Pluralist and Polarized

Posted by on Aug 8, 2011

I’ve been reading Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s American Grace. Based on the most (or one of the most) extensive surveys about religion in American life, this study is worth careful consideration by those who want to understand and reach out to those around them.

I’ve copied a few choice quotes from the book below and hope to share more in a future blog. The recurring theme of the book is that America is more religious and more non-religious than ever.

In the first few pages, the authors posit:

“Americans are increasingly concentrated at opposite ends of the religious spectrum—the highly religious at one pole, and the avowedly secular at the other. The moderate religious middle is shrinking.” (3)

One interpretive insight by the authors is particularly thought provoking. They believe the current religious landscape can only be understood as the result of a major shock followed by two minor aftershocks. The major shock was the 1960s, complete with the sexual revolution, widespread use of drugs, and rebellion against authority. This had a seismic effect on religion in America.

What followed was a minor aftershock – the rise of the so-called Religious Right, in reaction to the 60s, and then a second aftershock – a rebellion against the Religious Right. Today we are in the wake of all three events.

Consider some of these other quotes:

“Religious polarization has consequences beyond the religious realm, because being at one pole or the other correlates strongly with one’s worldview, especially attitudes relating to such intimate matters as sex and the family.” (3)

“Polarization and pluralism are the principal themes in the recent history of American religion, but they hardly exhaust all that has changed, is changing, and will change in the nation’s religious environment.” (6)

“Any discussion of religion in America must begin with the incontrovertible fact that Americans are a highly religious people.” (7)

re: saying grace before a meal: “We are hard-pressed to think of many other behaviors that are so common among one half of the population and rare among the other half—maybe carrying a purse.” (10)

“The third largest ‘religious’ group in the United States [after Evangelical Protestant – 30% and Roman Catholic – almost 25%] is actually defined by the absence of a religious affiliation—the ‘nones’ [those who say they have no religious affiliation of any kind]. There are more nones (17 percent) than mainline Protestants (14%), a striking fact given that the mainline wing of Protestantism once represented the heart and soul of American religion and society.” (17)

You can check out more about the book here:

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