In summer 2000, the Chautauqua Institution invited me to present a week’s lectures on the vitality of religious faith among Americans at the millennium. Shortly afterward, the talks were expanded into a book titled The Future of Christian Faith in America.
At the time, I intended to revisit the subject and provide a modest update 10 years into the new millennium. As it turns out, two celebrated political scientists have done that very thing in an ambitious new book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.
Robert D. Putnam of Harvard University is best known for his earlier book, Bowling Alone, which revealed the erosion of community involvement among Americans.
The current fashion of books promoting atheism suggests an erosion of religious faith in America. In fact, the percentage of Americans worshiping weekly has held steady during the past decade at just less than 40 percent. By the measure of church attendance, Americans are actually more religious than Iranians and exceeded only by the citizens of Jordan, Indonesia, Poland, Egypt, Brazil and India.
Speaking at the Pew Foundation’s recent Forum on Religious and Public Life, held in Washington, Campbell acknowledged that the U.S. offers an unusual environment for religion inasmuch as it simultaneously combines three things: Americans are religiously devout, diverse and tolerant.
Acknowledging that the 1950s marked a high point of Americans’ religiosity, Campbell noted that, abetted by the sexual revolution of the 1960s, religious faith plummeted, prompting Time magazine to ask on its cover in 1966: “Is God Dead?”
Two aftershocks followed, Campbell told the conference: In the 1970s, when many Americans looked for a place where they could find moral certainty; then through the mid-1990s, when many Christians sought for that certainty in evangelical Protestantism. At the same time, Latino immigrants swelled the ranks of churchgoing Catholics.
Yet we have not returned to the religiosity of the 1950s. In the 1990s, more Americans began to tell pollsters that they had “no religion.” Putnam and Campbell reveal that “when you look at young people, it’s an even higher percentage, up to a quarter, maybe even a third of all young people today who say they have no religion.”
In recent decades, the authors note, there has also been a growth in both religious and political conservatism, but it has not produced polarization. Indeed, the great majority of religious Americans believe that those without faith can be good Americans and that those of other faiths can go to heaven. The great majority of Americans believe there is truth in other religions.
For me, the most surprising revelation in “American Grace” is that half of Americans regularly say grace before meals.
David Yount’s latest book is Making a Success of Marriage. He answers readers at P.O. Box 2758, Woodbridge, VA 22195 and firstname.lastname@example.org.