Peter Berger on American Grace’s implications for valuable civil religion

December 1, 2010
By tomsander


A few days before Thanksgiving The New York Times carried a brief report about a pre-holiday interfaith breakfast in Westchester County, the affluent suburban area just north of New York City. It was convened by Rabbi Mark Sameth, known as “the country-and-western rabbi”, and the Reverend Steven Phillips, a Methodist described as “a sort of bluegrass minister”. As their nicknames indicate, both men have a background in country music. They were joined in the sponsorship of the event by representatives of the Upper Westchester Muslim Society and the Many Branches Sangha, a Buddhist organization. (I would guess that the phrase “many branches” refers to different schools of Buddhism being represented in the organization, something made necessary by the great religious diversity of American Buddhists.)

The Times story makes reference to the recent book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us by Robert Putnam (of Bowling Alone fame) and David Campbell. The much-discussed book uses a multitude of data to show the paradox that, on the one hand, religion polarizes American society in terms of morality and politics, while on the other hand the same society has become much more tolerant of religious diversity (not least demonstrated by increasing intermarriage across religious divides). The latter trait is evidence of an all-embracing civil religion, also known as “the American Creed”, which serves to keep the polarization from blowing up the society. In other words, the very real culture conflicts are kept under control by the equally real first commandment of the civil religion—“Thou shalt be tolerant!”

Peter Berger’s piece is a nice rejoinder to Rod Dreher’s essay suggesting that American Grace shows that the quality of American faith has suffered (Rod’s view), even as the quantity of faith remains vibrant.  Read the full Peter Berger piece: “Peter Berger: Interfaith Kumbaya” (The American Interest, December 1, 2010 )


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