But we affirm God’s common grace as well, extending throughout creation and evident in all the patterns of life. “Grace” is a common name for prayers blessing food, thanking God and human providers for it. And the adjective, “graceful,” we apply to people and to artistic expressions of beauty — “a graceful ballerina.”
All of these meanings of the word “grace” come into play in this splendid work. Putnam and Campbell draw on several national studies and a host of books and articles to make the nuanced argument that religious polarization and religious pluralism not only coexist, but even exercise a symbiotic relationship in our contemporary American culture.
Religious “belonging” centers on a relationship with God, on amazing grace for Christians and equally miraculous grace for those in other faiths. Religious belonging also affects human life in community, supplying common grace — evidenced in the practices of believers, such as saying grace. And healthy religious belonging can be perceived as very attractive — graceful.
Putnam and Campbell argue that the enormous “shock” of activist movements 50 years ago was followed by “aftershocks” of resurgent conservatism and privatization of religion. In a broad sweep, they find church membership declines of the ‘60s were followed by evangelicalism in the 1970s and 1980s and increases in disaffiliation since the 1990s.
The religious transformations of the past 50 years in America have developed new “fault lines” and concurrent religious “churning,” people moving from one faith to another — a mix of religions and worldviews in families, workplaces and social settings. Increased religious churning and religious pluralism in American culture have fostered acceptance across heretofore deep cultural divides. Americans are not growing more secular, but rather our religious belonging, believing and behaving are now producing social capital — both “bonding social capital” among those of like persuasions and “bridging social capital” between peoples of divergent religions and cultural heritages. With few exceptions, religious institutions now either tolerate religious pluralism or support it outright. Putnam and Campbell speak of an “Aunt Susan” in most American families now — a member of a different religion who is a good member of the family nonetheless. You cannot “damn” Aunt Susan.
What a treat of a book! What a graceful presentation! It can feed pastors, theologians, lay leaders in congregations – anyone who takes the time to read it. I’m reading it again.
LOUIS B. WEEKS is president emeritus of Union Presbyterian Seminary. He is writing “A Sustainable Future for the PC(USA)” for Westminster/John Knox Press. His work, “Understanding God’s Grace” was published last year for Being Reformed, an adult curriculum for the PC(USA).