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PORTSIDE  October 2010, Week 4

PORTSIDE October 2010, Week 4

Subject:

Changing Faiths: Book Review

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Date:

Mon, 25 Oct 2010 22:18:01 -0400

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Changing Faiths

     Religious Americans are far more diverse,
     tolerant, and compassionate than the image of an
     evangelist upsurge would suggest.

Peter Steinfels
October 21, 2010
The American Prospect
http://prospect.org/cs/articles?article=changing_faiths

American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, by
Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, Simon &
Schuster, 673 pages, $30

American Grace is a scrupulously researched,
extensively documented, and utterly clear book filled
with findings that should rattle the assumptions of
anyone, religious or secular, who cares about religion
in American public life.

Findings like these:

   "The evangelical boom that began in the 1970s was
   over by the early 1990s, nearly two decades ago. In
   twenty-first century America expansive
   evangelicalism is a feature of the past, not the
   present."

   "Cohorts of whom barely 5 percent say they have no
   religious affiliation are being replaced by cohorts
   of whom roughly 25 percent say they have no
   religion, massively increasing the nationwide
   incidence of nones."

   "The more often you say grace, the more likely you
   are to find a home in the Republican Party, and the
   less likely you are to identify with the Democrats."

   "Most Americans today are religious feminists."

   "There is little overt politicking over America's
   pulpits and, to the extent it happens, it is more
   common on the political left than the right."

   "Religious Americans are, in fact, more generous
   neighbors and more conscientious citizens than their
   secular counterparts. On the other hand, they are
   also less tolerant of dissent."

   "Regular churchgoers are more likely to give to
   secular causes than nonchurchgoers, and highly
   religious people give a larger fraction of their
   income to secular causes than do most secular
   people."

   "A whopping 89 percent of Americans believe that
   heaven is not reserved for those who share their
   religious faith. Americans are reluctant to claim
   that they have a monopoly on truth."

American Grace is not, however, a collection of
believe-it-or-not findings about American religion. It
tells a story and makes coherent arguments. The social
science of many chapters takes on flesh and blood in
congregational profiles that range from Episcopal
churches in Massachusetts to a venerable African
American church in Baltimore and booming "megachurches"
in Minnesota and California, from Chicago Catholic
parishes turning Hispanic to a liberal suburban
synagogue and a Utah Mormon ward incorporating an
unusual number (for Mormons) of Democrats. And the book
comes with more than a hundred striking graphs.

The book's story is one of a religious earthquake and
two aftershocks. The earthquake was the disaffection
from religion occurring in "the long Sixties." Church
attendance plummeted. So did the percentage of
Americans saying that religion was "very important" in
their life. At every stage of their life, boomers would
always lag behind their parents by 25 percent to 30
percent in regular churchgoing. The authors know well
that these were the years of the civil-rights, anti-
war, and women's liberation movements, of pot, acid,
the pill, Roe v. Wade, and Watergate. But with a
refreshing directness and only a bit of embarrassment,
they emphasize sex. Between 1969 and 1973, the fraction
of Americans stating that premarital sex was "only
sometimes wrong" or "not wrong at all" doubled, from 24
percent to 47 percent, a startling change in four years
-- and then drifted up, never to decline. Attitudes
toward premarital sex turn out to be one of the
strongest predictors of a host of other political and
religious changes, including that of the first great
aftershock, the evangelical upsurge of the 1970s and
1980s.

That reaction to "the long Sixties" has been
extensively analyzed. Less so the second great
aftershock, the rise of the "nones" after 1990 when
young people, in particular, began rejecting
identification with any religion, though not
necessarily with a variety of religious beliefs and
practices. More and more young Americans, according to
polls, came to view religion as "judgmental,
homophobic, hypocritical, and too political," overly
focused on rules rather than spirituality. "The Richter
rating of this second aftershock is greater than that
of the first aftershock and rivals that of the powerful
original quake of the Sixties," Putnam and Campbell
write.

The second aftershock, however, only exacerbated the
so-called God gap. The slightly shrinking evangelical
camp became all the more identified with Republican
conservatism. The new nones, mostly of a liberal stamp
to begin with, increased the identification of
Democrats with secularism.

Not that the identification of religious groups with
one party or another was new in American history. A
century ago a Methodist (outside the South), whether
churchgoing or not, was more than likely a Republican;
a Catholic, whether churchgoing or not, was more than
likely a Democrat. What is new is the identification of
religiosity itself, regardless of faith, with political
partisanship. Today a churchgoer, whether Methodist or
Catholic, is more likely to be a Republican while their
indifferent or lapsed counterparts are more likely to
be Democrats.

What changed? Issues of family and personal, especially
sexual, morality that were always religiously salient
became politically salient, that is, posed sharp
choices between the parties. This was particularly the
case with abortion and same-sex marriage. Would recent
history be different if the conflicts over abortion and
same-sex relationships had been fought out as much
within the parties as between them, as has often been
the case with free trade, military spending, Middle
East policy, aid to education, and a number of other
issues? "When abortion was emerging as a major issue
during the 1970s," Putnam and Campbell note, "Democrats
were somewhat more likely to oppose abortion than
Republicans because, in that period, Catholics were
overwhelmingly Democratic and pro-life. It was not
until the Democratic and Republican parties took
distinctive stands on abortion in the 1980s that the
issue became a predictor of party sympathies."

How does this new link between religiosity and
political partisanship actually work on the ground?
Knowing that "the image of the highly politicized
church, especially among evangelicals, is entrenched in
the folklore of contemporary politics," Putnam and
Campbell go out of their way to test the data behind
their conclusion that there is very little overt
politicking in America's houses of worship, the major
exceptions being Jewish and African American
congregations.

They take similar care in concluding that religious
Americans are more generous and active citizens than
secular Americans, although George Washington and
Alexis de Tocqueville might have predicted as much.
Churchgoing Americans, it turns out, are twice as
likely as their demographically matched secular
neighbors to volunteer to help the needy and to be
civically active. Not only do those in the most
religious fifth of Americans give four times as high a
proportion of their annual income to charity as those
in the least religious fifth, but they give a higher
proportion even to specifically secular causes. Neither
this generosity nor this activism has to do with
ideology. Cross-checking with other surveys, Putnam and
Campbell conclude that on measures of generosity and
civic engagement, religious liberals rank as high or
higher than religious conservatives and higher than
secular liberals.

But in examining the links between both religiosity and
partisan politics and religiosity and civic
contributions, Putnam and Campbell highlight something
beyond simple religiosity, something featured in
Putnam's best known book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse
and Revival of American Community -- the catalytic role
of social networks. What translates traditional
religious teaching into partisan politics is seldom
overt politicking from the pulpit but rather the
religious social networks -- "echo chambers," the
authors call them -- of fellow congregants, who are
increasingly like-minded about politics. What makes
religious folks collect clothes for the poor, donate to
the United Way, and attend town meetings is not just
theology or exhortations by the clergy; it is
involvement in the life of the congregation, having
family and friends there, talking about religion with
them, and participating in small groups. "Devout people
who sit alone in the pews are not much more neighborly
than people who don't go to church at all," they find.
"Statistics suggest that even an atheist who happened
to become involved in the social life of a congregation
(perhaps a spouse) is much more likely to volunteer in
a soup kitchen than the most fervent believer who prays
alone." As their title suggests, Putnam and Campbell
are relatively sanguine about America's religious
future. Polarization and partisanship are not going
away -- evangelicals, for example, make up in zeal and
high church attendance what they are losing in numbers
-- but they think partisanship will be muted for
reasons having to do with "switching, matching, and
mixing." American religion is a great churn. Putnam and
Campbell estimate that "roughly 35-40 percent of all
Americans and 40-45 percent of white Americans have
switched at some point away from their parents'
religion." People change their allegiances, intermarry,
and have close friends and relatives of other faiths.

Putnam offers himself as exhibit A. He and his sister
were raised as Methodists. At marriage, he converted to
Judaism. His children were raised as Jews; one married
a Catholic who is now secular, and the other's spouse
was secular but converted to Judaism. Putnam's sister
married a Catholic and converted to Catholicism. Her
three children became evangelicals! No wonder that so
many Americans refuse to believe, regardless of the
tenets of their religion, that those of differing
conviction are bereft either of spiritual truth or hope
of salvation.

In fact, having family or friends of another religious
tradition turns out to have a spillover effect,
increasing acceptance of other traditions not
represented in one's immediate circle. But it is not
yet clear whether this acceptance extends to "foreign"
faiths such as Islam. And in attending to overall
patterns, Putnam and Campbell may be underestimating
the potential impact of militant minorities. They
report, for example, "During the 2000 presidential
campaign, only 5 percent of churchgoers reported
hearing their clergy endorse a candidate." Only? In an
Ohio or Florida, that margin can determine who sends
this nation into war or bankruptcy. And who can say
that the two aftershocks of the last four decades won't
be followed by another?

No doubt, other criticisms will be made of American
Grace. Its statistical methodology will be poked and
probed. Its theological descriptions will be found a
bit rough and ready. Its historical framing could
stretch across the Atlantic and back in time. No
matter. This is an indispensable analysis of religious
polarization, partisanship, and pluralism in American
life.



Peter Steinfels writes the "Beliefs" column on religion
and ethics in The New York Times and is the author,
most recently, of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the
Roman Catholic Church in America. He co-directs Fordham
University's Center on Religion and Culture.

_____________________________________________

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