Last night I got home from Bible Study to find a copy of American Grace lying in the entryway (graciously provided by the publisher, Simon and Schuster). It is a massive book, that I think will have a profound impact on our conversations going forward. I've just read a few pages in, but already recognize it to be an important contributor to the discussion of the religious situation we find in America today.
The subtitle of the book -- "How Religion Divides and Unites Us" -- is helpful, in that it reminds us that religion can have both effects. Early in the first chapter the authors, Robert Putnam and David Campbell, note the change that occurred between 1960 and 2004. In 1960 John F. Kennedy ran for President and garnered the vast majority of Roman Catholic votes, even though he differed from his church on a number of issues, and won a close election against the Protestant Richard Nixon, who garnered much of the Protestant vote (remember that Charles C. Morrison, the longtime Editor/Publisher of the Christian Century warned that a Kennedy victory would make the nation subservient to Rome). In 2004, another Roman Catholic ran for President, and he too differed from his church -- especially on one particular issue -- and a majority of Catholics voted for his opponent, an Protestant Evangelical. What had happened? Well, back in 1960 denomination mattered, in 2004 it was a matter of how religious you actually were. That is piety not affiliation.
There is much to wrestle with, and I've only read about 19 pages -- but the authors raise the issue that will transfix us -- how do pluralism and polarization coexist? They write:
The answer lies in the fact that, in America, religion is highly fluid. The conditions producing that fluidity are a signal feature of the nation's constitutional infrastructure. The very first words of the Bill of Rights guarantee that Congress -- later interpreted to mean any level of government -- will favor no particular religion, while ensuring that Americans can freely exercise their religious beliefs. In the legal arena, debates over such matters as whether the Ten Commandments can be displayed on public property hinge on the interpretation of the Constitution's words. More broadly, the absence of a a state-run religious monopoly combined with a wide sphere of religious liberty has produced an ideal environment for a thriving religious ecosystem. Religions compete, adapt, and evolve as individual Americans freely move from one congregation to another, and even from one religion to another. In the United States, it seems perfectly natural to refer to one's religion as a "preference" instead of as a fixed characteristic. (American Grace, p. 4).
This fluidity allows for both the pluralism and the polarization. And if we don't like one version we can move to another, and if none works, then we can join the increasing number of "nones," who form, according to the authors, the third largest grouping after Evangelicals and Catholics -- and growing. And just as a reminder, the "nones" are highly present in the under 40 crowd. That fact has religious and political implications -- in case you are wondering.