Strong review of American Grace by Peter Berkowitz for Hoover Institution

October 5, 2011
By tomsander


“American Grace is a collaborative work by rising star David Campbell, a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame and author of Why We Vote: How Schools and Communities Shape our Civic Life, and the distinguished senior scholar Robert Putnam, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. It is very much in the spirit of Putnam’s earlier writings, particularly Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy (1993) and the bestselling Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (1996). In the former, Putnam examined Italian society and politics, focusing on how forming and maintaining civic associations generated social capital — “the norms of trust and reciprocity that arise out of social networks” — which, he argued, is a crucial ingredient of democratic self-government. In the latter, he explored changes in the propensity to associate in the United States, the resulting changes in the stocks of social capital, and the consequences for American democracy. In American Grace, Putnam and Campbell team up to assess how religion, in the words of their subtitle, “divides and unites us.” That anodyne formulation, however, conceals the striking overall finding of the book: Contrary to the common wisdom among professors and pundits, religion in these polarizing times does far more to unite Americans than to divide us.

“The authors are accomplished empirical researchers, and their findings are primarily based on data derived from “The Faith Matters Survey,” which they themselves “designed, implemented, and analyzed.” Their data analysis is enriched by an impressive appreciation of American history, culture, and society. In addition, their book provides three long chapters of what they call vignettes — “thick descriptions,” in anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s famous formulation — crafted by their colleague Shalyn Romney Garret, which vividly and sympathetically portray a variety of Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and Mormon religious communities. The book’s precisely etched accounts of the men and women who worship in these varied congregations is smoothly woven into the authors’ overall data-driven argument about the social and political effects, mostly salutary, of religion in America. Their rare facility with both quantitative and qualitative analysis enhances the authors’ handling of both….

“Putnam and Campbell’s book is that all-too-uncommon achievement for practicing political scientists — a superb work of scholarship that engages, invigorates, and refines the public debate. Their ability to resist the typical bias against religion among social scientists and largely set aside partisan political predilections enables them to shed light on the ways in which religion is consistent with democracy in America and cultivates, to use a term they avoid, the virtues on which liberty depends.”

Read review “Religion in America” here.


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