Latest Perspectives on Politics has 4 reviews of “American Grace”

March 21, 2012
By tomsander

The March 2012 issue of Perspectives on Politics (Vol. 10, Issue 1) has a “Review Symposium on Religion and American Public Life”.  The issue has 4 reviews of American Grace (which they mistakenly call “Saving Grace” in their online edition) by Laura R. Olson (Clemnson), Jean Bethke Elshtain (University of Chicago), David Sehat (Georgia State Univ.) and Jon A. Shields (Claremont McKenna College).  [Unformatted version here.]

Abstract from Laura Olson’s piece on American Grace which she calls “monumental”, “sweeping and broad”:

“Given the importance of religion in American life and the influence of Putnam’s broad agenda on much current social science research on social capital and civic engagement, we have decided to organize a symposium around the book, centered on three questions: 1) How is American Grace related to Putnam’s earlier work, particularly Bowling Alone, and what are the implications of the continuities and/or discontinuities between these works? 2) What kind of a work of political science is American Grace, and how does it compare to other important recent work dealing with religion and politics in the United States? 3) What are the strengths and weaknesses of Putnam and Campbell’s account of “how religion divides and unites us,” and what is the best way of thinking about the contemporary significance of religion and politics in the United States and about the ways that the religious landscape challenges U.S. politics and U.S. political science?”

Excerpt from Jean Bethke Elshtain’s review who wonders whether the fact that religious and secular Americans get along better today has the consequence of making religion less of a conviction and more of a preference:

“This work  [American Grace] has already acquired the status of an “instant classic.”  The primary reason for this is the reputation of Robert Putnam, one of our most influential political scientists and the author of Bowling Alone , a book whose title helped to “name” the debate about the fate of American civil society in the 1990s.  The honorific status of this new and heft tome is well-deserved. American Grace is exemplary in displaying social science at its best.  Its great strenth lies in the careful, calibrated use of empirical data absent the methodological fetishism that too often often mars contemporary political science.”

And later she writes,  ”All of this is quite interesting, but it scarcely accounts for the buzz surrounding American Grace. That has been generated by the fact that many find it remarkable — although regular churchgoers likely do not — that religious devout Americans who are regular churchgoers are far more likely to be generous, to be involved in American civic life, both for church-based and secular efforts, and to do volunteer work. The data here are impressive…It is difficult to come upon findings as robust as those that Putnam and Campbell offer…. If you add the generosity — religious Americans are the core of our extraordinary philanthropic ttradition — to the fact that ‘religious people are unusually active in civic life’, you see quite readily how important regular churchgoers are to the vitality and well-being of American civic life. It is important to stress here that this involvement is across the board, not just in efforts that are church-based or have some overt religious theme or purpose. And this is the second reason that the book is so important.”

Jon Shields opines incorrectly that Putnam and Campbell celebrate the “half-hearted faith” of American mainstream contemporary religion.  Assuming that American religion is half-hearted, he surmises that it will be harder to sustain social protest and progressive movements without the intolerant “true believers” that he believes stoke such movements.


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