I view Harvard’s Robert (Bob) Putnam as a public intellectual. He’s a top-rate scholar who writes in a very accessible style. Even the titles of his books are inviting. He writes a lot about the idea of community, including the prominent role that religion plays in creating a sense of community. Two of his previous books that have helped me most are Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community and Better Together: Restoring the American Community, Amazing Grace.
In October 2010 he released the much-awaited American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, co-written with Robert Campbell of Notre Dame.It’s long (688 pages), and I’ve read only portions of it to date, plus I’ve heard Putnam speak on it. The book is a groundbreaking examination of religion in America. The gist: Unique among nations, America is deeply religious, religiously diverse, and remarkably tolerant. But in recent decades the nation’s religious landscape has been reshaped.
Here is Putnam and Campbell’s take on the last 50 years: In the 1960s, religious observance plummeted. Then in the 1970s and 1980s, a conservative reaction produced the rise of evangelicalism and the Religious Right. Since the 1990s, however, young people, turned off by that linkage between faith and conservative politics, have abandoned organized religion. The result has been a growing polarization—the ranks of religious conservatives and secular liberals have swelled, leaving a dwindling group of religious moderates in between. At the same time, personal interfaith ties are strengthening. Interfaith marriage (including inter-denominational marriages) has increased while religious identities have become more fluid. Putnam and Campbell show how this denser web of personal ties brings surprising interfaith tolerance, notwithstanding the so-called culture wars.
American Grace is based on two of the most comprehensive surveys ever conducted on religion and public life in America. It includes a dozen in-depth profiles of diverse congregations across the country, which illuminate how the trends described by Putnam and Campbell affect the lives of real Americans.
Nearly every chapter of American Grace contains a surprise about American religious life. To me the biggest research point is this: Religious Americans are better neighbors than secular Americans: more generous with their time and treasure even for secular causes. However, the explanation has less to do with faith than with their communities of faith.
At the very least, take a look at some of the reviews, such as this one from NPR: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=130264527
Warren Bird, Ph.D., is Research Director at Leadership Network, and co-author of 21 books on various aspects of church health and innovation. His recent “Leadership Network” blogs include Updated Publishing Updates, Beyond Christendom Says Migration Keeps Transforming the Church, Terrific Biography of Rick Warren, The Soviet Plot to Kill God, The Worst Moment in Most Church Services, Excellent Resources for Church-Based Grants, Do White Churches Hold Others in Cultural Captivity?and Church Merger Phenomenon Continues to Expand,"We're Tired of Trying to Microwave Church Leaders" (1 of 3), "We're Tired of Trying to Microwave Church Leaders" (2 of 3), "We're Tired of Trying to Microwave Church Leaders" (3 of 3),The Christian Century on Megachurches