supporters of civil liberties” (492).  Where is explanation of this “moderate religious middle—the once thriving segment of the religious spectrum” (548)?  And why are those who hold to distinctive doctrines described as “less tolerant” (542ff)?  Would the authors believe the opposite, that “more tolerant” people tend to be fickle?!  Absolute differences in belief do not negate absolute care for those who disagree.

From a purely human vantage point, the authors are right, “It is difficult to damn those you know and love” (517).  But will “interlocking personal relationships among people of many different faiths” (550) be the ultimate solution?  For instance, would a strict Muslim imam allow such latitude of thought in his congregants?  Would an orthodox rabbi in a Jewish synagogue?  Would Al Mohler at Southern Seminary?  How important is distinctiveness in anyone’s belief (547)?  How can any doctrinal grid maintain clear markers of difference while operating in a world of pluralism?  And here the reader must return to the introduction: does the commitment of belief match the conduct of its members?  Can a person adhere to revelatory truth claims while living peaceably in a divergent society?  Could it be said that belief in supernatural sources of truth has given stability to American law?  Has “religiosity” made a positive impact in American culture?  Is peaceful-pluralism possible in other nations?  Are Americans so obsessed by their failings that they do not revel in what Putnam and Campbell rightly call American Grace?

The limitations of statistical research include the assumptions or anchors in a person’s mindset.  Though no endnotes substantiate the statement, the clearest comment in the book defines the issue:

“Religion, or the lack thereof, informs and shapes people’s deep-seated values, their worldviews.  Disagreements over religion are often disagreements over fundamentals: the immovable object of one person’s beliefs meeting the irresistible force of another’s” (493).

The only human possibility of “faith without fanaticism” (547) in a civil society such as America’s is its “national DNA . . . the nation’s constitutional infrastructure” (549-50).  Historians of all persuasions at least agree that Christian influences positively mark the founding documents and ideals of America.  But ultimately, the responsibility of unity within diversity rests with Believers who now practice Christ’s accomplishments on The Cross, breaking down the dividing walls of hostility (Ephesians 2:11-22).


Mark Eckel is Dean of Undergraduate Studies and Professor of Old Testament at Crossroads Bible College, Indianapolis, IN. He blogs at warpandwoof.org .