American Grace:

Taking theology seriously

posted by Molly Worthen

American Grace is the rare sort of book that gratifies and challenges the reader at the same time. Many scholars will be glad to confirm long-standing hunches in the results of the authors’ 2006 and 2007 Faith Matters surveys: women, African-Americans, rural Americans, and Southerners have more active religious lives than others; church attendance levels are gradually dropping, even among evangelicals; increasing numbers of Americans across all traditions are marrying outside their own religion. Robert Putnam and David Campbell have also turned up a few surprises that subvert conventional wisdom. Their data suggest that higher education levels track with higher religious observance, and slightly more evangelicals than mainline Protestants think that the government bears primary responsibility for the welfare of the poor. But American Grace is not just an intriguing collection of statistics. Putnam and Campbell synthesize this morass of bar graphs, factor scores, and “quintiles of religiosity” to argue that at the center of twenty-first-century American religion lies a paradox—one that should challenge scholars to rethink their assumptions. This may mean reconsidering the explanatory power of that embarrassing old crone of the religious studies family, the fading relation to whom we owe so much, but whom many of us would prefer to commit to the rest home for the balance of her natural life: Protestant theology.

To Putnam and Campbell, the grand irony of their data is this: in a time of unprecedented religious and political polarization, America is more pluralistic and tolerant than ever before. The authors build on Robert Wuthnow’s assessment of the “restructuring of American religion” along political rather than denominational lines in the decades after World War II, and their study pursues many of the familiar themes of the “culture wars” that James Davison Hunter began exploring twenty years ago. Their telling of post-war American cultural history will provoke quibbles from specialists, but the basic storyline of American Grace is sound: the social revolutions of the 1960s set in motion a series of cultural reactions and counter-reactions that have left Americans increasingly polarized over whether or not to impose the authority of holy scripture over one another’s lives, particularly in their bedrooms. That polarization accelerated in the 1980s, and since then frequent churchgoers across all traditions have been more and more likely to favor conservative politics. At the same time, the “moderate religious middle is shrinking,” and growing numbers of Americans are disavowing the rule of organized religion altogether. When pollsters ask these people to describe their religious affiliation, they answer “none”—and they tend to vote Democratic. Despite this widening chasm, the country is not perched on the precipice of religious war. On the contrary, Americans seem to be getting along rather well, and have more and better relationships with people of different faiths. How can this be the case?

This state of affairs suggests that the reality of religion in America may be outpacing the categories and assumptions of those who study it. What, for example, are scholars to make of the “nones” who fervently declare that they still believe in God? And what about all those Americans who not only host summer barbecues with neighbors of different faiths, but also nonchalantly shrug that those neighbors might very well end up in heaven too? The Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod) takes the unequivocal position that a “horrible doom” awaits “all those who do not believe in Jesus.” Church leaders practically rent their garments upon hearing that 86 percent of Missouri Synod Lutherans told pollsters that “a good person who is not of their faith could indeed go to heaven.” When Martin Luther proclaimed the priesthood of all believers, this is not what he had in mind. It’s enough to make any scholar wonder if creeds, confessions, and statements of faith are obsolete.

What, in heaven’s name, is going on here? Is the country marching inexorably toward—dare I use that vexed word—secularization? Is America merely in a trough of unbelief something like the fallow period that American churches experienced in the late eighteenth century, soon to rebound in the fervor of revival? Or are human beings, since time immemorial, simply inconsistent creatures?

The answer might be none, or all, of the above—no survey can tell us for sure. What we need is a bird’s eye view, and that requires taking theology seriously, and considering a longer view of the history of Western civilization than any sociological survey can provide.

American Grace adopts a position of respectful skepticism toward theology. The authors dutifully reproduce the questionnaire of “measures of theological belief and religious commitment” included in their survey, but they express surprise that many Americans “have stable views on such seemingly arcane theological issues” as whether a person is saved by faith or by their own good deeds. (Calling this fundamental question “arcane” is a bit like expressing confusion at that obscure rule in baseball that allows a player to score a run by crossing home plate.) Americans might be reluctant to condemn a non-believing friend to eternal hellfire, but this emotional ambivalence does not necessarily mean that they take theological matters lightly.

In fact, survey respondents overwhelmingly ranked theology as the most important reason for switching churches—liturgy or worship style was the second-most important, and political reasons were the least important. Yet Putnam and Campbell seem to conclude that this means theology has become a vessel for politics in disguise. To religious people of all faiths, issues like sexual morality and abortion are not simply, or even primarily, political questions. God has expressed an opinion—and that means that these are theological matters. By asserting that American evangelicals’ primary ambition is their “desire to convert sexual morality into public policy,” the authors obscure the bigger picture. The culture wars are not just about sex and social norms: they represent a contest between those Americans who locate ultimate authority in God and a traditional reading of scripture, and those who believe the freedom of individual choice trumps the dictates of some bearded old man in the clouds.

Putnam and Campbell are hardly alone in their doubts about theology’s role in elucidating American religious life. In their zeal for interdisciplinary breadth, today’s scholars of religion are so eager to pay due respect to political science, economics, gender and race theory, cognitive psychology, and other fields that they sometimes overlook theology as an explanatory factor in human affairs. The religious studies crowd is particularly sensitive about the Protestant bias that has saturated the discipline ever since its origins in missionaries’ efforts to study and convert the heathen. We have spent much energy flagellating ourselves for our semi-conscious Protestant frame of mind—our focus on belief at the expense of practice; our search for coherent intellectual systems defined by Enlightenment standards; our blinkered emphasis on the individual over the community. Our efforts to eradicate that prejudice have left theology all the more passé. Putnam and Campbell, for their part, worry about the possibility that their survey might have selected for religious attributes that are distinctly or predominantly Protestant. They point out that their polls diagnosed religiosity just as accurately in British Muslims as among American evangelicals (though it’s worth noting that British Muslims might not be the best control subjects, since they live and worship in a society still groggy with a Protestant hangover).

The trouble, however, is that it’s not just the ivory tower of religious studies that operates in a Protestant framework. As Tracy Fessenden and others have pointed out, a “Protestant consensus,” a civil religion based in the premises of the Reformation, still saturates American society. Despite the proliferation of Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and “nones” in modern America, I wonder whether American Grace is telling us that America, if not officially a Protestant nation by established church or creed, is still evolving along a historical trajectory that one can trace back to the 95 Theses.

In American Grace, the internal contradictions of Protestantism are front and center. On one side of the cultural divide that the authors describe, conservative Americans’ views on sexual morality stem from their respect for traditional authority and a distrust of human nature rooted in the Protestant emphasis on humankind’s irreparable depravity. Yet that other fundamental principle of the Reformation—individual freedom of conscience—has found its most extreme expression in America’s free marketplace of religion, the country’s founding narrative of individual liberty, and a political culture that allows little deviation from the tenets of classical Enlightenment liberalism. Many religious Americans would say that they have no king save the Lord of scripture—but if the God of the Bible is king, then individual conscience is his formidable royal consort.

Pollsters’ growing tally of “nones”—those Americans who have thrown off the demands of organized religion but still believe in some kind of God—represent the palace coup, the triumph of individual conscience as ultimate authority. This is a conflict driven, not by doctrinal nitpicking, but by the basic question of intellectual authority in human society. The “nones” may not fit neatly into scholars’ preexisting categories, but one thing is certain: they are heirs of the Reformation who have taken Luther’s courageous stand to its logical conclusion. The nineteenth-century Presbyterian theologian B.B. Warfield once observed that “the Reformation, inwardly considered, was just the ultimate triumph of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over Augustine’s doctrine of the church.” The American experiment might just turn out to be the triumph of Luther’s doctrine of free conscience over his doctrine of human nature—though the battle is far from over.

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