I finally got around to reading Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s 2010 American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. It’s been on my reading list since it was published but its 700+ page length was prohibitive until I finally found a Christmas break to tackle it. Here’s my non-comprehensive chapter-by-chapter summary of the parts that I thought were most interesting or important. These don’t include the ethnographic vignettes of particular congregations, even though they were gems and fascinating to read.
CH 1: Religious Polarization and Pluralism in America
- About 83% of Americans identify with a religious tradition, about 40% go to church at least weekly, about 59% pray at least once a week, and about a third read scripture at least once a week.
- Americans view a kind, loving, avuncular God rather than an angry, judgmental, fire-and-brimstone God.
- Saying grace before meals is one of the single most effective predictors of overall levels of religiosity in the U.S.
- An Evangelical Protestant is “someone who, knowingly or not, has taken the fundamentalist side in that debate” i.e. the debate between fundamentalism and modernism.
- In terms of religious observance, Mormons, Black Protestants, and Evangelical Protestants are most observant while those of “other faiths,” Jews, and “none” are least observant. Those most observant tend to be concentrated in the South and in Utah.
- The “average” religious person in the U.S. is an “older African American woman who lives in a Southern small town” while least religious is “a younger Asian American man who lives in a large Northeastern city.” Young men are turning away from religious at faster rates than any other demographic.
CHS 3 and 4: Religiosity in America: The Historical Backdrop / Shock and Two Aftershocks
- There are both generational and life-cycle effects. People tend to become more religious as they get older, have families, and settle down. However, that life-cycle effect is smaller than generational patterns which affect a single generation that remains consistent throughout their life-spans.
- Older generations go to church more than younger generation. 50% of oldest generation goes about weekly to church while about 20% of youngest generation goes about weekly. “Each decade in an individual’s life adds one more week of church attendance to his or her annual average.”
- We are becoming more secular, but it is a VERY slow process. It will take a couple of centuries before the U.S. looks like Europe based on current rates.
- Brief summary of the last 60 years:
- Oldest generation: those raised in the 1950s, the “Greatest Generation” – they were most religious. They were not especially more religious than today’s young/middle-aged, but the WW2 generation saw going to church as a “civic duty” as much as a religious duty, “like joining the PTA or Rotary.”
- 1960s happened: decline of trust in institutions both political and religious. Increasingly skepticism as well as sexual/racial liberalism.
- This caused a political and religious conservative counter-reaction in the 1970s and 1980s. Led to the rise of the Evangelicals and the Religious Right. College-aged students came of age to be more religious and politically conservative and the two became more intertwined together. First aftershock.
- Then the 1990s and 2000s happened. Young people saw the Religious Right and thought “if being religious means conservative Republican politics, then being religious isn’t for me.” A secular backlash against the original conservative backlash in the 1970s and 1980s. Includes liberal views on homosexuality and other moral issues. Young people see religion as worrying too much about the rules and not enough about spirituality. Rise of the religious “nones.” “Continuing to sound the public trumpet of conservative personal morality may be the right thing to do from a theological point of view, but it may mean saving fewer souls now than it did a generation ago.” Second aftershock.
- In terms of self-identification, since the 1970s Mainline Protestantism has shrunk the most, Evangelicalism and Catholicism have stayed about the same, “nones” have grown from 7% to 17%.
- In terms of weekly attendance, Catholics have lost more parishioners over last 35 years – about 25%.
CH 5: Switching, Matching, and Mixing
- American religious identities are actually fairly fluid and “fuzzy around the edges.” About half of all Americans have either switched religious traditions from their upbringing or lapsed into inactivity.
- Mormons and Evangelical Protestants do the best job of keeping their children “in the faith” (about a 55% retention rate). Mainline Prots and Catholics about 40% retention rate, Jews about a 25% rate.
- The most important factors predicting if someone remains faithful to their family religion is “whether a person’s family of origin was religiously homogenous and observant, or not.” Those more likely to leave are children of mixed marriages or less observant marriages.
- People also switched based on their politics. Americans are more likely to choose a tradition based on their political ideology than pick a political ideology based on their religious beliefs. [For a church, it seems that the best way to promote retention is to remain as politically neutral as possible and stay out of political controversies as much as possible.]
- About half of Americans today are married to someone who was originally of a different religious tradition. About a third of all marriages are “mixed” religion marriages. (This is between the big families – Catholics vs. Mainline Protestants, e.g.)
- Growing acceptance of religious intermarriage.
- Mormons and Jews are most opposed to religious intermarriage (about 65% oppose), while Mainline Protesant, Other Faiths, and none are least opposed (about 20%-30% oppose).
- Latino Catholics, Black Protestants, and Mormons have the lowest interfaith marriage rate. (About 10%-20% on those.)
CH 6: Innovations in Religion
- About 90% of church-goers are either moderately or very satisfied with their current congregation.
- Most of the time, people change congregations because they move! They pick based on theology and beliefs most of the time (60%). But then “social investment made within that congregation” is what keeps them tied to that congregation. Beliefs/theology get them in the door, but “people must find ways to connect with one another if they are to keep coming back.”
- It’s more common to become friends with those who go to church with rather than switch congregations because of friends you have in those congregations.
- Married people and renters (not owners) are more likely to switch congregations. Life events and transience lead to more congregational switching. Settling down and owning a home leads to less switching.
- If religious leaders want to be appealing to young people, they should dial back the conservative political issue focus as its driving many young people away from religion.
CH 8: The Women’s Revolution, the Rise of Inequality, and Religion
- Women outnumber men 3:2 in average weekly service attendance.
- Women are more religious by almost every measurable indicator.
- With a few exceptions, most religious Americans were very quick to adapt to increasing modern gender roles and are indistinguishable from non-religious American in terms of gender equality. “Most Americans today are religious feminists.” Evangelical Protestants, Latino Catholics, and Mormons are the exception.
- Vast majorities of every religious tradition supports female clergy.
- Mormons are the only one with less than 50% in support (30% support, 70% oppose). “Mormons … appear to be the only substantial holdouts against the growing and substantial consensus across the religious spectrum in favor of women playing a fuller role in church leadership.”
- It’s not the upper-class that is secularizing, it’s the lower-class and less-educated. Rich, well-educated are more likely to go to church than poor, less-educated.
- Religiosity is associated with more interaction with people of different economic strata. Upper-class who go to church are more likely to interact with middle- and lower-class than those who don’t go to church.
- Religiosity is linked with more conservative views on government help for the poor, but this link is weaker than views on sexual morality.
- “Highly religious Americans today are somewhat less supportive than the general population of public policies to address poverty and inequality, and they prefer private provision to public action. They have not worked to stem the growth of inequality, unlike past religious people who, as we have seen, often campaigned passionately for greater equality and social justice. On the other hand, their modestly greater giving and substantially greater volunteering, especially for social service, is consistent with their emphasis on private provision.”
CH 9: Diversity, Ethnicity, and Religion
- Most churchgoers attend ethnically or racially homogenous congregations.
- Catholicism, Mainline Protestantism, and Evangelical Protestantism all have geographical concentrations in U.S. that correlate with ancestry patterns.
- Black Protestants are very, very devout and high on religious observance indicators. They are “more evangelical than evangelicals.”
- Who attends racially/ethnically diverse congregations? Not very many people. About 21% of Catholics, 16% of Evangelicals, 9% of Mainline Protestants, 6% of Mormons, 4% of Jews. (Diverse = critical mass of 20% diverse).
- Who attends diverse congregations? More likely to be young, women, and Hispanic. Biggest predictors: congregation size, Catholic, county diversity, Latino, west, etc.
- Anglo Catholicism is hemorrhaging members, but they’re being replaced by Hispanics at a fast rate.
- Attending church leads to a higher probability of having more racially diverse friendship networks, however, religious attendance doesn’t tend to affect people’s racial views one way or another.
- “White Americans of the major religious traditions have been catching up to the secular counterparts [on racial issues] – following, not leading.”
CH 11: Religion in American Politics
- It’s clear: Republicans tend to be more religious than Democrats. But that has not always been the case. It’s relatively new. It was caused largely by political reactions to two key issues: abortion and same-sex marriage. The glue that holds religiosity and partisanship together is abortion and same-sex marriage.
- 1950s: not much of a religious partisan divide. People’s political identities were formed at a time when there’s not much partisan difference on moral issues. Then the 1960s and 1970s happened. Abortion came onto the scene as a major issue that caused a fundamental divide based on worldviews. Parties adopted distinct stands, and then religion and partisanship became intertwined strongly.
- The big shift was between 1982 and 1997. That’s when religion and politics became very intertwined. It’s mostly generational replacement, not people changing their partisan identities.
- Since the 20th century, though, public attitudes are moving more conservative on abortion and more liberal on same-sex marriage, especially among young people. The glue that binds religion to politics may come undone and cause new coalitions to form.
CH 12: Echo Chambers: Politics Within Congregations
- There is little overt politicking over America’s pulpits.
- When it does happen, it comes more from the political left (Black Protestants and Jews) than the political right.
- There is little political mobilization through official church channels. Rather, it comes mostly through friendship networks at church.
- “Religious traditions in which individuals connect faith and politics have more Republicans.”
- “Religious traditions with more political activity at church have fewer Republicans.”
CH 13: Religion and Good Neighborliness
- Religious Americans are “better neighbors and more conscientious citizens than their secular counterparts.” They give more money, donate more time, volunteer in the community more, etc. They also belong to more civic organizations, vote, get involved in the community, etc. This holds even controlling for a host of demographic factors. This applies to religious liberals just as much (if not slightly more so) than religious conservatives.
- There is not much difference between religious traditions. More religious people in each tradition are higher on these indicators than less religious people. Religious commitment is more important than religious tradition affiliation.
- It’s church networking, social groups, interactions, etc. that drives this neighborliness, not religious doctrine or fundamentalism. Religious liberals and conservatives both volunteer in the community and participate at similar rates despite their theological differences. It comes “through chatting with friends after service or joining a Bible study group” not “listening to the sermon or fervently believing in God.” When it comes to neighborliness, “it is belonging that matters, not believing.”
- On the other hand, they are also “less tolerant of dissent than secular Americans” and more willing to restrict civil liberties of others.
- Religious Americans are simply happier than non-religious Americans. This is because they build friendship networks and serve and participate. It’s not due to beliefs. “Theological and denominational differences appear to have virtually nothing to do with the linkage between life satisfaction and religiosity.”
CH 14: A House Divided?
- All but the most secular Americans support a role for religion in society (about 80-85%).
- Americans feel warmer toward Jews, Catholics, and Mainline Protestants and feel least warm toward Mormons, Buddhists, and Muslims.
- “Almost everyone is okay with a Christian church in their neighborhood; highly religious Americans are less sure about a Buddhist temple.”
CH 15: America’s Grace: How a Tolerant Nation Bridges Its Religious Divides
- Almost all American embrace religious diversity. 85% believe that “morality is a personal matter.”
- Most Americans have friends and family from other faiths, creating diverse friendship networks. Only about half of our close friends go to the same church as us.
- Mormons and Latino Catholics have the most non-diverse friendship and family networks, while Jews and Mainline Protestants have the most diverse friendship and family networks.
- We all have an “Aunt Susan” in another church who we’re sure is going to heaven.
- We all have a “My Friend Al” – you become friends with and find out that you get along well, then you find out that they’re of a different religion, so you think that maybe that religion must not be so bad after all.
- Most Americans are reluctant to assign a unique status to any religion as the “one true church,” even their own.
- About 12% say “one true church,” about 80% say “truths in many churches,” and 7% say “little truth in any church.”
- Mormons (28%) and Evangelicals (22%) are most likely to say “one true church.” They are a minority, however.
- “Most Americans believe that members of other faiths can go to heaven, and this is true even in religions that explicitly teach that salvation is reserved for their own adherents.” About 89% believe this.
- “American’s expansive view of heaven results from their personal experience with people with different religious backgrounds, including their close friends and family. America manages to be both religiously diverse and religiously devout because it is difficult to damn those you know and love.”
- “Devotion plus diversity, minus damnation, equals comity.”
- How have we solved the puzzle of religious pluralism where so many nations have not? “By creating a web of interlocking personal relationships among people of many different faiths. This is America’s grace.”
EPILOGUE: A NEW ROUND OF EVIDENCE (Added to the 2012 paperback edition)
- Looked at people they interviewed in 2006 and compared to re-interviews in 2011. So this is based on panel survey evidence.
- Religious attitudes are remarkably stable. Economic difficulties didn’t produce more or less devout people.
- Secularism has grown in the last 5 years, and mostly among young people turning increasingly away from the church. And mostly because of the religion-politics relationship that’s turning them off.
- Public opinion is more libertarian than in 2006. More economically conservative but socially liberal.
- The strongest predictor of who turned Tea Party in 2009 (aside from partisanship) is those who want “more religion in politics.” Less evidence that it’s about economics. More about social values and religion.
- Churches will have to de-politicize if they want to stop the growing secularization of American society and especially among young people.