The Latest Religious Data

Kevin M. Schultz

Who knew Jews were the most loved religious group in America? The least loved? The Mormons. Sadly, it is also they who love everyone the most. Tough to be a Mormon I guess, all that giving, nothing in return (save heaven).

Speaking of heaven, who knew that a huge swath of the American people think that celestial reward is not reserved only for their own people? Many a head-shaking minister say their flock know not what they say, but the polling data is there.

These are some of the findings of a relatively recent arrival in the American Religious History world, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, by sociologists Robert Putnam (of Bowling Alone fame) and David E. Campbell. The book's central claim is that Americans are incredibly polarized in their religious beliefs, but also that they are incredibly tolerant of others.

For us historians, the authors also propose a three-stage progression as to how we became that way: (1) the "sixties" add a whole bunch of sexual licentiousness to our culture (especially legalized abortion and rights for homosexuals); (2) the religious right emerges in response, peaking in the early 1990s; and (3) the "millennials" (those who came of age around the millennium) are so turned off by the religious right they flee organized religion, thus accounting for the dramatic rise of the "nones."

It's an interesting theory, one we should chew on. I'm struck by the fact that a decade-and-a-half ago more than 85 percent of Americans considered themselves Christian but now it's hovering around 75 percent. Really? That's a large drop, perhaps too large to be accounted for by worries about the religious right? I'm also struck by the authors' portrayal of the 1950s as religiously placid, which they most certainly weren't. Nevertheless, it's a book worth grappling with, and something that should be consulted before we start talking about how many Americans believe in what and why. If you want to know more about my thoughts, I've written a brief review of it for Wilson Quarterly--subscription required for the full review.


Randall said…
Kevin: Thanks for giving me something very interesting to talk about with my Religion and American Culture class!
David Stowe said…
Kevin, the MSU library doesn't have the Wilson Quarterly electronic issue that your review is in yet. Would you mind sending me a PDF? I would like to think about it prior to participating in a roundtable discussion Thursday on a new play being staged here dealing with a young woman's spiritual journey.
David Stowe

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