Saturday, March 5, 2011

Cullen Reviews Putnam and Campbell's *American Grace*

I recommend Jim Cullen's short review of American Grace: How Religion Divides and United Us.  Here is a taste:

In any case -- and this is a key message of American Grace -- social divisions over religion in U.S. life are ultimately less important that its role as a crucial form of social glue. The authors marvel that a nation as religiously fractured as this one has not descended into sectarian strife. The reason they offer, one reminiscent of James Madison's argument in The Federalist #10, is that Americans seem to regard pluralism itself as a shared value. This belief has only been intensified by what the authors call "the Aunt Sally Principle" (the role of religious intermarriage in fostering ecumenical ties) and "the my Friend Al Principle" (the growing incidence of bridging social capital across sectarian lines). Moreover, they say, there are signs of ideological convergence on some of the most contentious issues in religious life. More and more of the faithful, for example, are moving leftward toward a more inclusive approach toward homosexuality, and rightward toward a more skeptical view of abortion rights (as indeed are some "nones"). Religious people tend to be less tolerant in some respects than secular ones, but also more generous with their time and treasure. The honest-broker tone of the book adds to its credibility, though their belief in the civic benefits of faith in public life is clear.

Last night, during a discussion of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation at the Doylestown Bookshop, someone asked me if the founders saw religion as a means of keeping the American people under control.  While I am skeptical about framing this issue in "social control" categories, I told this person that when the founders wrote about the relationship between Christianity and the state they usually thought about how religion could serve the state in some way.

The founders, for the most part, were not theologians or religious leaders, they were statesman who set out to form a republic.  This was their highest concern.  They knew that a republic would only survive if its citizens were virtuous.  Religion was conducive to cultivating this kind of virtue.

This seems to be the same way, according to Putnam and Campbell, that many today perceive religion.  Religion is most important when it contributes to civic ends.