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American Grace

Will religion push us closer – or pull us apart?

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American Grace
By Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell
Simon & Schuster
416 pp., $30

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In his bestselling “Bowling Alone,” Harvard professor Robert Putnam explored social isolation in the United States. Putnam’s new book (with coauthor David Campbell), American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, is a treasure-trove of data about religious practice in the US, most of it derived from the massive Faith Matters surveys that Putnam himself helped organize.

Over the past 50 years, the authors say, the US has seen an increasing political polarization of the religious and the nonreligious, particularly when it comes to abortion and homosexuality: “Sixty-five percent of the least religious Americans believe in a woman’s unfettered right to choose when it comes to abortion, a position held by only thirteen percent of the most religious ... [and] [n]early nine out of ten highly religious people say that homosexual activity is always wrong, in contrast with two out of ten secular Americans.”

The authors trace these strong political divisions to two major historical moments, first a conservative/religious backlash to the counterculture of the 1960s and, second, an antireligious/secular backlash to the growing political involvement of religion in the 1980s. “Liberal sexual morality [of the 1960s] provoked some Americans to assert conservative religious beliefs and affiliations,” the authors explain, “and then conservative sexual morality [in the 1980s] provoked other Americans to assert secular beliefs and affiliations.” As highly political religious groups like the Moral Majority gained electoral influence, more Americans (especially younger ones) “came to view religion ... as judgmental, homophobic, hypocritical, and too political.”

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