A Symposium on American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us

American-Grace2Over at The Immanent Frame, there is an interesting discussion on David Campbell and Robert Putnam's American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us with a series of responses to the book by John Torpey, Molly Worthen, Jon Butler and David Hollinger. Hollinger:

Is bland beautiful? Almost never, most of us would say. But when it comes to religion in a diverse society, the answer may be yes.

This is the chief, if probably unintended implication of American Grace, which I take to be the most successfully argued, comprehensive sociological study of American religion in more than half a century. Robert Putnam and David Campbell harvest a generation of research and mature reflection about how religious affiliations of all kinds divide and unite Americans of different generations, regions, sexes, educational levels, and ethno-racial groups. Will Herberg’s endlessly discussed Protestant-Catholic-Jew, a book of 1955, was not remotely as methodologically self-conscious and as empirically grounded as is American Grace, but one must go back to Herberg to find so striking a single volume purporting to explain the religion of an author’s contemporary Americans. If this coming generation of scholars and journalists allow Putnam and Campbell to define the terms of conversation to the extent that our predecessors allowed Herberg to perform this role, we will be in fine shape.

Why does this book prompt the suspicion that bland may be beautiful? Because Putnam and Campbell argue that the decline of intense, sectarian devotion to any particular faith enables religious believers to be more tolerant and appreciative of ideas and practices different from their own. Putnam and Campbell’s central, data-driven theme is the fluidity of American religion. Americans move in and out of religious affiliations with dizzying frequency. While in other societies religious identity is more often perceived “as a fixed characteristic,” they explain, in the United States “it seems perfectly natural” to refer to one’s religion as a mere “preference.”