Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell’s American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us and Adam Taylor’s Mobilizing Hope: Faith-Inspired Activism for a Post-Civil Rights Generation

[1] In his 1990 classic, The Restructuring of American Religion, sociologist of religion Robert Wuthnow observed that a seismic restructuring occurred in American religion during the decades following World War II. In his estimation, denominational identities during that time were diminishing in salience, giving way to a realignment of American religion into conservative and liberal poles that often cross-cut denominations. Twenty years American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell after Wuthnow’s masterful work, Robert Putnam and David Campbell have revised and updated the story of American religion with American Grace. Based upon their own Faith Matters panel survey, cross-referenced with a myriad of other data sets, and citing a who’s who of sociologists and historians of religion, Putnam and Campbell strike out to explore what has changed in American religion in the last fifty years.

[2] While their inquiry approaches tome length (550 pages excluding appendices and notes), readers can be thankful it is wholly readable. Interspersed with vignettes of ten religious congregations (one of which is an LCMS congregation in Houston) and replete with dozens of accessible charts and graphs (and thankfully, no complex tables of coefficients), American Grace explores America’s religious landscape, touching everything from politics to race to gender to ethics. Written with the explanatory care of a gentle parent, Putnam and Campbell have no doubt offered up an accessible and soon-to-be irreplaceable volume on contemporary American religion.

Shock and Two Aftershocks
[3] For Putnam and Campbell, the story of religion in America is one of both continuity and change. They begin by establishing what is constant: America is and has always been unusually religious, and American religion is and has always been remarkably adaptable. This combination of devotion and diversity make America quite unique in the world community.

[4] As for what has changed, the co-authors focus their attention on the last fifty years, when, they aver, that there have been major tectonic shifts within the American religious landscape. At the centerpiece of their narrative are what they identify as a shock and two aftershocks that have altered American religion since the placid and observant 1950s. The shock came in the form of the so-called “long Sixties” as a perfect storm of factors led to an attack, Mobilizing Hope: Faith-Inspired Activism for a Post-Civil Rights Generation by Adam Tayloroften a youthful one, on almost every institution and sector of society, including conventional religion and morality. Not surprisingly, the first aftershock they see is a conservative one, most visible in the rise of the Religious Right during the 1970s and 80s. The second aftershock — a reaction to the reaction — has been the dramatic rise since 1990 in the number of young people with no religious preference, a development that is radically altering the religious landscape in America.

[5] According to Putnam and Campbell, this sequence of shocks began in the turbulent long Sixties, which was a “temblor of social, sexual, and political turmoil.” Most emblematic of the rapid change of this era was the dramatic increase in the percentage of Americans who believed that premarital sex was “not wrong.” This figure doubled from 24 percent in 1969 to 47 percent just four years later in 1973, a remarkable shift for such a short period. As national norms, especially regarding issues of sexual morality, shifted in a liberal direction, conservative Americans of all ages saw this as a fundamental moral challenge, and thus was born the first aftershock: the rise of evangelicalism and the centrality of the culture wars.

[6] According to book’s narrative, this first aftershock saw two developments that gave rise to what political scientists call the “God gap” in voting: the more religious the voter, the more likely she is to vote Republican (with the notable exception of black Protestants). First, there was the coalescing of what the authors call “the coalition of the most religious,” in which church-attending evangelicals and Catholics, groups often suspicious of one another, found common political cause, most strongly in opposition to abortion and homosexuality. Second, and equally important, by 1980 the Democratic and Republican parties had significantly diverged on these issues, particularly on abortion. Thus, the voting public had new political choices. These two factors meant that by 1980, the religiously conservative across traditions had both a common moral cause and a clear political outlet in the platform of the Republican Party.

[7] With these social and political fault lines still evident in our pews and political discourse, it is no surprise that many have missed a development that the authors assert is the second aftershock: the dramatic rise of young people with no religious preference, an unprecedented feature in the history of American religion. Historically, only a small percentage of Americans would not identify a specific denomination or religious tradition when asked for a religious preference in surveys. Even after the anti-institutional turmoil of the long Sixties, only about 7 percent of Americans responded to this question with “none” or “nothing in particular.” That is, until the 1990s. For Americans who reached adulthood after 1990, there has been a dramatic increase in those who report no religious tradition, and for those coming of age since 2000, roughly 25 percent report no religious preference. It is the rise of a new group on the American religious landscape, the “nones.”

[8] There are many possible explanations for this second aftershock, but Putnam and Campbell see one powerful reason in the brand of religion that was most visible when the nones came of age, namely the Religious Right. Even though many religious people, including conservatives, sat on the sidelines for the culture wars, the co-authors suggest that young Americans connected the Religious Right with all faith, coming to view religion as “judgmental, homophobic, hypocritical, and too political.” To support their case, Putnam and Campbell show that younger nones tend to be liberal on homosexuality and other moral issues (although notably, as a cohort their views on abortion are slightly more conservative than their parents, a significant finding that deserves further examination and explanation).

[9] Lest one simply write off nones as “godless,” Putnam and Campbell note that very few nones identify as atheist or agnostic. Most nones express some belief in God and even in the afterlife. Less attached to organized religion, nones still have religious beliefs and display religious feelings, but they have collectively been put off from organized religion by the example set for them by the most visible religious figures in American public life.

[10]On the whole, Putnam and Campbell weave a convincing meta-narrative, bolstered by data at every turn. While there is certainly room to poke and prod at their sweeping tale of social change, there is little disputing the emergence of the nones and the changed religious landscape of America at the start of the 21st century. The question for the church is how it will respond to these new times.

Looking Forward
[11] Once the heart and soul of American religion and society, mainline Protestants — the sociological group of which the ELCA is a part — now make up only about 14 percent of the American religious landscape, lagging behind evangelicals (30%), Catholics (25%), and now, the nones (17%). But of course, there is much more to the story than simple percentages. Demographic trends are actually ominous for many faith traditions, but mainline Protestantism is especially hurting, according to Putnam and Campbell, because of “the near-fatal combination of high defection and low in-conversion.” In light of these ominous trends and the recent rise of the nones, what does the future hold for mainline denominations?

[12] We might find clues in the first book by Adam Taylor, Mobilizing Hope: Faith-Inspired Activism for a Post-Civil Rights Generation. As a young, biracial, faith-based activist with a foot each in the black and white church, Taylor’s familiarity with multiple identities and faith traditions makes him a fitting spokesperson for our increasingly diverse and fluid religious landscape. To steal a phrase from emerging church thinker Brian McLaren, Taylor represents a “new kind of Christian” for this changed and changing 21st century.

[13] While not working from survey data like Putnam and Campbell, Taylor — as a relatively young person himself — sees and understands the religious and political changes that have taken place during his lifetime. As someone who came of age in the 1990s, Taylor writes from an “in between state, caught between the crossfire of the unfinished business of the civil rights struggle and the cultural backlash of the conservative movement.”

[14] Taylor’s work seems to have two purposes, one looking backward and one forward. First, it’s a letter to an older generation of faith-based activists to take heart in passing off the baton to a younger generation of leaders. We have not forgotten your struggles and all that you have sacrificed, he seems to say, and it’s okay to trust us. Second, it is an invitation for a new generation of faith-inspired leaders “to mobilize a committed minority of transformed nonconformists who creatively apply their faith in fresh, bold and innovative ways.”

[15] After telling his own story of faith in chapter one and examining the concept of social justice in chapter two, Taylor then turns to the Jesus of Scripture. As though he were responding directly to the nones of Putnam and Campbell, Taylor seeks to recover Jesus from the “identity fraud” carried out by the Religious Right. Keenly aware that Christianity is “suffering from an acute and alarming public image problem” because of the Religious Right’s poor example, Taylor suggests that the proper remedy is “greater civic and political engagement among Christians addressing the most pressing social justice issues of our time.”

[16] While it may seem counterintuitive to offer political engagement to a group disaffected by religion and politics, Taylor believes this is exactly what is needed: a model of responsible political and social engagement, rather than disengagement. Besides, as an activist concerned with issues like racial and economic justice, inactivity for Taylor carries too high a price: the problems of today are too great, and disengagement gives tacit approval to the status quo. Notably, the issues that Taylor raises for engagement — poverty and economic inequality, racial justice, global climate change, human trafficking, human rights, and the like — are a far cry from the divisive social issues of the culture wars. It is to these issues that Taylor devotes much of the remainder of the book.

[17] Indeed, faced with a young generation that has left organized religion in droves but still retains religious sensibilities, the glass may be half full for those individuals, congregations, and denominations willing and able to push past inward-looking survival impulses and instead look for possibilities and points of connection. Young people are hungry for connection and meaning outside themselves, and they even seem open to finding that in the form of faith-based activism. Taylor, while not breaking new ground biblically or theologically for those already steeped in Christian social justice traditions, brings fresh energy, a younger voice, and a vision for a new generation of young people who will put their faith into action.

[18] While the future looks bleak for the mainline traditions, Putnam and Campbell frequently remind their readers that past success is no guarantee of future performance and visa versa. One thing is certain: times have changed, and the denominations and congregations who fail to first understand and then respond to the changed religious landscape might find themselves as footnotes when sociologists write the companion to American Grace in fifty years. Awareness is a good place to begin, and American Grace and Mobilizing Hope are both indispensable guides on the journey. Let us hope that many across the church will grapple with all that Putnam, Campbell, and Taylor have generously set before us.

Robert D. Francis

Robert D. Francis is the Director of Advocacy and Policy for Lutheran Services in America.