American Grace

Just finished another one of my Christmas books, American Grace by Robert Putnam and David Campbell. It is a sociological study of the current state of religion in America. Sociology of religion is not my field, but I try to keep up with the basics. Therefore, though much of the detail was new, the overall picture was not surprising. Two things did surprise me, however.

The first is their identification of the segment of the population that the church had been losing the most of in the past generation. It’s easy to assume that young, educated people are the ones deserting churches. Some are, sure. But the authors identify the largest demographic we’re losing as the poor and disconnected. I’d really like to see more investigation as to why that is the case.

Actually, this is not a total surprise to me. I know that in my own experience and from my own observations that the churches with which I’m most familiar haven’t done a good job reaching people from lower incomes and lower education levels. I’d like to know what we can do.

If I had to guess, I’d think that the cultural gap between already existing churches and unreached folks in these socio-economic groups has broadened. In the United Methodist Church it’s possible that the ever increasing educational requirements for pastors have made us culturally distant. We know how to run food pantries. We know how to do day cares. We know how to build wheel chair ramps and repair houses. But too often we don’t build the deep and abiding friendship ties that make for a sustaining church relationship. If we have people from the lower socio-economic strata who come to faith in our churches and experience a call, it is our tendency to pull them out of their cultural setting to make them more like us, effectively making them less like the folks we’re trying to reach.

The second surprise was a the very end of the book. In the closing paragraphs the authors say:

How has America solved the puzzle of religious pluralism – the coexistence of religious diversity and devotion? And how has it done so on the wake of growing religious polarization? By creating a web of interlocking personal relationships among people of many different faiths.

This is America’s grace.

They’ve demonstrated that in spite of the dramatic increase of “nones,” America is still very religious. They’ve shown that a major divergence has been caused by the politicization of religion, particularly in terms of abortion and same-sex marriage. They’ve also shown that in spire of this polarization and difference, large percentages of religious Americans, even those in Evangelical and conservative traditions, are amazingly tolerant and non-exclusive in their attitudes toward those who are different. They see that this tolerance is rooted in reality that people who are different are thrown into relationship with those who are different. They discover the humanity of those people, even to the extent of building friendships, even connecting families, making exclusivist positions more difficult.

I get that. We have differences, yet we get along amazing well. We’re open to each other. But this makes we wonder about Putnam’s findings in Bowling Alone. In that work he finds a decline in social capital, seeing more people going it alone or hunkering down, rather than getting involved with others in the community. If all we had was American Grace, we’d think social capital was doing well in America.

From what I see, I don’t see that the social capital situation has turned around. What we might need then, is a closer examination of the relationship between religious groups and the building of social capital.

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