Robert Putnam’s work on social capital and community — most recently displayed in his 2020 book, The Upswing — has often highlighted the crucial importance of organised religion.

In 2012, in partnership with the Canadian political scientist and Notre Dame academic David Campbell, Putnam published a book examining this in detail — American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.

They examined the facts around America’s model of religious pluralism, in light of the country’s consistently high rates of religious belief and practice, which contrasted sharply with most of the developed world.

In spite of the ever-greater social polarisation which has occurred in recent decades, the authors and their research team found that Americans overwhelmingly look upon faith favourably and have a positive attitude to people of different religious backgrounds, which the authors attributed to the fact that virtually all Americans have friends, family members and neighbours who differ from them in religious affiliation.

To examine the subject, Putnam and Campbell devised the large-scale “Faith Matters” survey of a nationally representative sample of Americans between 2006-2007, while also relying on an extensive array of other sources.

Their book examines a number of topics including race, gender, community and politics, and the inclusion of vignettes focusing on specific congregations helps to illuminate the abundant statistics.

As with so much of Putnam’s work, the authors demonstrate a real skill in presenting social science data in a compelling fashion, and interesting facts abound: 

  • American women are more religious than their male counterparts, more likely to say right and wrong should be based on God’s laws, more likely to hold creationist views, and more likely to read scripture and talk about religion.
  • African-Americans are the most religious ethnic group, followed by Latinos, then whites, with Asians being the most secular group.
  • While the rapid rise of the “Nones” (Americans with no religious affiliation) is one of the most dramatic recent changes in the religious landscape, atheism remains surprisingly uncommon within this group, most of whose members express some belief in God and an afterlife. 
  • In spite of the clear existence of a religious marketplace and the enhanced entertainment value of many American religious services, the most commonly expressed “very important” reason for choosing a current congregation is “theology or religious beliefs”.
  • The worshippers who are statistically most likely to hear political messages from the pulpit are not Evangelicals or Catholics, but those who attend black churches and synagogues.

Putnam and Campbell’s thesis is that the cultural revolution of the 1960s fuelled the conservative counter-revolution of the 1970s and 1980s and the rise of the “Religious Right,” which in turn led younger generations to turn away from religious practice: “throughout these last five decades libertines and prudes have successfully provoked one another,” they write.

Here, like in many books about political and social developments in the States, the analysis appears somewhat narrow in its focus. 

Their suggestion that growing secularism stems from public unease with the religious right of the 70s onwards — “it might appear that Christian conservatives have lost the culture wars by fighting too hard” — ignores the fact that the speed of secularism increased throughout the Western world during that same period, including in countries where no strong link existed between political conservatism and conservative Christianity.

As the religion with the largest number of adherents in the country, Catholicism also receives a strong focus. Almost a quarter of Americans are Catholic and that share has held steady for decades as the number of mainline Protestants plummeted.

This relative stability is due not to the strength of the Church, but to the millions of new arrivals from Latin America, and the changing face of American Catholicism is shown in the age breakdown of Catholics; 58% of American Catholic 18-34 year-olds are Latino, compared to just 15% of American Catholics over the age of 65.

As with previous waves of immigration, parishes are at the forefront of the assimilation process and provide vital social supports to the new arrivals. As with previous eras, however, there are difficulties too, and descriptions of visits to Chicago parishes highlight tensions within parishes where Spanish Masses are far better-attended, but where older white parishioners feel alienated, and where some have deliberately switched to other parishes which have fewer immigrants in the pews.

Any book co-authored by Putnam is going to focus heavily on community ties. This politically-progressive convert to Judaism has consistently highlighted the voluminous evidence linking religious practice in America to charity and civic engagement.

He and Campbell lay this out in detail and show that religious people are more generous and community-focused than their non-believing countrymen: more likely to volunteer and donate to charity (including for secular causes), more likely to belong to community organisations and to hold positions of responsibility therein, more likely to vote in elections and participate actively in civic life, and more likely to have high levels of social trust.

Perhaps all of this also helps to explain the more positive attitude towards religion which exists in the United States.

A decade on from the book’s publication, however, readers should be aware of some of the limitations of American Grace, which is already rather dated.

Over the last decade the secularisation of the US has accelerated, reducing the cultural distance between America and the rest of the West

An updated version of this book would surely contain a stronger focus on the growing non-affiliation of Americans, given the aforementioned information about social participation. 

It is worth considering how much of America’s current malaise and ever-more poisonous divisions can be explained by the fact that the common religious bond which most Americans used to share is gradually being erased. 

The consequences of the movement away from religion extend well beyond where people spend their Sunday mornings. The increased appeal of woke ideology to younger Americans who have not had any solid religious grounding is hardly coincidental, and neither is the unhealthy obsession with racial and gender identity in an America whose shared values are being washed away.

All the indications are that this nation which is losing its faith in organised religion is also losing faith in itself.

American Grace tells us a great deal about what America was and where it derived its greatest strengths from, while telling us a little less about what that country now is. That being said, it still deserves study.

James Bradshaw works for an international consulting firm based in Dublin, and has a background in journalism and public policy. Outside of work, he writes for a number of publications, on topics including...