Any authors would be pleased by an array of laudatory and thoughtful comments on their work, especially by a group of critics as distinguished and diverse as this. We are grateful for the care and attention our commentators have taken with American Grace, especially given that they are outside of our own discipline of political science. In writing this book, our hope was to speak beyond disciplinary boundaries. It is thus particularly gratifying to read John Torpey describe American Grace as “public sociology.” This is precisely what we hoped to achieve. We believe that more social science should be directed toward informing our public discourse, and that rigor versus relevance is a false choice.
Robert Putnam and David E. Campbell’s American Grace follows up on these Tocquevillean themes, exploring the contemporary American religious landscape to understand, in the words of the subtitle, “how religion divides and unites us.” As in Putnam’s earlier work, the book mobilizes the full array of methods available to the social scientist—survey research, interviews, participant observation in relevant settings, historical comparisons. Vignettes drawn from qualitative research are interspersed with discussions of the quantitative data accessible to the uninitiated. The authors draw frequently on other pertinent studies to buttress their own findings, helping reassure us that the results of their research are reliable.
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.)
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. 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?
Is bland beautiful? Almost never, most of us would say. But when it comes to religion in a diverse society, the answer may be yes. This is the chief, if probably unintended implication of American Grace, which I take to be the most successfully argued, comprehensive sociological study of American religion in more than half a century. Robert Putnam and David Campbell harvest a generation of research and mature reflection about how religious affiliations of all kinds divide and unite Americans of different generations, regions, sexes, educational levels, and ethno-racial groups.