It seems like the landscape of American religion is always changing constantly, and it’s often hard to know where to turn for good information. One recent book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, attempts to give us a manageable overview of the recent religious past and interpret our current contexts in one book. (They squeeze it all into only 688 pages.) Like many attempts to illustrate religion’s place in the public square, the authors’ conclusions are not all that shocking. First, the authors say we as Americans are basically continuing to become more religiously diverse. And despite the growing category of “nones,” those subscribing to no religion, faith is not going away anytime soon. Religious difference can divide us, but as the authors make clear, as we begin to come into closer contact with those of other beliefs, we learn how to build informal interreligious bridges with one another. When we go to school and work together, we find ways to break down boundaries that may separate us.
The authors point out secondly, however, that religion does still have the tendency to divide. As we retreat into our faith communities of like-minded individuals, society continues to polarize us along political and culture issues – Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and progressives.
While not overly surprised by the first two points, I was struck by the book’s third major takeaway. Local communities of faith are some of the major centers of social capital in our society. Those engaged in faith communities are more generous, civically engaged, and neighborly than those who are not. Despite trends toward individual spirituality and “spiritual but not religious,” these social scientists demonstrate how being in community with fellow believers seems to make us better citizens. One of the best parts of the book is a section of ten vignettes of congregations that the authors explore to see how community affects individual lives.
My ultimate takeaway – the local church maters. Not only does it remain a key institution for being better citizens in the public square, but I would say it makes us better followers of Jesus. The sociologist authors don’t go into deeper faith questions, but they are there for us to consider in light of their findings. How can we learn to be the Church faithfully sharing the gospel while being better neighbors and breaking down the interreligious walls that divide us? How can we be the church that majors on our commitment to Christ while celebrating and engaging our social, cultural, and political differences instead of retreating into monocultural communities that keeps us closed off from other perspectives? American Grace was a study worth reading for what it tells about our American religious landscape, but I came away with an unexpected reminder of the centrality of local churches in helping shape our faith and the part each of us play in helping form these communities in order to bring about the Kingdom of God here on earth.