Quick Takes: American Grace

Over the past year or so I have read a number of non-fiction books but failed to review them here. For some reason I have a hard time reviewing non-fiction – I always want to offer a more detailed and intelligent engagement with the book but never seem to have the time or focus to do so. Quick Takes is an attempt to offer quick assesments of these type of books without feeling the pressure to offer a full fledged review (whatever that is).

American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us
by Robert D. Putnam, David E. Campbell
688 pages
October 2010
Simon & Schuster


I found this to be a fascinating and informative look at religious life in America. If you are a stats/data geek this is heaven – charts galore – but they have weaved the data into a compelling narrative. And church vignette chapters break it up and provide some more personalized examples.

There are some interpretations that are arguable, and the authors pretty clearly come from a liberal perspective, but it is still a remarkably interesting read for anyone interested in the history of religion and the debates over politics and the culture wars.

Here is the core narrative or argument of the book:

America has experienced three seismic shocks, say Robert Putnam and David Campbell. In the 1960s, religious observance plummeted. Then in the 1970s and 1980s, a conservative reaction produced the rise of evangelicalism and the Religious Right. Since the 1990s, however, young people, turned off by that linkage between faith and conservative politics, have abandoned organized religion. The result has been a growing polarization—the ranks of religious conservatives and secular liberals have swelled, leaving a dwindling group of religious moderates in between. At the same time, personal interfaith ties are strengthening. Interfaith marriage has increased while religious identities have become more fluid. Putnam and Campbell show how this denser web of personal ties brings surprising interfaith tolerance, notwithstanding the so-called culture wars.

I know there is a lot of disagreement about the components of this argument or story arc (both the conclusions and the data) but I don’t have the depth of knowledge needed to offer much of a conclusion either way.

Here is an example from the Books & Culture review by James L. Guth and Lyman A. Kellstedt:

This dovetails with a more pervasive concern: Putnam and Campbell’s persistent dismissal of the content of religious faith. Although their own survey includes a solid battery of belief items, the authors repeatedly deny that what people believe has any major relevance to social or political values, whether partisanship, charitable activities, or civic engagement. We are unconvinced. An old adage among students of religion and politics is that “behavior begets behavior, and belief begets belief.” Religious practices like church attendance should foster voting or working in campaigns, while religious beliefs should influence choices on issues, parties, and candidates. Thus, findings in American Grace that churchgoers excel in civic participation are not surprising. But reliance on religiosity may be misleading when explaining political choices. True, abortion and gay rights opinions may be structured by religiosity more strongly than other issues, but the authors ignore the possibility that they might be influenced even more by religious beliefs.

What is so helpful about the book is that you don’t have to agree with the authors to enjoy and learn from it. They present the data and the argument and you can engage it at whatever detail is appropriate for you – get into the data or just read it absorbing as much as you can along the way.

With this in mind, I wholeheartedly echo the above review’s conclusion:

These caveats should not deter anyone interested in American religion from reading this challenging volume. For scholars hoping to fathom the connections between religion and public life, for clergy wanting to understand better the people in the pews (and those not there), and for grass-roots believers desiring a broader picture of faith in America, this volume is required reading.



Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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