American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell is deservedly receiving a great deal of attention. It is undoubtedly the most comprehensive and significant sociological examination of religion in America to be published in decades, and perhaps ever. Aside from the sheer mass of sociological data that this book makes available in a magnificently readable format (the book is page turner), the book is also a tour de force of sociological analysis and interpretation. People in all fields related to religion in America are giving careful attention to this very important book.
Times and Seasons is very excited, then to have the opportunity of sharing some of David Campbell’s additional insights. What follows is the first half of our 12 Questions interview with Campbell. One of the unique features of American Grace is the prominence it gives to Mormonism alongside other major U.S. religions. Consequently, we divided up our questions topically between those that deal with general issues from the book and those that deal more specifically with issues related to Mormonism. This first post will deal with former.
By way of introduction, Campbell is the John Cardinal O’Hara, C.S.C., Associate Professor of Political Science and founding director of the Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy at the University of Notre Dame. His research and teaching focus on American politics, political participation, religion and politics, and education policy. Also, as detailed in the book, Campbell is a Mormon who was raised in an interfaith marriage (see page 36).
Part I: On American Grace in general:
1. Wilfred McClay in his WSJ review of AG is one of the many voices claiming that along with moderation and tolerance in the American religious scene there is actually a profound loss of seriousness with which individuals and society look at and experience religion. Philosopher Sean Kelly’s recent NYT piece interprets Nietzsche’s notorious claim concerning the death of God as picking out just this fall from centrality. Your book lauds our religious moderation. But do you see a loss of “deep” religiosity or the centrality of religious experience accompanying the shifts in religious activity that your study tracks?
In the discussion of American Grace, this is probably the most interesting question to arise. The quick answer is that our findings are not just that there is a loss of religiosity, but rather a polarization in religiosity. That is, while one portion of the population is drifting away from religion, another has become more religious, or at least more outwardly devout. In other words, the loss of deep religiosity among some has been partially counter-balanced by a deeper religiosity among others.
The longer answer is that American society is moving into uncharted waters, and so we do not yet know whether the inter-religious comity we detail in American Grace is a leading indicator of a softening of religious commitment, even among those on the “stricter” end of the religious spectrum.
2. One of your delightful findings is that religious persons make better neighbors and citizens, and are in general happier. You chalk this up to the social networks involved in religious communities. Is there then an ill omen for our communities and national cohesion given the trend toward religious privatization that your study features?
Religious congregations remain a bedrock component of America’s civil society, and wellsprings of social capital. But, as you note, a growing portion of the population has turned away from religion, and thus from congregational involvement. If that trend continues, we would expect to see a further deterioration in America’s social capital. However, that is a big “if.” History teaches us that American religion has often found ways to woo the unchurched back to the pews, often by inventing new forms of worship or religious organization. The mega-church is only the latest in a long series of such innovations. Looking forward, it is likely, although not certain, that religious innovators will find ways to bring the disaffiliated back to church. Should that happen, then congregations will likely remain a key part of our civic infrastructure.
3. On page 233 you note: “Religion in America is disproportionately a women’s sphere of activity. . . . In the average Sabbath service women outnumber men by three to two. Women believe more fervently in God, they aver that religion is more important in their daily lives, they pray more often, they read scripture more often and interpret it more literally, they talk about religion more often—in short, by virtually every measure they are more religious,” and this remains true when holding for almost any variable. Do you have any insight into the great metaphysical question: Why is this the case?
There are myriad theories about why women are, in general, more religious than men. Many of them offer “socialization” as the explanation, but that is completely unsatisfying to me. These explanations mean that women are more religious because, when they were girls, they were taught to be more religious, or they absorbed cultural signals that spurred their religiosity. Yet that only leaves us to wonder why socialization works the way it does. I guess that is a long way of saying that I do not claim to know the answer to the puzzle of women’s higher average religiosity.
However, it is important to note that there are exceptions to women’s higher religiosity. In both Judaism and Islam men score “higher” than women on at least some religious indicators. Both religions place limits on women’s roles, which likely explains why men show up as more religious. (Readers of this blog may find it interesting that, the priesthood notwithstanding, the religiosity of Mormon men generally lags behind that of Mormon women). In other words, there is a cultural component to gender differences in religious behavior.
4. One of the most significant changes that you track concerns the sexual mores of religious Americans, beginning with the genuine revolution of the sixties, the (partial) backlash in the seventies and eighties, and finally noting that today’s youth are the most sexually liberal of any generation. How has this liberalizing of sexual mores affected religious attendance? You also note the prodigiously innovative nature of American religions. Have religions and their doctrines been adapted to these profound changes in sexual mores?
Of all the issues where religious and secular Americans might take differing views, we find the widest gaps on those related to sexuality. (Indeed, on most other issues there are either modest or no differences). One explanation for such a finding is that being religious makes someone more conservative on issues related to sex. However, it is almost certainly not that simple, since holding conservative attitudes on sex can also mean you are attracted to religion. Or holding liberal views on sex could lead someone away from religion, or at least from religions that take a hardline on sexual behavior. Whatever the process, the end result is that religious and secular Americans differ sharply on their attitudes toward sexuality.
As to whether many religions have adapted to changing views on sexuality, the answer is yes. Or, more accurately, many religious leaders have become less likely to condemn sexual behavior that was once strictly verboten, even if the actual doctrines of their religions have not changed.
5. Another significant shift is the dramatic (if gradual) rise of interfaith marriages (with 30-40% of all marriages currently being mixed). As part of this trend you note that children of mixed marriages are much more likely to leave the faith of their parents or become religiously unaffiliated. Has this contributed to or does it foretell the continued privatization of religion? And has there been any change in the trend concerning children leaving their parents’ faith over time, given the significant increase in mixed marriages?
Perhaps not surprisingly, one of the strongest predictors of remaining in one’s childhood religion is being raised by two parents who share that same religion. Thus, as interfaith marriages have become more common we have also seen a decline in religious affiliation among young people, although this is a contributing factor rather than the primary cause. Since the jump in “no affiliation” began suddenly in the late 1980s/early 1990s it cannot simply be owing to generational change, which is slow and steady. Looking forward, we would expect that the children of today’s interfaith marriages are more likely to grow up to be what we call a religious “none” (someone who selects “none” as a religious preference). However, we would also expect that a sizable fraction of children of interfaith marriages will find a new, and different, religion. In many case, this will likely be an amalgam of the religions they experienced growing up. This is another example of a potential niche for religious entrepreneurs. Indeed, in our research we found anecdotal evidence that mega-churches often attract people with a mixed religious upbringing.
6. As Robert Wright notes in his review of AG, while your study is very amicable toward religion, the subtitle appears to be misleading. Your data seems to claim that religion in fact does not divide or unite us. Rather, our communal ways of organizing, gathering, and involving ourselves in politics unites and divides us. Is this right? Is the role of religion merely a secondary or superficial phenomenon, emerging out of a more basic and profound fact of human being: that we are social and political animals?
I would be looking a gift horse in the mouth if I quibbled with Robert Wright’s kind words about our book, but I would disagree (amicably!) with this particular interpretation of how religion divides and unites Americans. In politics, religion is currently a divisive force. It need not be this way but, owing to the way religious imagery and rhetoric is used by the Republicans, it is. I concede that it would be more accurate to say that we are divided by the “way religion is employed by politicians” but the latter would make for an awfully long subtitle.
As for whether religion truly “unites” us, I acknowledge that much of American Grace details how we are united in spite of our religious differences, which is slightly different than religion itself being the unifying thread. However, we do have a discussion of how, in the American context, “civil religion” does bring Americans together. At times of national crisis or of high political ceremony (e.g. presidential inaugurations), Americans look to their leaders to speak in religious terms. This is but one example of how religion can unify rather than divide.
But let me also offer my opinion on the question of whether religion is secondary or superficial. To that, I would say no. Indeed, the very reason that religion can be so divisive—and why peaceful coexistence among different religions is so remarkable—is precisely because religion is not merely superficial. I would submit that social science has historically done a bad job of studying religion because so many scholars want to reduce religion to something else (typically, material interests). But such reductionism is like fitting a square peg in a round hole.