Putnam asserts, "religious Americans are nicer, happier and better citizens." They are more generous with their time and money, not only in giving to religious causes but to secular ones. They join more voluntary associations, attend more public meetings, even let people cut in line in front of them more readily. Religious Americans are three to four times more socially engaged than the unaffiliated. Ned Flanders is a better neighbor.Yet, this level of religious engagement is on the decline. According to Putnam, this religious disengagement is the result of "one shock and two aftershocks," the historical antecedants to the current trends. The shock, the 60's and its rebellious culture:
Against the expectations of many religious believers, this dynamic has little to do with the content of belief. Theology is not the predictor of civic behavior; being part of a community is. People become social joiners and contributors when they have friends who pierce their isolation and invite their participation. And religious friends, says Putnam, are "more powerful, supercharged friends."
The shock came in the 1960s. As conservatives have asserted, the philosophy of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll is an alternative to religious affiliation (though some of the rocking religious would dispute the musical part). Baby boomers were far less religious than their parents were at the same age -- the probable result, says Putnam, of a "very rapid change in morals and customs.The first aftershock, the advent of the Religious Right:
This retreating tide of committment [sic] affected nearly every denomination equally, except that it was less severe among evangelicals. While not dramatically increasing their percentage of the American population, evangelicals did increase their percentage among the religious in America. According to Putnam, religious "entrepreneurs" such as Jerry Falwell organized and channeled the conservative religious reaction against the 1960s into the religious right -- the first aftershock.The second aftershock, blowback against the politicization of religion from the Religious Right:
But this reaction provoked a reaction -- the second aftershock. The politicization of religion by the religious right, argues Putnam, caused many young people in the 1990s to turn against religion itself, adopting the attitude: "If this is religion, I'm not interested."The result of these "shocks and aftershocks" is religious polarization. This polarization, however, hasn't affected the overall religious level of America; more are very religious and many not religious at all. And as we all know too well, this polarization correlates with partisan politics. Democrats must maintain their base of "nones" and unaffiliateds, while making plays into the religious base - a strategy successfully completed by Pres. Obama - and Republicans must maintain their base of constant church-goers, while making plays at those less inclined to religious engagement, currently a puzzling problem. Finally, Gerson provides Putnam's thoughts on the "nones" and how their religious views could change and re-adapt the religious landscape, a concluding message of hope:
"They are not in church, but they might be if a church weren't like the religious right. . . . There are almost certain to be religious entrepreneurs to fill that niche with a moderate evangelical religion, without political overtones."
In the diverse, fluid market of American religion there may be a demand, in other words, for grace, hope and reconciliation -- for a message of compassion and healing that appeals to people of every political background. It would be revolutionary -- but it would not be new.
Incidentally, I was talking to my friend, Tripp, tonight about the barriers to mainline faith in our First World, and while I agree with Putnam's historical conclusions, I think there are other contributing factors involved, of which two quickly come to mind. First, I think the mainstream media is complicit in the polarization of religion and politics. As I've said before:
I am most bothered by how the if-it-bleeds-it-leads conflict-generating media elevates certain (more extreme) views into the public discussion creating the general misperception that those views are both normative and majority; their skewing or mis-weighting of the plurality of theological voices leads, cognitively, to a fallacious availability heuristic. In this light, lost is the respect for the vast diversity of religious and theological thought, dismissed by the oversimplified - and perhaps dumbed-down - fault lines of conservatism versus liberalism. And when the press is only willing to cover a very narrow set of hot-button issues (i.e., abortion, homosexuality, environmentalism, school prayer), this supposed ideological binary perpetuates and exacerbates the divisiveness already inherent within those discussions. Healthy theological diversity is out, and unhealthy theological disagreeableness is in.Second, technological interconnectivity and globalization. Our world is shrinking, via economics and technology, and in this manner, the internet provides instant exposure to a diverse set of thoughts and ideas on any and all subjects. At the end of our finger tips, we have access to virtually everything. The incorporation and assimilation of differing theological concepts, in my mind, creates an atmosphere where one questions - amplified by the results of scientific inquiry - not only his/her faith but the truth claims of all faiths.