Their core narrative is that in the second half of the 20th century, U.S. religion -- in all its Catholic, Protestant, evangelical, Jewish, and ethnic and other diversities -- experienced one huge shock and two aftershocks. The first shock was the sudden increase in general sexual permissiveness in the late 1960s. For example, between 1969 and 1973, the number of survey respondents who condoned premarital sex increased from 24 to 47 percent! And the number has never dropped since, as about 80 percent of young people adopted a permissive view and have not changed their minds as they have aged.
The first aftershock was the consolidation of people who were appalled by this sexual permissiveness into conservative, mostly evangelical Protestant, religious bodies in the 1980s. Concurrently, Republicans branded themselves as the party of God and the godly and have never let go of that brand.
In the 1990s, a second aftershock saw young people react against the perceived intolerance of religious right politics by more and more identifying their religious affiliation as "none" (though not necessarily as atheist). Today, according to Putnam and Campbell, there are more self-identified "nones" than mainline Protestants; all the traditional religious varieties have trouble incorporating their young people.
Moreover, many in this country switch religious affiliations and intermarry with great frequency. Though we remain a very religious nation, as many of one third are no longer part of the religious framework we grew up in.
All this moving around has been accompanied by a massive political sorting. Here's some of the book's analysis of that:
My emphasis. So is our national attachment to religion simply a stand-in for poorly articulated political views? Putnam and Campbell would say no. They adduce examples from U.S. history of leaders whose religious affiliations would put them on the right today but who were radical populists in their own time, most notably William Jennings Bryan's 19th century crusade against finance capital. But I have to wonder about this. In a country where political ideology is ill-defined, even incoherent, do our religious enthusiasms act in the place of political affiliations?
In any case, this wouldn't matter too much to Putnam and Campbell, because their other core finding is that most of us are tolerant of religious differences. We have to be.
We not only meet people with different religious faiths at work or in schools, but even among our own families. How could we consign them to Hell? And this tolerance is growing over time. Happily, we seem unable to believe our neighbors must be condemned.
There's change for the better!
There's one large area in which religion and politics intersect that these authors have not examined and I think the omission dilutes the value of their study. Putnam and Campbell apparently chose not to look into the uncomfortable question of the implications of various religious affiliations on acceptance of the truths of modern science. They mention in passing that
That is, by the standards of the rest of the rich world, we are a scientifically ignorant nation and our religions have a strong role in maintaining this ignorance. This bodes extremely poorly for the ability of our political system to meet the challenges of climate change; the planet's future well-being will demand scientific understanding. Can we adapt our religious enthusiasm to accommodate the material knowledge that we will need to preserve the planet?
As the world's most successful industrial-age consumer and polluter nation, we have a global responsibilities here. It is unfortunate that American Grace did not take up this facet of our national religious landscape. I suspect that within a decade it will seem central.