How Religion Divides and Unites Us
by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell
Simon & Schuster, 673 pp., $30
From Bible Belt to Sunbelt:
Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism
by Darren Dochuk
W.W. Norton, 512 pp., $35
Here’s a proposition, derived more or less from the work of the sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox—a man doing such interesting research on religion down at the University of Virginia that his department refused to give him tenure until the embarrassed university president personally intervened. Anyway, the proposition looks roughly like this: If you are, say, a young, impoverished black woman in the inner city, the single best thing you can do to better your situation is to join the strictest church you can find.
As for why this should be so, it seems to involve the transforming relations of shared community, the way the freeloader problem is solved by small congregations and the emergency aid available from a close-knit group. That young woman’s chances of marrying, of rising in social class, of educating her children and keeping them away from crime and drugs, even the likelihood of her getting a good job: All the social factors are vastly improved by the effect of a church with a solid doctrine and a stern discipline to hold its members to that doctrine. Yes, she has to reckon the costs of her time and commitment, but the benefits far outweigh those costs.
There’s a problem with that proposition, of course, and it’s a problem that influences all approaches to the sociology of religion, that tinges its research, reports and the policies we hope to derive from its insights. The problem is this: We can’t find anyone who ever joined a strict church just for the social benefits. Perhaps such people exist, although their admitting it would probably get them kicked out of their congregations. Still, the norm is that people join strongly doctrinal churches because they believe in something strongly doctrinal, and the social benefits are a derived effect, an unintended but welcome consequence, of that belief.
This is the mistake that the communitarians—from Robert D. Putnam in Bowling Alone to Amitai Etzioni in The Spirit of Community—made back in the 1990s. Rightly worried about the decline of American community, they saw clearly the benefits that should come from what Alexis de Tocqueville called the nation’s “intellectual moral associations.” The intermediate institutions that Tocqueville observed when he toured America in the 1830s—the reading groups, the social clubs, the volunteer fire departments, the burial societies—provided companionship, social training, political springboards and help during hard times. But the national effect was even more to the point. Such intermediate institutions taught the habits of democracy and instilled a sense in American citizens that they can successfully do for themselves and thus avoid relying on the power of the state.
There’s a curious way in which the actual tenets of the institutions don’t much matter; the Shriners, the Odd Fellows, the Elks and the Knights of Columbus hardly share common goals. But some purpose is necessary. The communitarians seemed to imagine that if we just help people see the good that comes from communities, they will all rush out and form communities. Unfortunately, the benefits of community are not willed in the originating impulse. Groups are most socially successful when they exist for a purpose other than the pure social effect on their members, and the nation benefits from those groups precisely when they start out with an intention other than that of benefiting the nation.
The general error of the sociologically minded communitarians becomes sharper, more ruinous of intellectual endeavor, when manifested in discussions of religion. We might set this as a simple if a trifle overstated rule. Call it the Law of Religious Sociology: There is no such thing as a socially useful religion. Of course, religious faith can be very useful to a national culture, but—mark this well, please—the usefulness derives wholly from the faith of people who would believe in their religion even if it was culturally useless. Just as happiness is a by-product of seeking the good of others, religion creates social benefits precisely because it doesn’t start out to provide those social benefits.
Robert Putnam was back this fall, with American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, a large, loose, baggy monster of a book: 673 pages of results from the enormous survey of American religion that he and researcher David E. Campbell undertook (with financial help from the Pew Foundation). In the course of their multi-year project, Putnam and Campbell set out to measure American religion sociologically; unsurprisingly, they mostly find what sociology is able to measure. In the event, that proves primarily an expression of the authors’ preference for gentle, get-along religion.
Still, American Grace is a helpful book, demonstrating quantitatively much that careful observers had long assumed. That religion is less divisive than it is usually portrayed by the nation’s political commentators and talking heads, for example. In fact, religion—or, at least, religion in the way Putnam and Campbell would like to see it—reaches across political, racial and social divisions, and thus has the effect of easing divisions that would be fiercer without religion.
This is what the authors of American Grace believe causes the “grace” of their title: They echo Tocqueville in finding that American religious experience defines and maintains the American political experiment. But in American Grace Putnam and Campbell cannot answer the question of where that grace ultimately comes from, because they have deliberately excluded the theological language in which the answer could be phrased. They’re sociologists, after all. As it happens, at least one of them is a Christian, but when push comes to shove, and pen goes to paper, the general rules of sociology trump the particularities of their individual faiths.
What worries these authors most is that the “God Gap” in politics is already large and growing larger. As a curious but somehow fitting measure of religiosity, they use the answer to their survey question of whether or not the respondents say grace before meals. They discover that those who say grace are much more likely to be Republicans than Democrats (leaving aside African Americans). What’s more, the political gap between the gracers and the graceless is increasing every year.
That may appear to contradict the book’s conclusion that Americans have achieved unparalleled levels of religious comity (“A whopping 89 percent of Americans believe that heaven is not reserved for those who share their religious faith”, note the authors), and that this comity is the means by which religious believers contribute to national unity. The problem, insist Putnam and Campbell, is sex. The change in American culture was startling and rapid in this domain: In the years shortly after 1969, the percentage of Americans who held that premarital sex was morally acceptable jumped from 24 percent to 47 percent, and the trend has continued upward in the forty years since.
Evangelicalism tried very hard to reverse this change, and American Grace demonstrates conclusively that, perhaps as a consequence, the Evangelical boom that started in the 1970s has sputtered out: “a feature of the past”, Putnam and Campbell write, “not the present.” Indeed, this struggle over sex may have led to the rise of “the nones”—with the generations “of whom barely 5 percent say they have no religious affiliation” being replaced by generations “of whom roughly 25 percent say they have no religion.”
Meanwhile, however, the division between the ultra-religious and the ultra-antireligious continues: “Libertines and prudes”, American Grace claims, are locked in a battle neither side can either win or abandon. And the result? Increased incivility, increased politicization and increased political division along religious lines—for the simple reason, Putnam and Campbell insist, that both the libertines and the prudes have proved equally incapable of understanding the great purpose of religion: to provide the social benefits of community.
There are some interesting tidbits to take away from the huge survey that Harvard’s Putnam and Notre Dame’s Campbell have undertaken. Here’s one: African-American churches and Jewish synagogues more often engage in open political endorsement, on the Left, than Evangelical megachurches or Catholic parishes do, on the Right. And here’s another: Non-churchgoing people don’t give away much money. Those who attend church regularly give more, even to secular causes, and they give a larger fraction of their income. And here’s yet another example of the book’s interesting small facts: Though they are less religious, the younger generations are nonetheless more pro-life than their parents (which suggests that the conservative fight against legalized abortion is winning). Of course, they are also more approving of homosexuality (which suggests the conservative fight against same-sex marriage is losing).
But the tone of the book’s narrative—the feeling that Putnam and Campbell have about it all—comes, at last, to a dead end. The neat sociological data breaks, more than a little, on the question of abortion. It just doesn’t fit the categories and conclusions of the book, and that’s a sign of what American Grace lacks: a sense of the hard edges of theology, an understanding of what strong views actually do. Putnam and Campbell can’t quite bring themselves to see that America needs its believers to believe something in order to gain the good social effect of having believers. We must accept religion’s particular divisiveness before we can get back something from it, like religion’s general easing of national divisiveness. This is perhaps a paradox, no? Let us not feign surprise.
There’s an old joke I first saw in something the University of Missouri social economist Jeff Milyo wrote: In any fused phrase, the word social should be read as meaning, basically, not. Social scientists, for example, aren’t really scientists (not, at least, in the way chemists and physicists are scientists). Social Security has proved considerably less than secure. Social justice, social worker, social club, maybe even social drinker: All these perfectly good nouns get made a little weak and a little weird by that adjective.
The point behind the joke can tempt one simply to reject the very idea of religious sociology—to throw overboard that whole attempt to do a social-statistical analysis of religion. And yet, there remains the fact that serious, number-crunching sociology actually got its start when Émile Durkheim set out to analyze religion. From his 1897 book Suicide, which compared suicide rates among religious groups, to his 1912 Elementary Forms of Religious Life, the founder of modern sociology was fascinated by religion and dedicated his nascent discipline to its study.
Sociology has never strayed far from that foundation. Max Weber gave us The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in 1905, Peter L. Berger (now a blogger for The American Interest) contributed The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion in 1967, and almost every year between has witnessed serious sociologists struggling to come to terms with religion.
Every year since 1967, too, for that matter, and not just dry-as-dust academic studies. Popular sociology, as well, has always been part of the fray. Talcott Parsons seems the key figure in the American application, from his translation of Weber’s work in 1930 to the famous “Sociology of Religion” courses he taught at Harvard from 1927 till his retirement in 1973. The 1950s were the peak of this kind of literature, of course. From The Organization Man to The Lonely Crowd, those were the days when it was simply assumed that sociology lay at the center of all public intellectual discourse. And Will Herberg’s endlessly discussed 1955 Protestant, Catholic, Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology was very much in the mix. The same remains true today. From David Brooks’s Bobos in Paradise (2000) to Arthur C. Brooks’s Who Really Cares (2006), something about religion gnaws at observers of the American scene.
Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising. It was Norman Mailer who once quipped that most sociology is the desperate attempt to find something to say about America that Alexis de Tocqueville hadn’t already said. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville noted the way that institutions work in America, and he describes, at the end of the book, how American religion creates the strangeness and the promise of American exceptionalism. What else is a poor, would-be popular sociologist to talk about?
Take, for example, the recent From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism, a study of God and southern California by Darren Dochuk. Dochuk, an assistant professor of history at Purdue University, knows the Tocquevillian dilemma of American religion. Any new sociological work, he writes, must seek “the middle ground between demographics and personal dramas, in the realm of institutions and ideology”—for it’s only there “that we truly learn how this religious system flourished.”
Dochuk has an interesting story to tell. How did Orange County, of all unlikely places, become such a hotbed of American religious conservatism? Part of the answer, he reports, turns on the social and geographical mobility this nation provides: The poor whites of the South created the new conservatism of America in the 1970s, and they did it by fleeing the 1930s Dust Bowls of the Great Depression and moving to California. “As they left home”, Dochuk notes, “Oklahomans, Arkansans, Texans, Missourians, and Louisianans carried their churches with them, then replanted them on California terrain.”
It would prove fertile yet peculiar soil, for California somehow turned “traditionalism into an uncentered, unbounded religious culture of entrepreneurialism, experimentation, and engagement.” Billy Graham is the central figure in the narrative, and Dochuk is to be congratulated for recognizing that a key element in the social transformation of Oklahoma-style Baptists into California-style Evangelicals was a change in theological understanding. The southern Bible churches had always held a form of exile theology: Every Christian, they believed, is merely a wayfaring stranger, alien and apart from the world. The new Evangelicals held instead what we might call a theology of the Great Commission: Every Christian, they taught, has been given a ministry to go out into the world and change the secular culture. The former theological view wasn’t quite as pessimistic as Dochuk describes it and the latter isn’t quite as optimistic, but the change from one to the other is genuine and marks something new that emerged under the balmy skies of southern California.
From Bible Belt to Sunbelt insists that the goal of all this was to produce something like Ronald Reagan, the new religious temperament determined to build a unifying coalition of political conservatism. That’s right, and yet it’s not right enough. Dochuk understands that theology has consequences, but, good sociological writer that he is, he wants the theology itself to be a consequence of something else: the California sunshine, perhaps, or the freewheeling business culture, or the deep political corruption that had always characterized Los Angeles and the rest of southern California.
That’s where the second great problem of the sociology of religion begins to come clear. If the first problem, the uselessness of useful religion, is the one manifest in Putnam and Campbell’s American Grace, then the second shows up in Dochuk’s From Bible Belt to Sunbelt. It’s the problem of material causation, and it has bedeviled sociology from the days of Karl Marx on. Do material factors determine religion, or do religious ideas determine material factors?
Marx, of course, famously thought that all causes were material, with economic systems being the origin of transformations in such pseudo-disciplines as theology. There’s a sense in which Weber wrote The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism precisely to turn Marx on his head, as if to say: You think the rise of capitalist economics forced religion into its modern Protestant forms? I’ll show you that Protestantism created the new economic conditions in the first place. Material culture doesn’t drive spirituality; spirituality drives material culture.
Weber’s thesis has attracted considerable criticism over the years, notably concerning the question of whether the economic changes in the towns he describes actually allow the inferences he drew from them. But about the deeper point, the influence of ideas and spiritual motives on sociological phenomena, Weber seems to have won in American academic discourse.
Or, at least, he has won in the abstract. In the particular, he often loses, as is the case here. Something seems to happen to sociologists when they begin to collect and quantify survey data. The more they concentrate on material effects, the more they discern material causes. The theology that Dochuk chronicles in From Bible Belt to Sunbelt must have been born, he imagines, from the travails of The Grapes of Wrath generation, as they moved from Oklahoma to California. Or it must involve the guilt those Okies felt about the subsequent success they found on the West Coast—the sudden power given to the once powerless.
The trouble with all such sociological explanations is that they require their subjects to be idiots, congenitally incapable of self-awareness or self-examination. That young black woman with whom I began—she won’t actually stay long in a strict church if she became a congregant for no reason other than the social benefits. And in a parallel way, the Evangelicals of West Coast conservatism would not have long maintained their new theology if they had adopted it for no reason other than the social emoluments it showered on their situation.
Modern sociology, in other words, seems not to possess much clear understanding that people actually believe what they believe. Perhaps sociology cannot, and should not, have that understanding. It aspires to be a modern science, after all, and it cannot admit genuinely supernatural events. But, as a consequence, there will remain what has been present in all sociology of religion ever since the discipline began: a feeling of impotence and incompletion, a nagging sense of having gotten the whole thing wrong.