American Grace
By Robert Putnam and David Campbell (with Shaylyn Romney Garrett)
Simon & Schuster

For years, the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam has warned Americans they live in an age that fosters their most dangerous social type: the loner. In Bowling Alone, he wrote that the informal groups that yoke citizens together towards common ends – from trade unions to parent-teacher associations to bowling leagues – were eroding. He has found that ethnic diversity leads people to “hunker down” and withdraw from public involvement. In American Grace, a survey of US religion, he and David Campbell look at the religious institutions that supposedly remain robust.

At first glance, there is reason to worry a lot about American religion, the authors think. A society with one religion, devoutly followed, ought to be stable. So should a society with great diversity of religions that no one particularly cares about. But America would seem to possess an explosive combination: a diversity of faiths plus a high level of devotion. Moreover, the correlation between religiosity and partisan politics increases steadily. Republicans are the party of fervent believers of all faiths (with the partial exception of black Christians and Jews). Democrats are the party of the religiously disaffiliated. What keeps them from each others’ throats?

The broad story of religion since 1945 has been one of decline. Those who say religion is “very important” fell from 70 per cent in 1965 to 52 per cent in 1978, and the drop-off was severe in the oldest churches. “Mainline” protestants (such as Anglicans, Lutherans and Methodists), who represented almost a third of religious Americans in the early 1970s, make up only 13 per cent today. The Christian ranks were filled by evangelicals, fundamentalists and “born-agains”.

The authors paint a nuanced and idiosyncratic picture of hardline Christianity. It was a reaction against the disorder of the 1960s. In looking at the spiritual causes of its growth, though, the authors do not ignore sociological factors. Americans have traditionally moved from “hot-gospelling” creeds to establishment ones as they climbed socially. But the hollowing out of mainline churches left evangelicals more inclined to stay in the churches they were born in. Any picture of born-agains as unwashed yahoos is something of a slander, the authors show. Among evangelicals (and black Christians), education is positively correlated with religiosity.

The most important fact about the revival in US Christianity is that it is, for the time being, over. Since the early 1990s, the number of Americans attending religious services each week has fallen from just over 45m to just under 40m, and evangelicals account for part of that decline. The fastest-growing “religious” group consists of those who have no religious affiliation at all. These “nones”, as the authors call them, have quickly risen from 7 to 17 per cent of the population. They are not atheists, who are almost non-existent in the US. (Only five of the authors’ 3,108 interview subjects described themselves as such.) More likely, they are the children of irreligious baby boomers who link religion to conservative politics and want nothing to do with it.

Religion is indeed politicised. The authors show that Americans are more apt to change their religion to “fit” their politics than vice versa. But America’s political religion is of a tame kind. Doctrinal politics of the 17th century kind have mostly disappeared. Americans in general are warm towards Jews, Catholics and mainline Protestants, neutral to evangelicals and the nonreligious, and mildly hostile to Mormons, Buddhists and Muslims.

When religious and non-religious Americans argue about politics, it is not over theology. Nor do most political issues even come up: attitudes on the death penalty and on immigration are wholly uncorrelated with religiosity. What the two argue about is sex. In the wake of the 1970s, attitudes towards pre-marital sex were the sharpest measure of the separation between evangelicals’ attitudes and others’. Today, attitudes towards homosexuality, particularly gay marriage, mark the line between “nones” and the rest of the population. The most contentious religiously inflected issue has been abortion. Here opinion is in flux. All generations take a dimmer view of abortion as they age, but there has been a sharp turn against the practice by the youngest Americans, of all religions and none.

Religion is increasingly chosen. At least 40 per cent of American whites have switched out of their parental religion at one point or another. The worlds of the secular and the fundamentalist overlap more than we would suspect. That is the main reason religion unites Americans even as it polarises them.

The writer is an FT columnist

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