American Grace:

A historian’s reaction to American Grace

posted by Jon Butler

David Campbell’s and Robert Putnam’s American Grace left me historically puzzled on my first reading, and my second didn’t clear things up. Its 550 pages of text, plus 97 pages of appendices and notes, probe the range and complexity of contemporary American religiousness with remarkable patience and detail. No other book so thoroughly documents the polarization of religion (and politics) in America, from the irenic 1950s to the angry 1990s and 2000s, or charts the often complex and sometimes seemingly anomalous consequences that this transformation has had for contemporary American religion, politics, and culture.

Although American Grace doesn’t leave historians on the whirling dime, wondering “So what?” it does raise questions about historical context. In other words, how do the changes that Campbell and Putnam retrace fit three centuries of evolution in American religion, politics, and culture?

American Grace is hardly without history. Its most sustained historical analysis occurs in the third chapter, “Religiosity in America: The Historical Backdrop.” A subheading outlines a principal point: “The 1950s: the high tide of civic religion.” Campbell and Putnam rightly caution against accepting some of the common enthusiasm about the purportedly ubiquitous religiosity of the 1950s, such as is suggested by Gallup polling data on church and synagogue attendance. But their main point is straightforward: “Virtually all experts agree, however, that the period from the late 1940s to the early 1960s was one of exceptional religious observance in America”—the experts ranging from the historians Sydney Ahlstrom, Patrick Allitt, Maurice Isserman, Michael Kazin, and Uta Andrea Balbier to the ever-looming Will Herberg.

However, my sense is that “backdrop” well describes how history works in American Grace. The book isn’t historiography and wasn’t meant to be.  When it invokes history, often the point is to demonstrate religion’s continuing importance, as well as its new divisions, in America, the authors’ argument about religion’s contemporary centrality being supported by reference to patterns continuing from earlier decades. Consider the first pre-1950 historical reference, which concerns evangelicalism:

Evangelical Protestants comprise one of the most significant religious traditions in America—particularly for understanding change in American religion. Historian Mark Noll notes that evangelicalism dates as far back as the early eighteenth century, when a movement began within Protestantism to find a ‘true religion of the heart.’

Campbell and Putnam describe evangelicalism as “the dominant strain within American Protestantism through most of the nineteenth century,” then raise the fundamentalist-modernist split that “spilled over into American society more generally.” But rather than illustrate change, my sense is that these references limn a comforting continuity, the “religion of the heart,” and even its divisions, remaining a primary mode of American religiosity.

Neither the concept of “religion” that informs American Grace nor longer-term historical patterns provoke much discussion. Campbell and Putnam shun theoretical issues: “One can quibble over just how religion, and religiosity, should be gauged.” They don’t. They seem, literally, to opt for Justice Potter Stewart’s “I know it when I see it” approach. “By any standard,” Campbell and Putnam write, “the United States (as a whole) is a religious nation.” So ends, or begins, their discussion; perhaps one might say that American Grace is itself a riff on the American meaning of “religion.”

Although history doesn’t operate by the “by any standard” approach here used for religion, the “backdrop” slant given it by Campbell and Putnam makes weak-kneed history. Their discussion of “civic religion” serves as an example. Unlike their operative concept of religion, they do define it, as the notion that “religion—or at least a belief in God—serves to bind the nation together,” and this stands at the center of their discussion of the 1950s. But the only discussion of civic religion before 1950 comes 400 pages later, on a single page that cites Robert Bellah citing Jefferson and Lincoln, along with some words on George W. Bush and Barack Obama, all essentially emphasizing a soothing continuity rather than a contested evolution.

What’s missing in American Grace is a sense of how the current polarization, or its development, from the seemingly peaceful 1950s to the antagonistic 1990s and 2000s, fits American historical patterns more generally. The references to both evangelicalism and civil religion implicitly stress continuity, with the authors’ emphasis on the “religion of the heart,” or on the importance of a broad commitment to a simple “belief in God,” both lasting from the eighteenth century into the twenty-first. Yet the history of American evangelicalism itself is as much one of anger, argument, schism, defeat, organization, dead-ends, and yes, triumph, which might well fit the diagnosis of polarization that Campbell and Putnam find alarming and claim to have developed mainly in the last twenty years. Yet, if we rethink the issue, American civil religion also wallowed in the anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Mormonism that created at least one American political party, deeply shaped others, and produced much violence, fire, murder directed against Catholics, Jews, and Mormons for many, many decades, even into the 1950s.

Because American Grace makes much of Campbell’s own Mormonism and contains ample discussions of contemporary Mormon belief and behavior, its approach to Mormon history is itself intriguing. Its account of Mormon origins bypasses the upheaval of the movement’s radical, polygamous, and harassed past. An acknowledgement that Mormons were “driven from place to place by persecutors” entices no detail, and a plain reference to “the death of Joseph Smith” raises no mention of his brutal assassination by a Missouri mob. Instead, this “backdrop” jumps to the triumphant present and Mormonism’s status as a “global church some 13.5 million strong,” whose “success at winning converts owes largely to its strongly evangelical spirit.” Lacking is an account of Mormonism’s truly extraordinary transformation from polygamous, sometimes communitarian radicalism into the epitome of twentieth- and twenty-first century American political and religious conservatism. Is the intensity of contemporary Mormon conservatism in any way related to consciousness of Mormonism’s radical past, as though Mormons still needed to prove their cultural and Christian orthodoxy?

Even the seemingly simple issue of heaven unravels in the face of both history and theology. Campbell’s and Putnam’s polling data shows that Mormons are far ahead of any other religious group in believing that even non-Christians can enter heaven; 98% of Mormons—but only 83% of Catholics, 79% of mainline Protestants, 62% of black Protestants, and 54% of evangelical Protestants—hold such views. But the Mormon heavens and means of getting to them are remarkably different than those of other Christian groups. Only Mormons have held, since the 1840s, that heaven is complex, with “three degrees or kingdoms of glory,” and that Mormons may baptize the dead by proxy to provide the foundation for their entrance into heaven. These views and this history shape modern Mormon behavior. Mormons have collected birth and death records worldwide for a century, now in microfilm and digital form, and are the originators of the fabulous, which provides access to more than five billion birth records—a gold mine for historians (it’s by far the best route to fully digitized U.S. census returns up to 1930), genealogists of all kinds, and Mormons verifying records for proxy baptism.

This history and this theology upend one of the seemingly innocuous questions Campbell and Putnam pose in American Grace—can even non-Christians enter heaven?—because the respondents simply don’t share the same understanding of “heaven.”  Mormons pointedly understand heaven differently than do other Christians, and they have a mechanism for getting even the dead there, of which others disapprove, most notably Jewish leaders, who have sometimes bitterly protested Mormon proxy baptism, especially of Holocaust survivors. (Campbell and Putnam do refer to Mormon “posthumous baptism” in an endnote, but one limited to Mormon convictions that theirs is the only true faith.)

Similarly, Campbell and Putnam do not systematically engage Catholic, mainline Protestant, black Protestant, and evangelical Protestant theologies of heaven.  For them, one might wonder if the issue has less to do with heaven than with reluctance to believe in hell, which Campbell and Putnam do discuss, and whose historical decline for Protestants was charted a long time ago, in D. P. Walker’s The Decline of Hell: Seventeenth-Century Discussions of Eternal Torment. Of course, that would also seem to include the “nones,” the non-religious who might feel that if people go anywhere, it must be “heaven,” which our broad popular culture seems to think is good.

I admire the complexity and fascinating ethnographic excursions American Grace offers. I wish I could write as cleanly as Campbell and Putnam do across more than 500 pages. I appreciate the effort at keeping the big picture constantly in focus. At the same time, for a historian, American Grace‘s many and complex “beliefs” float too free from their historical moorings, and not just because I like history, but because history is embedded in contemporary behavior—as in contemporary Mormon views on heaven—even when it doesn’t seem to be.  Maybe part of the general problem is taking the irenic 1950s as the departure point of its historical backdrop. We could debate whether or not the religious peacefulness of the 1950s is itself over-rated, but that’s a different discussion.  Instead, I would suggest that, even if the 1950s weren’t entirely peaceful, they may still have been the most unusual, and indeed relatively irenic, years in American religious history.

But for three centuries, tumult, disputation, and anger— i.e., “polarization” —characterized much of American religion. It is hard for a historian not to remember the hangings of Quakers in Boston in the 1660s, the jailing even of Quaker dissidents by other Quakers in Philadelphia during the Keithian schism of the 1690s, the suppression of much traditional African religious practice among enslaved Africans, even after emancipation, plus virulent American anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, anti-Mormonism, and both polite and impolite ridicule of evangelical fundamentalism, to highlight only some of the contentious, polarizing substance of America’s long spiritual history.

Campbell and Putnam acknowledge this historical religious polarization on the penultimate page of American Grace. Yet they not only trumpet its rarity but assert that “from its founding, America has had religious toleration encoded in its national DNA.” Our DNA?  Here, the episodic, conditional past is annihilated in a paroxysm of essentialist rhetoric. Most historians would say that religious toleration emerged fitfully in America but certainly wasn’t present at its founding; it’s the point of William R. Hutchison’s Religious Pluralism in America: The Contentious History of a Founding Ideal. We might hope it’s present now. But religiously based homophobia, anti-Muslim tension, and even the quietly continuing evangelizing of Mormons by Wisconsin Synod Lutherans suggest that America’s genetically assured triumph of religious toleration hasn’t yet arrived.

The religious polarization of our own and recent times, which Campbell and Putnam chart in such chewy ethnographic detail, is not at all “the same” polarization that began when England’s dissident Puritans joined gold-seeking Virginians to contest the land as well as the divine with American Indians, who themselves had long fought their own battles over both.

Yet maybe, in some very broad and general way, American Grace really announces, without saying so, “Welcome Back.”

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2 Responses to “A historian’s reaction to American Grace

  1. avatar Raymond Takashi Swenson says:

    I recently finished reading American Grace. As a Mormon myself, I was naturally interested in the comparison the authors made between Mormon responses to their surveys and those of other Americans. I found the information they had compiled very interesting and in some cases surprising.

    Mr. Butler’s critique of the book centers on things it does not address, such as the lack of detail about the history of religious movements in general and Mormons in particular. Since American Grace is already a large book just by virtue of presenting and analyzing its survey data, an in-depth discussion of the past two centuries of American religious organizations would have added substantially to its bulk. Since its primary thrust is to present information gleaned about developments in American religious belief and affiliation since circa 1950, it would not have added much to that discussion to present a detailed history of all of the various religious movements whose recent history it chronicles. No doubt if the authors had attempted to do so, the religious historians like Mr. Butler would have criticized them for venturing outside their field of expertise.

    Frankly I disagree with Mr. Butler when he says that “American Grace makes much of Campbell’s own Mormonism.” To the contrary, the only place it is mentioned is as an example of the religious pluralism that appears in modern American families, with marriages and conversions leading to families with members in intimate relationships standing in several different streams of religious faith. When commenting on the similarities and differences between Mormons and other faith grouops, the authors do not go beyond noting the statistical evidence, and they are restrained in trying to psychoanalyze or theoanalyze the reasons why particular religious groups have particular statistical responses. In ordinary conversation, no doubt one could elicit from Campbell anecdotes drawn from his own direct Mormon experience that bear on the statistical findings, but he offers none of that information. Instead, Mormonism is just one of several religions that is featured in several vignettes that described specific congregations in each of several major American religious traditions, enabling readers to see the living modern context in which the various statistical slices of information operate, such as the varying attitudes and practices related to the interaction between politics and various religious groups.

    For that matter, it is not clear to me that Mormon history is even an area of Mr. Butler’s expertise. For example, he incorrectly places the assassination of founding Mormon prophet Joseph Smith in Missouri, rather than in Carthage, Illinois, showing a lack of familiarity with the historical dynamics that converted a hospitable environment in Illinois for Mormons escaping the Missouri “Extermination Order” into an environment of intense persecution as the Mormons grew rapidly in population and voting power, leading eventually to the mass exodus of twenty thousand people from Illinois into what was regarded as the “Great American Desert”.

    Butler critiques the survey’s findings that Mormons, by 98%, lead all other religious groups in believing that people not of their own faith can enter “heaven”, even while large majorities of all groups seem to agree (despite the best efforts of their pastors to teach them otherwise, as the authors illustrate with an experience they had in presenting their results to pastors at a conference). The gist of Butler’s critique is that Mormons believe there are different “degrees” of “heaven”, and also believe that people of other faiths can be converted to Mormonism in the hereafter. But the main point is, as Butler acknowledges, that the response to this question means precisely that most religious believers, and Mormons in particular, believe that people outside their own faiths are NOT going to be in hell! The lack of precise description of heaven among most Christians is not as important as the distinction between heaven, a place of eternal rest and happiness, and hell, a place of eternal suffering. The Mormon “heavens” all qualify as “not hell”, and in Mormon theology are specifically described as, even the least heaven, being literally beyond mankind’s imagining in its blessedness. Butler seems to think that Mormons believe non-Mormons will get into heaven through post-mortal evangelization, so he fails to understand that, even apart from that (a doctrine not fully developed until the 1840s), people of any religion who live just and righteous lives according to their own understanding of right and wrong are promised an eternal reward that fulfills all the expectations of traditional Catholic and Protestant theology, including meriting the presence of Christ, a doctrine that was established early in Mormon history in 1832, two years after the Church’s founding. While some Evangelical pastors are ready to consign all Mormons to hell, the Mormons respond by telling Evangelicals that they will, if they try to live righteously, have an eternity of light and blessedness, even if they never convert to Mormonism.

    The authors of American Grace might have pointed out that the Mormon insistence that people of all religions can go to heaven comes directly from Mormon theology, but they DO point out that the similar belief of large majorities of Catholics and Protestants is directly contrary to the preaching of many of their ministers. I assume that Campbell restrained himself in this case from touting his own faith’s theological hospitability toward other denominations, a characteristic which makes religious tolerance an inherent element of Mormon worship, rather than an epiphenomenon which may have only accidental and historical roots in a particular denomination, such as Protestant attitudes toward Catholics.

    Among Mormons, this is one of the reasons that Mormons find converts from among other denominations: members of other Christian churches often find that they believe things that are at odds with their denomination’s official doctrines, and then discover that Mormonism is a church that officially embodies beliefs that they have held already. Pastors and priests of those other denominations no doubt find Mormon coincidence with popular religious views as suspiciously “convenient” and evidence of human origins, while Mormons would respond with their doctrine that every person lived as a spirit child of Father in Heaven before birth, and has an inherent memory of the true nature of God, which is evoked when it finds familiar ground in the Mormon teachings.

    I would argue, contra Butler, that “religious toleration [was] encoded in [America's] national DNA” through the mutual toleration that enabled the 13 colonies to unite in rebellion against Britain, to declare their loyalty to “Nature’s God”, the “Creator” who endowed mankind with “unalienable rights” including “liberty”—clearly including freedom of religion—and encoded that tolerance into Article 6 of the Constitution and the First Amendment. Despite the religious intolerance that had occurred in the prior two centuries, these actions placed America on a course toward a standard of religious equality, and the instances of intolerance that followed were clearly demarcated by the Mormons and the Catholics as betrayals of the commitments to religious freedom made at the Founding. Like political equality, religious tolerance is an ideal that America has struggled toward throughout its history, and all modern discussions of it in legislatures and courts look to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—our American DNA—as the guidestars.

  2. avatar Jeffrey C. Alexander says:

    Butler’s review is a much needed scholarly and detached antidote to the “ideological” and fervidly presentist quality that mars American Grace, as it does so much of Putnam’s earlier work. I read Butler as gently pointing out that here, too, Putnam (and Campbell) have massively slathered
    on selectively evoked “data” to supply substance to a declension theory of contemporary America. American democracy has gone to hell as compared with the beautiful 1950s and before!

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