The National Catholic Review

From the 1930s through the 1990s, many leading social science theorists claimed that religion was a spent historical force. The faith-enervating factors included modern science, which had begotten new physical, chemical and biological laws; ever cheaper and faster mass communications technologies; and the political and social democratization of most nations. And the secularization thesis had a subtext: “good riddance.” For throughout human history, religion had been more a social toxin than a social tonic, more a cause for war than a prod to peace, had it not?

But a funny thing happened on the way to religion’s prophesied demise. Nearly everywhere except Europe, old religions including Catholicism and Islam expanded, and newer religions like various Pentecostal faiths burgeoned. Today nobody claims that religion, either in America or elsewhere, is headed for history’s junk heap. Instead, many top social science scholars are studying religion in all its complexity and concluding that, on balance, religion benefits people and nations.

Exhibit A is the amazing new book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell.

Putnam, the eminent Harvard University social scientist who became famous for his 2001 book Bowling Alone, is someone I have revered since I was among his adoring graduate students 30 years ago. Campbell, a brilliant statistics whiz, teaches political science at the University of Notre Dame.

“Any discussion of religion in America,” Putnam and Campbell preach, “must begin with the incontrovertible fact that Americans are a highly religious people.” Amen; but “highly religious” how, and with what social and civic consequences?

Based on two of the largest and most comprehensive surveys ever conducted on religion in America, and drawing expertly on just about every credible empirical study relevant to the subject published in the last 50 years, the authors’ answer centers on two sets of major findings.

The first findings concern how religious Americans relate to people of other faiths or of no faith.

Over the last half-century, most Americans, including millions on each side of today’s left-right religious divide, became ever more prone to prize relationships with people of other faiths or of no faith. For example, today about 70 percent of Americans have at least one extended family member who is of a different religion than themselves; 75 percent have closest friends of other faiths or of no faith; 85 percent have neighbors of a different religion; and nearly 90 percent profess that all good people go to heaven.

Putnam’s own story is hardly atypical. Raised with a sister as an observant Methodist in the 1950s, he converted to Judaism at marriage. One of his two children married a practicing Catholic who (together with 17 percent of all other Americans) is now secular. His other child married a secular soul who later converted to Judaism. His sister married a devout Catholic and she converted to Catholicism. His sister’s three children, however, are Protestants of different types.

The second major findings concern the fact that religious Americans, though by no means free from intolerance of dissent, are by any historical or cross-national standards highly tolerant and given to behaving in ways that foster social and civic good.

As Putnam and Campbell report, “religiously observant Americans are more civic and in some respects simply ‘nicer.’ ” Religious Americans volunteer more, give more time and money to secular causes and join more community-serving groups than do their secular counterparts.

But here is the book’s novel twist: the civic power of religion is determined less by an individual’s faith orientation than it is by his or her friendships and participation in communities of faith. Thus, for instance, a committed atheist who shares a pot luck supper on occasion with lukewarm believers at the local church is more likely to give generously to charities or offer a bus seat to a stranger than is an otherwise comparable devout believer who attends Sunday services alone and participates not at all in the church’s communal life.

Putnam and Campbell are especially astute when it comes to parsing intergenerational differences and dynamics, like the finding that even the most religious 20-something adults are as likely to support gay marriage as the least religious senior citizens.

Putnam and Campbell can be tough on other researchers. For instance, they admonish the American Enterprise Institute’s president, Albert C. Brooks, for asserting that political conservatives “really are more compassionate and more generous than liberals.” Brooks’s argument is “fundamentally misleading,” they aver, because once you “hold religiosity constant,” there are no data that show “a positive effect of political conservatism on compassion.” It is, they insist, the religiosity, not the conservatism, of religious conservatives that explains their civic good works. They are probably right on the merits, but the criticism of Brooks, buried though it is in an endnote, seems just a bit harshly worded.

Then again, Putnam and Campbell are hardest on themselves. For all their efforts at testing interpretations against all available data sources (“convergent validation” they call it), they admit that “the pervasive robust correlation between religion and good neighborliness” (and, by extension, between religion and every other variable they relate to it) is just that, a correlation—which does not prove causation.

Memo to the John Templeton Foundation, which wisely backed the first two “Faith Matters” surveys: A third Putnam-Campbell national survey is needed to resolve the methodological questions that are left lurking in the shadows of this monumental work.

Still, as it is, American Grace is an instant classic, as academically authoritative as it is brilliantly entertaining.

And for those who pray that religion can do more to unite than divide over 300 million Americans, American Grace is both a blueprint and a blessing.

John J. DiIulio Jr., professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of Godly Republic: A Centrist Blueprint for America’s Faith-Based Future.