The United States stands out among Western nations for its high level of religiosity and also for the great variety of churches and faiths. Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell examine the state of religion in the U.S. in their recently published book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (Simon and Schuster).
Looking over the recent past, the authors identify three major shifts in religious practice. The first was the cultural and sexual revolution of the ‘60s that saw a notable drop in church attendance. This was followed by a reaction by religion, especially among the evangelical churches. Finally, a growing number of young people are renouncing any religion at all in the last decade.
One of the results of these changes is an increasing polarization, with more people who are either highly religious or resolutely secular, and fewer in the middle. Nevertheless, in spite of the inflamed rhetoric of some commentators and books there is a great deal of public tolerance, both toward other religions and those without any religion.
It is this combination of devotion and tolerant pluralism that the authors term as being the American Grace of the book’s title.
The book draws data from a variety of surveys that demonstrate the importance of religion in the lives of many people. No less than 83% of the population belongs to some religion, with 40% reporting that they attend religious services nearly every week.
This is more than double the percentages of religious attendance in countries such as Britain, Germany and France, and superior even to Italy. And 59% say they pray at least weekly, while a third read the Bible with the same frequency.
Yet, while tens of millions go to church every week, there is a notable increase in the number of Americans who forsake religion. This is particularly the case of those who came to adulthood in the last decade. They report a lower church participation compared to the norm in the families in which they grew up.
The book offers a number of explanations as to why this has happened. Some young people are turned off by the politicization of the more conservative churches, the authors maintain. Others do not accept church teachings on sexual morality, particularly on the matter of homosexuality where the surveys conducted by the authors demonstrate a much higher acceptance of this compared to older generations.
Yet Putnam and Campbell do not accept the thesis that America is going through a process of secularization similar to other Western countries. The decline in religion is taking place at a notably slower rate than elsewhere and the history of religion in American has shown a remarkable series of twists and turns, with declines being followed by periodic upsurges.
An interesting characteristic of religion in America identified by the book is the remarkable fluidity in allegiances. Less than two-thirds of all Americans inherited their parents’ religion. This does vary, however, when looked at by race. Loyalty to the religion they grew up in is twice as high among blacks and Latinos compared to the 35-40% of white Americans who have at some point switched religion from that of their parents.
Among white Catholics, just over 60% have left the Church, with an almost equal division between those who have lapsed and rarely take part in any Church activity, and those who have switched religion. The percentage of Latino Catholics who leave is half of this and, combined with the high level of immigration from Catholic Latino countries, this will result in an accelerated Latino character of the Catholic Church in America.
Immigrants now account for about 13% of the population in the United States, and as in the previous century the Catholic Church often serves as a refuge for them, the authors observe. While the retention rate among white Catholics is similar to that of mainline Protestants the Catholic Church has retained its share of the population, at around 25%, due to the influx of Catholic immigrants.
A 2006 survey found that 35% of all Catholics in the U.S. reported some degree of Latino ethnicity. While they only account for 15% of Catholics above 50 years of age, they are 34% in the bracket of 35-49, and 58% of Catholics under 35 years of age. To this has to be added the factor of regular participation, with Latinos having higher rates than whites. So, 67% of young Catholics who attend church regularly are Latinos.
It’s not only a quantitative change, but also qualitative. According to the research by the authors, Latino Catholics are more orthodox in their beliefs and more supportive of the Pope.
Along with looking at changes in religion, the book also examined the social and political impact of believers. Regarding religion and politics, Putnam and Campbell pointed out that conservatives, and the Republican Party, have succeeded in forging a coalition termed the “Religious Right,” uniting on issues such as abortion, the family and same-sex marriage.
This alliance will come under pressure as, while religiosity is connected with more conservative political loyalties, even the most religious young person is just as likely to support same-sex marriage as a secular counterpart. Acceptance of abortion among young people is, however, moving in the opposite direction. So while the “Religious Right” is not likely to break up in the near future, the dynamics between religion and politics remain subject to change.
“The change will be in how religion affects our politics, not whether it does,” the book concludes.
In the broader civic area, religious Americans are both more generous neighbors and more conscientious citizens that their secular counterparts, according to Putnam and Campbell.
Religious people volunteer more, not only for church groups but also for secular organizations. In fact, regular churchgoers are more than twice as likely to volunteer to help the needy compared to those who rarely attend church.
When it comes to philanthropy not only does a higher percentage of the religiously active donate to charity, but they also give higher amounts than secular Americans. This is the same for both religious and non-religious causes.
Religious Americans are also more active in civic participation, about twice as much according to the book than those who are secular. This activity ranges from belonging to organizations, serving on community bodies, and being active in politics. Moreover, it is not just the conservative religious who are active. When it comes to local reform issues, religiosity matters more for those who described themselves as liberal.
Correlation does not prove causation, the authors admit. Nevertheless the findings remain the same when controlled for gender, education, income, race, region, age, and a variety of other factors.
Controlling for theological views or religious traditions does not provide a guide as to why religious Americans are better neighbors, the authors state. One explanation the book proposes is that having close friends at church and discussing religion with family and friends are closely associated with the range of generosity and civic engagement.
The religious belonging and activity in groups, and not the religious beliefs in themselves, are the key factor in good citizenship. Combined with the fact that religious people score higher in support for altruistic values, the socially active believer is motivated by the religiously based social networks to be more involved in the community.
Toward the end of the book Putnam and Campbell observe that religion can rightly be described as the glue that holds American society together. A role that it will continue to play in the foreseeable future.
Legionary Father John Flynn writes from Rome. This article originally appeared in Zenit.