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Book Review of American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell Analytical Essay

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Updated: May 15th, 2020

Introduction

Robert Putnam is currently a professor of public policy at the Harvard University (Cullen, 2011). David Campbell is presently employed at the university of Notre Dame as a professor in the department of political science (Cullen, 2011). Both the authors of this book are experienced writers who are well known for their literary works. Since both of them are social scientists, most of their books are based on societal analyses (Cullen, 2011).

At the time when this book was published, there were many controversies in religious practices in America. For instance, there were noticeable killings that were associated with religious conflicts (Alba, Raboteau & DeWind, 2009). Therefore, this book is relevant in addressing the concept of religion in America’s society as well as the increased tensions between different religious followers such as the Christians and Muslims.

Authors’ findings on the American religion

Most of the Americans are deeply religious. The continent has several religions. Most of these religions are amazingly tolerant to one another. In recent years, the religious setting of the United States has undergone tremendous changes (Alba, Raboteau & DeWind, 2009). Robert Putnam and David Campbell acknowledge that these changes have been instrumental in shaping the modern society. They associate these changes with three major events in the American history.

These are the crashing down of religious adherence in the 1960s, the rise of religious rights and evangelism in the 1970s and the relaxed manner of practicing religion by the young generation of the 1990s. This has increased religious polarization in America according to Putnam and Campbell.

The authors are also quite categorical in analyzing the question of Islam’s position in American religious practices. Christians believe in peaceful coexistence, while Muslims are perceived to be radical in nature (Alba, Raboteau & DeWind, 2009). The current events whereby Christians are attacked by Muslims have illuminated the modern threats facing Christianity.

Moreover, Protestants have perceived the Roman Catholics as religious misfits for a considerably long period of time. For example, the destruction of the Massachusetts convent and the civil unrests in Philadelphia that resulted into scores of deaths symbolized the religious struggles between the Protestants and the Roman Catholics in the 19th century.

However, the current situation is completely different. The Catholics and the Protestants coexist peacefully (Hemeyer, 2009). Putnam and Campbell assert how the two groups attained commonality. They highlight how any form of reciprocated fear, suspicion, and hostility may give way to tolerance and harmony. The manner in which the two authors offer an explanation to religious differences is quite interesting towards understanding the future of the America’s religious cohesion.

Besides, some of the methods used to dispatch information in this book include graphical records and narratives. The latter are highly influential and analytical tools in the study of the Americas religious practices. The book analyses the power of the modern evangelistic churches using the first person narrations.

The topic covered by this book is rather dynamic bearing in mind that it offers information on the roles of religion, ethnicity, gender, and class. Civic engagements between these groups are also addressed by the authors in this book. Nevertheless, the dominant theme on the divisive and unifying nature of religion is still central throughout the plot of the book.

Putnam and Campbell critically analyze the past 60 years. They expound the divisions that were available by that time and how they were wiped out of existence with the passage of time. The Protestants and Catholics discouraged intermarriage between the two groups during the 1960s.

In addition, the Protestants did not spare president, John F. Kennedy of the cynicism. Currently, the Catholics and the Protestants are so intermingled and united that they group themselves together claiming to be on the same team as Christians. However, Christians from the olden days are still more conservative than the current generation of believers. They are opposed to the current changes in social issues.

Putnam and Campbell suggest that in the present century, political divisions are based on the religious level of an individual. As such, denomination is not a major area of concern. The major divisions among Christians in the United States is based on the mainstream Catholics and protestants against those who have classified themselves as the liberal Catholics and protestants. This has lead to a dilemma.

The religious discipleship has become a family of “Christians” in the United States. Why are the Muslims not included in this large family? Instances such as the 9/11 terror attacks, burning of the Koran by an evangelist and politicians using evangelists to threaten Muslims are some of cases that illustrate the growing disparity between Christians and Muslims.

Authors’ Conclusions on Findings

Putnam and Campbell attempt to resolve this predicament in the last chapters of the book. A detailed account of the observations made in the introductory chapters is given. The tolerance levels of America’s religious practices are revisited. According to Hemeyer (2009), the American religious practices are very flexible.

They can compromise their doctrines to fit any circumstance provided that they avoid tensions between different religious practices. A typical example is a belief system by most American Christians that a non-believer can go to heaven. This type of belief is completely against Biblical teachings.

Putnam and Campbell also discuss the current arrogance against Muslim. They describe it as a norm that is rapidly being assimilated by Christians. The friendship between the American people is not dependent on the religious inclination. In fact, every American has more than one friend from different religious beliefs.

They also have family members with different religious backgrounds. These close ties have made the Americans to relax the strict application of the Biblical doctrines. They do not want to harm friendship or family ties by invoking the “heaven and heal” principle of most religions. Adoption of these unfamiliar beliefs has completely changed the way religion is practiced in America.

Putnam and Campbell assert that the Americans want to maintain peaceful coexistence. Therefore, they are forced to tolerate one another. In order to prove some of these latest religious developments, the authors conducted variety of surveys in large group of conservative communities. They found out that most Americans prefer a friendship based on common religious grounds. This implies that they are often compelled to tolerate one another.

Another major issue analyzed by the authors is the neglected influence of minority religions in the American society (Hemeyer, 2009). Muslims, Buddhists, and Mormons do not have a lot of effect on the social issues in America. The number of followers of these religions is so insignificant that they are perceived to be inconsequential. They do not affect interactions among the American people.

Nonetheless, Muslims still have more religious challenges compared to the other minority religions in America. The pronounced negative publicity of Islam in the media has complicated the way most Americans perceive Islam. This explains why the survey revealed a different opinion from the evangelists concerning Muslims going to heaven. The positive relationship between Islam and black evangelists was attributed to the idea that most Muslims in the United States are African Americans.

In terms of the social theory, the authors conclude that there are myriads of factors that determine social contact between different religious groups in the United States. They note a factor such as shared goals in their effort to explain what brings these groups together. In the case of Muslims, the authors appreciate the levels of acquaintances with Christians. The tension between the two groups is associated with lack of physical contact between them.

The Significance of This Sociological Approach to American Religion

Religious strife has been explained using two schools of thought namely the essentialists and the optimists (Hemeyer, 2009). The essentialists base their arguments on the character of a religious movement that is defined by the doctrines, scriptures, and theology. Religious conflicts are thus seen to be enduring and deep-seated.

The optimists on the other hand, believe that minor problems fuel the religious conflicts. Issues such as insecurities and economic struggles have been known to fuel the differences (Hemeyer, 2009). Putnam and Campbell are closer to the arguments of the optimists. They display the liquefied nature the religious principles, their flexibility and response to political and social context.

Although this argument goes against the subtitle of the book, it offers the reader a conclusion that religion does not divide America. The book’s significance is of great importance in bridging the gaps created between people due to religious differences.

It is an informative book that can be used to enhance understanding of the current American society. Furthermore, the book informs the reader how religion in American society has influenced social wellbeing and co-existence of people and how it has developed to be part and parcel of the national culture.

References

Alba, R. D., Raboteau, A. J. & DeWind, J. (2009). Immigration and Religion in America: Comparative and Historical Perspectives New York, NY: NYU Press.

Cullen, J. (2011). American Grace, How Religion Divides and Unites Us: book review. Web.

Hemeyer, J. C. (2009). Religion in America. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Putnam, R. & Campbell, D. (2010). American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. New York: Simon & Schuster.

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IvyPanda. (2020) 'Book Review of American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell'. 15 May.

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