Thursday, October 21, 2010

Religion in American Life

I haven't yet read American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, but Peter Steinfels summarizes some of its key points in the recent American Prospect:

The evangelical wave has been ebbing for some time now and it is being replaced by the "nones":
The book's story is one of a religious earthquake and two aftershocks. The earthquake was the disaffection from religion occurring in "the long Sixties." Church attendance plummeted. So did the percentage of Americans saying that religion was "very important" in their life. At every stage of their life, boomers would always lag behind their parents by 25 percent to 30 percent in regular churchgoing. The authors know well that these were the years of the civil-rights, anti-war, and women's liberation movements, of pot, acid, the pill, Roe v. Wade, and Watergate. But with a refreshing directness and only a bit of embarrassment, they emphasize sex. Between 1969 and 1973, the fraction of Americans stating that premarital sex was "only sometimes wrong" or "not wrong at all" doubled, from 24 percent to 47 percent, a startling change in four years -- and then drifted up, never to decline. Attitudes toward premarital sex turn out to be one of the strongest predictors of a host of other political and religious changes, including that of the first great aftershock, the evangelical upsurge of the 1970s and 1980s.

That reaction to "the long Sixties" has been extensively analyzed. Less so the second great aftershock, the rise of the "nones" after 1990 when young people, in particular, began rejecting identification with any religion, though not necessarily with a variety of religious beliefs and practices. More and more young Americans, according to polls, came to view religion as "judgmental, homophobic, hypocritical, and too political," overly focused on rules rather than spirituality. "The Richter rating of this second aftershock is greater than that of the first aftershock and rivals that of the powerful original quake of the Sixties," Putnam and Campbell write.
People who go to church contribute more money and time to both religious and secular charities and tend to be more civically engaged:
Churchgoing Americans, it turns out, are twice as likely as their demographically matched secular neighbors to volunteer to help the needy and to be civically active. Not only do those in the most religious fifth of Americans give four times as high a proportion of their annual income to charity as those in the least religious fifth, but they give a higher proportion even to specifically secular causes. Neither this generosity nor this activism has to do with ideology. Cross-checking with other surveys, Putnam and Campbell conclude that on measures of generosity and civic engagement, religious liberals rank as high or higher than religious conservatives and higher than secular liberals.
It is not unusual for Americans to change their religious affiliation. Putnam offers himself as an example:
He and his sister were raised as Methodists. At marriage, he converted to Judaism. His children were raised as Jews; one married a Catholic who is now secular, and the other's spouse was secular but converted to Judaism. Putnam's sister married a Catholic and converted to Catholicism. Her three children became evangelicals! No wonder that so many Americans refuse to believe, regardless of the tenets of their religion, that those of differing conviction are bereft either of spiritual truth or hope of salvation.
Although the jury is still out on whether this will be true as we increasing have interactions with Muslims in America.

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