American Grace: A Conversation on Religion in America with Robert Putnam

Interview with Robert Putnam

October 18, 2010

(This is a rush transcript.  This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated)

This is “Thinking in Public”, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about front line theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them.  I’m Albert Mohler, your host, and President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

Mohler:            The new book American Grace:  How Religion Divides and Unites Us by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell is one of the most massive reports on religion in American public life over the last fifty years.  But it’s more than that, it’s also an insightful survey of what Americans really believe, how they report their beliefs and how they translate these beliefs into their every day actions, their neighborliness, their engagement with the community, their voting patterns, and much, much more.  I’m looking forward to a conversation with the lead author of that book Professor Robert D. Putnam.

Robert D. Putnam is the Malcom Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University.  He is one of the world’s most influential public intellectuals, the author of many books including the much acclaimed book Bowling Alone he’s now the lead author along with David E. Campbell of the book American Grace:  How Religion Divides and Unites Us. Professor Putnam welcome to Thinking in Public.

Putnam: Thank you very much.  It’s good to be with you.

Mohler: Bob, when I read your book, it really appears to me that this is one of the most significant analyses of religion in American public life to come in a very long time.  How did you come with the desire, the plan, the motivation to write this particular book?

Putnam: Well we aimed to provide the most comprehensive and in depth survey of the role of religion in American in the last half century.  America is a very religious country and America’s various communities of faith contribute a lot to the vitality of our democracy, but religion can also be very divisive.  As we can tell from world history and the world around us today, religion taken in high doses can be toxic for civic life.  America, we find, is almost uniquely devout, religiously devout, and diverse, and yet tolerant, that’s unusual in the world, and we examine in the book how religion affects our civic life-both dividing us as a country and uniting us.

Mohler: Yes.  Just in recent days we spoke with Professor Peter Berger at Boston University about the course and corrections of secularization theory.  And he was pretty candid with us.  Talking about how that American exceptionalism turns out not only to be, well exceptional, but rather long lasting.  You really do verify, even in the comments you just made and in this massive study, that religion still has a very important voice and culture shaping influence in America.

Putnam: There’s no doubt about it.  We show in the book for example that not only is America much more religious in its beliefs and its practices than any other advanced, industrial country, but we’re even more religious, Americans are even more religious judged by their faith and their practice than Iranians of all things.  So America’s very religious.  Now we’ve also become, as a country, more polarized in religious terms over the past half century, so there are more, really deeply religious people in America than there used to be.  And more pretty secular people in American than there used to be.

Mohler: Well, you put that into a narrative context that’s something that is a unique contribution of your book.  And by the way, you mentioned earlier about those who take religion in high doses, I think it’s fair to say that most of the people who will be listening to this interview take Christianity in a pretty high dose but are also very interested in how to be constructive in terms of the engagement with public life and with the larger American culture.  You talk about this narrative as I say in terms of a shock and two aftershocks.  So kind of take us over the last fifty years and talk about what you really lay out there in terms of shock, after shock, and after shock.

Putnam: Well we begin our story with America in the 1950’s. America in the 1950’s was a very religious place, probably in some respects the most religiously observant time in American history.  Gallup recorded in the late 1950’s that as many as fifty or sixty percent of Americans said they went to church every week and all time records in bible says and in church building and so on.  And then like an earthquake came the sixties.  And the sixties was many things of course, it was the Vietnam War protest, and it was the civil rights movement, and it was the women’s movement, and it was sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and it was a sharp, it witnessed a sharp fall in all aspects of religious belief and behavior in America.   A large segment of Americans in the sixties, especially young Americans, the boomers were just coming of age in that decade, moved off to the secular age of the religious continuum.  Church attendance fell more rapidly in that one decade than I think ever in American history.   And it was tied up with rapid change in sexual morality both in what people said and what they did and most Americans experienced that, most young Americans experienced that as a kind of liberation.  Really all of the above, that is the sexual changes, the gender changes, the ethnic and racial changes and so on, that was seen as liberation.  And so as the sixties ended, we were a much less observant country than we had been just a few years earlier.  And as I say for many Americans, especially young Americans, that was great.  But for a number of Americans and probably many of the people in your audience, it didn’t seem great at all, it seemed like a collapse of fundamental, moral, principles and so there was an aftershock that began in the 1970’s and eighties in which a substantial number of people, probably the minority of the population, but still a lot of people, looked for a religious context that would most strongly correspond to their own conservative views.  Initially, it wasn’t about conservative politics, it was about conservative ethics especially on things like sexual behavior and family values and so on.  And that, I think, it was St. Paul who talked about the importance, that an uncertain trumpet, no one’s going to rally to an uncertain trumpet, well the most certain trumpet in those years in the seventies and eighties were being sounded by evangelical Protestants and so there was a substantial increase in the number of Americans who identified with evangelical Protestantism, with moral conservatism.  And so that first aftershock sent a large number of Americans off to the more religious end of the spectrum.  So the first shock sent lots of younger, especially boomers off to the secular end and the first aftershock sent a number of Americans off to the more religious end of the spectrum, and it was not initially a political movement but politicians, republican politicians and conservative politicians soon recognized that this was a new market and they began appealing to that market and that produced what came to be called the religious right or the Christian right.  And that, for the seventies and eighties, attracted a lot of attention, most people were in the seventies and eighties were talking about religion in terms of the religious right and the folks who were in the religious right experienced that as an appropriate resource or response to the immorality of the sixties.  And you know that was the era in which there was more talk about the political role of religion.  And that was fine for them but there was another group of Americans who actually for who it was not fine at all who began, who were religious, who were not at all enamored of the idea of mixing religious and politics.  And so after about 1990 there was a second aftershock which sent a number of Americans off to the more secular end of the spectrum.  Especially young Americans and there was a very sharp increase in the number of younger Americans who said they had no religious, no connection to organized religion at all, that historically that category of what we call the “nones” the people who don’t, n-o-n-e-s, the people who have no connection to organized religion, that has historically been about five or seven percent of Americans.  But today, among twenty-somethings younger Americans that figure is about thirty percent.  So it’s a huge increase.  That was the second aftershock and that sent another group of Americans off to the secular end.  So the result of this shock and two aftershocks is that we become more divided into very religious people and very not religious people and moreover now correlated with our politics, it didn’t use to be .  There use to be a lot of democrats in the pews and lots of unchurched conservatives but now there’s a strong correlation between whether you go to church and how you vote.

Mohler: Well, we’re going to return to that issue in just a moment.  Let me just ask you when you come to this narrative you lay out, I found it one of the most convincing ways of looking at religion and even evangelical Christianity in America in the last fifty years.  Talk about the shock of the sixties and the first aftershock that came with the rise of the new religious right as it’s been described.  And then along comes another aftershock, you kind of left out of that narrative the fact that in that second aftershock there’s a significant rise of those who are religiously unaffiliated.  They’re atheists, they’re agnostics, yes, but even more, who are the nones, the none of the aboves.

Putnam: I wouldn’t actually say they’re atheists or even agnostics actually.  Al, you’re absolutely right, that’s the most startling feature of this second aftershock, this sharp rise beginning very clearly around 1990 and for now the last twenty years, actually some people don’t realize this, but the growth of evangelicalism as a faith tradition in American, actually is a fraction of all Americans stopped about twenty years ago now.  And it’s been sort of staggered or even declining over the last twenty years but in its place has come this sharp rise in the number of people who are unaffiliated religiously.  Many of them are believers.  Many of them say they believe in God, that religion is important in their life, they have a lot of conventional religious beliefs, but for that young generation, they associate religion with, as they see it, I’m not endorsing this view myself, but as they see it with intolerance and with conservative politics, and above all they associate with homophobia, with opposition to homosexuality and these are the very young people who themselves are much more open minded about homosexuality.  I don’t mean they’re homosexuals themselves, so just as the religious leadership of the conservative part of America was zigging to the right on homosexuality, this group of young people nationwide was sagging to the left.  That is an important part of the explanation for this growth in disaffiliation.

Mohler: I think for this conversation a very important issue here is the fact, in fact you put this in your narrative earlier, and that is that there was a basic shift that took place in the nineties that no one seemed to note.  The conservative Christians are suggesting the evangelicals stopped growing in terms of numbers and perhaps even in terms of influence during the nineties.  And this other group did start growing.  I think it’s interesting looking at your book that the analysis is very difficult to refute but it’s somewhat humbling to recognize that no one seemed to notice it at the time.  We’re talking here almost twenty years later.

Putnam: We are.  It’s hard to see turning points in history when you’re in the middle of it.  I do actually think that for better or worse the nineties was an important turning point in favor, so to speak, of the secular end of this continuum and a turning point against evangelical Protestantism.  As late as 1990 among young Americans, in 1990, evangelicals outnumbered the nones-that is these people who say they’re not religious at all even though they may have religious beliefs, but I mean their practice is their own connection with organized religion.  Young evangelicals outnumbered young nones by about 2:1 in 1990 and those proportions have now completely flipped.  The young nones outnumber young evangelicals almost 2:1.

Mohler: It’s certainly (?) to hear Bob Putnam’s analysis of how we arrived at this present moment in American public life.  I think the narrative he offers of shock, after shock, and after shock is a very important corrective to the general kinds of reports we get on these issues.  What he generally told us is that America is slowly evolving in a more secular direction.  What Bob Putnam points out is that it isn’t a simple narrative like that there’s much more to the story and that’s why we need to talk about this much further.

Mohler: Now let’s jump right into the value section because I think when you consider what it means for most people to look at the questions of church and state, religion and public life, all the moral controversies around us.  I think most people immediately jump to politics because I mean after all, that’s where the money is headed, that’s where the energy is headed, that’s where the laws are made.  And so right now even as we’re having this conversation with a mid-term election just before us, is it fair to say that religious belief is a fair predictor of voting behavior?

Putnam: Oh, it’s very, sharply, true nowadays, it actually didn’t use to be that case as recently as the 1970’s there was essentially no correlation between how often you went to church and how you voted.  There were lots of democrats and lots of liberals in the pews on Sundays and lots of unchurched conservatives but both of those categories have gotten much smaller.  More people have their religion and politics aligned now that’s kind of a new development actually in American politics.  It certainly was not the case in earlier eras in America that there was this sharp division between people who go to church and people who don’t.  We discovered for example a kind of interesting things which is if you ask people how often they say grace before meals, about half of all Americans say grace all the time, virtually every day, and about half of Americans never say grace.  And if you tell me whether you say grace or not I know I can statistically tell you a lot about your politics, and your political views, and your social views and so on.  It’s a dividing line.  America has become basically two Americas in part actually because we’re sort of sorting ourselves out religiously.  To our astonishment when people’s politics and religion nowadays are inconsistent, that is they’re liberal but religious, or their conservative but not religious, you might say well if they’re inconsistent what changes to make them consistent.  Do people bring their politics in line with their faith or do they bring their religion into line with their political views and the answer to our shock was most people in that situation changed their religion to fit their politics rather than the other way around.  So we’re sorting ourselves out religiously in terms of our political views.  Actually I didn’t really believe that when I first saw it because I thought it was hard to believe that people would be making decisions about their eternal fate on the basis of how they feel about Bill Clinton or George W. Bush.  But that’s the fact so our politics and our religion today are closely aligned.  To be honest with you Al, I’m not completely sure that’s good for religion, but that’s another matter.

Mohler: Well, I’m a theologian, and I can tell you I’m fairly certain that’s not good for Christian authenticity but I’ll tell you that’s a bombshell and it’s one that to hearing your voice comes with even greater energy.   Let me ask you, as a political scientist, looking at this God gap or God divide, looking at its political and cultural and idealogical delineations here, why do you think this happened?  I mean can you as a political scientist point to some causative factor and say that’s where it happened?  That’s why it happened?

Putnam: Yeah, I think we can actually.  There are many things of course that are relevant but the most important goes back to the sixties really and our attitudes about sexual morals and the role of sex in our society.  People often refer in this context to abortion or maybe to homosexuality and those obviously are important distinctions.  But equally important we found in their work is how people feel about premarital sex actually which is not all on the public agenda but is a big diving line between these two different Americas-the more religious and the less religious.  I think it didn’t use to be the case that parties were divided on abortion or on homosexuality or anything.  There was not a republican and democratic position on abortion or homosexuality or these sort of family value issues.  I know to contemporary listeners that will sound really odd but as you know as recently as the 1970’s both parties were divided on those issues.  But then the republican party moved pretty sharply toward the pro-life and pro-family values side and the democrats moved toward the other side of that issue and once that happened, once the parties chose up sides, then it became a little more obvious how people would sort themselves out in religious terms.  But I do want to emphasize that as far as our research is concerned, we see the fundamental polarization as being fundamentally the political polarization is driving us apart in religious terms and one of the important, after all the book is subtitled How Religion Divides and Unites Us and one of the important themes in the book, we’ve been talking about the dividing part so far, is that despite this political polarization we talked about, at the personal level Americans on all sides of this religious divide are much more tolerant of other people than I think anybody fully realizes.  Religious people are actually much more tolerant of people in other religious or even people of no religion at all in personal terms and conversely, secular people are much more open minded about the role of religion even favorable to the role of religion in American life than you would guess if you just read the public media.  We are not as divided in personal times as we think we are.

Mohler: I want to go back to the issue of the moral divide for just a moment because you dropped another bomb shell in your book that frankly I’ve not seen mentioned in any similar study.  On page 119 of American Grace you say this, “also important by this test are homosexuality, feminism, abortion, and pornography, though none was so powerful as premarital sex.”

Putnam: Right.

Mohler: You know I found that something of a surprise but once I thought about it it was obvious.  It’s just that I don’t recall anyone else looking at that particular moral question with the intensity and focus you did.

Putnam: Well you know what we did was to look at many, many different questions in our survey and other people’s survey to see what were the ways in which people, religious and non-religious people, are divided.  Religious and non-religious people actually are not so divided over, I don’t know, over foreign policy or over environmental policy, or over economic policy.  Actually there are religious people and secular people on all sides of all of those issues.  But we also to look to see well what are the issues on which they are most divided, obviously they’re divided on abortion, and obviously they’re divided on homosexuality, but even more sharply is this distinction about how you feel about pre-marital sex.  The reason we thought that was important was that’s not being debated at all in public terms but there still is a big gap, and it goes to the importance of facing moral choices in our religious views.

Mohler: Well if you’ll allow me I’m going to ask you to turn from looking at the past to looking to the future.  Where do you see this picture going?  If you were to take your own study out and your own imagination given the current issues of American public life, where do you think we’re going with this?

Putnam: Well you know it’s interesting, if you just read the raw data you have to say we’re in a period, and have been for the last twenty years, of a sharply increasing secularization mostly because the younger generation, unlike previous younger generations, have just stepped sharply away from organized religion.  And many people, especially many people on the secular side think of this as finally America’s becoming a secular nation.  I actually don’t think that’s quite right.  Many of these young people in their private beliefs have quite conventional religious beliefs.  I think they’ve been very turned off, as I said, by the conjunction of politics and religion.  And that means that there’s a pool of young people out there who are, would by many measures be religious except that for them they grew up in a period in which being religious meant being conservative and Republican.  And that’s not them and they’ve essentially said well if that’s all religion is about is just about republican and conservative politics that’s not me, I’m out of here.  But you know that’s a pool of souls waiting to be saved from a religious point of view.  Jesus said to his disciples be fishers of men. I think he probably meant men and women and there’s a pool with a lot of fish in it and nobody fishing there.  And if you ask me, I bet you quite a bit that over the next ten, fifteen, twenty years, some successful religious entrepreneurs, people who want to save a lot more souls will be looking at that pool saying, I think I know the kind of religion that would be attractive to them.  It would be, it might very well have a lot of the accouterments and liturgy and so on of evangelical religion.  But it wouldn’t have the sharp political edge, and I guess I’d be willing to bet that over the next ten or fifteen years we’ll see a kind of, it will be really religious, not that it’s going to be namby pamby, but it won’t be so political.  Now you know Yogi Vera is the expert on prediction.  Yogi Vera said prediction is hard especially about the future so I’m getting myself in hot water here by making that prediction but you invited me to.

Mohler: I offered you the fruit of the tree, and you ate of it so you succumbed to the temptation there.  But that’s a part of the fun.  Another fun question I like to ask authors especially in dealing with these big picture questions is what surprised you the most about your research?

Putnam: Well you know we found some sharp evidence, some very clear evidence, that religious people are by many measures better neighbors, better friends than secular people are.  And you know I suppose religious people might not be surprised at that, but religious people we show, we’re matching people in terms of their age and gender and race, and religion, I mean part of the country region and so on, and religious people are significantly more likely to volunteer for secular causes, not just church causes but for secular causes.  More likely to give to secular charities as well as money in the offering plate.  More likely to take part in community projects or work for social betterment in the community, to vote and to let people cut in front of them in line.  But it turns out that, if I can put it this way without offense, theology doesn’t have much to do with it, it doesn’t much matter what your beliefs are, what matters in terms of making you a better, a more generous friend and neighbor, is your membership in a community of faith.  It’s not so much faith per se as community of faith.  If you’re deeply involved in your congregation and have a lot of friends at church , you are way nicer than other people.  But if you pray alone, you’re really devout and  you pray all the time and you sit alone in the pew, you actually turn out not to be any better neighbor than a secular person.  So it’s our communities of faith I think that are really powerful, that was one of the take aways for us.

Mohler: Yeah, well I’ll tell you as a theologian, I think I have an idea of why that’s so.  But it’s fascinating to hear this sociological analysis.  Now let me turn the tables on you just for a moment and say you know this is an opportunity to speak a listenership of largely evangelical Christians.  From where you are, from what you see, and the kind of project you’ve undertaken here in American Grace what would you say particularly to American evangelical Christians reading your book?

Putnam: I think the first thing I’d say to that audience is don’t be quite so angry about the rest of America.  There’s actually a lot more sympathy for religion in the rest of America than you might think there is.  And be a little more confident and open and willing to talk to people of other faiths and traditions and even people from no faith and tradition at all.  Now I know perfectly well that lots of evangelicals already have that kind of open relaxed attitude toward the social environment and for those folks I’m saying keep it up, I think that’s the right stance.  When I’m talking to secular audiences by the way I give them exactly the same message but in reverse I say look, those religious people don’t hate you and they’re not kind of little Taliban members wanting to convert America into a theology.  They’re good Americans just like you so I sort of like both sides of this culture war to kind of cool it a little bit.  We’re not nearly as antagonistic and hostile toward one another as you might guess from reading the papers.

Mohler: Intellectual engagements are very important they’re also unfortunately rare-all too rare.  We should value the opportunity for conversation with a professor in the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University one of the world’s most influential public intellectuals.  Bob Putnam’s willingness to engage us in conversation is a gift.  In return we need to think seriously about what he’s told us.

Mohler: One of the most important acts of intellectual stewardship is to learn how to read a book.  And as I often say to my students we need to read a book for all it’s worth.  And that means putting into context, understanding it’s purpose, being able to judge its credibility, and then considering what kind of intellectual impact it should have on our lives and our thinking.  When you read a book like American Grace:  How Religion Divides and Unites Us what you’re looking at here is a massive work of sociology.  It’s written by political scientists.  It comes to us with tremendous value.  Now we’re going to be looking at this and inevitably evangelical Christians are going to be reading it with a lens, a focus, that is intensely and unapologetically theological, that’s really important, that’s where we have to begin, and that’s where we have to end.  But we need to read a work of sociology as a work of sociology.  We need to take it on its own terms.  And the field of sociology, this kind of political analysis, the field of political science, all of these disciplines come together to offer what is known as a phenomenological  understanding that goes back to a German school of thought that says the most important way to understand, certainly human social behavior, is to take it as it is, to identify exactly what it is, and to try to be able to explain why it is, as it is.  So phenomenology attempts not to make a value judgment of whether people are right or wrong, but simply to come to an accurate understanding of what they believe and why it matters.  So if you read a sociological text like this, one of the first questions you want to ask is, well is it credible?  Has this actually accomplished the purpose of explaining what it seeks to explain?  Well having read an enormous amount of data and just about every book I can get my hands on and related discipline,  well I can tell you American Grace meets the standard of that kind of credibility.  It’s the kind of study, with the kind of scientific credibility that you would expect from a professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.  It’s the kind of work you would expect from Robert Putnam knowing his work in the past.  You look at this and one of the points that Putnam and Campbell make in their book is that the scientific data they point to, the survey and analyses that they base their arguments on, they affirm that it’s important to see whether they’re replicated in other studies.  If indeed there is some area in which their report stands out in distinction or contradiction to other reports, then they’ll want to go back and analyze it.  But in the main, what the discovered is that the big story they tell is very well replicated in other studies as well.  Now if you’re going to look at this work as a project of sociology you’re going to go back and ask the question, does it really tell us what we need to know about this era?  About this question?  I want to tell you I think the unique contribution of this book, in the first place, is the narrative in which Putnam and Campbell place these changes.  When they talk about shock, after shock, and after shock, it’s not just a clever way of talking about history.  You go back to the 1960’s and it’s fair to say there was a massive shock to the American public life.  The body politic was reeling from the massive social, and moral, and political revolutions of the 1960’s and I think where they’re exactly right is to point to American Christians, in particular, and say there was response to the sixties that was definitely an effort to try to create some moral re-trenchment, to recover something that was lost.  The shock of the sixties sent many evangelicals certainly into the political sphere where they never had been active before.  And they never really thought about the need to attend to these issues with a particular evangelical worldview.  That’s the first aftershock.  And if you’re going to put a label on that first aftershock it’s the rise of the new Christian right.  And he’s not talking there just about those who were organizationally involved in the movements of the new Christian right, he’s talking about the larger value shift of persons who said, no this civilization is in trouble.  This culture is headed in the wrong direction.  We need to respond to it largely on moral issues with abortion and homosexuality being the lead issues.  But once again they’re helpful in pointing out that those were hardly the only issues.  I think the genius of this work and where evangelicals are going to find an awful lot of fodder for thought is in the second aftershock.  Because I think most evangelicals think ok, shock, aftershock, I’ve got that.  I understand the rise of evangelical momentum and evangelical political engagement. I’ve got that.  But what Putnam and Campbell come back to demonstrate is that there was another aftershock that began in the 1990’s a response not to the sixties but to that second aftershock.  These were folks who said we don’t like the way that conservative Christians would take this country.  And indeed, we don’t like what we hear.  And he points out some things that evangelicals really need to pay attention to.  For instance, he suggests that the growth in evangelical momentum ended in the 1990’s and thus for a period that could be as long as twenty years, we have been in an era of evangelical retreat.  Now you look back at the last twenty years and that comes into somewhat a clear focus now.  But we didn’t see it at the time.  Now that doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about our beliefs.  It doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about the future in terms of how we should shape our arguments.  It does tell us that something changed and if we are ignorant of that fact, it will be to our own peril.

Now when we look at other issues that they really deal with in this book, I’ll tell you they’re documentation about the moral divide in America is priceless.  Now it’s not new.  You have works like James Davison Hunter talking about culture wars many as twenty years ago.  You have so much political analysis indeed we now recognize electoral maps divided into blue and red states.  That’s common to us.  But what isn’t common is the kind of analysis that Putnam and Campbell bring to the deeper question.  For instance, did you note the issue pre-marital sex, well they’re right.  This isn’t an issue of conversation because the Supreme Court isn’t ruling on it.  You know U.S. senatorial candidates aren’t debating it.  It’s not front and center in the editorial pages of our paper but they suggest that the shift on the issue of pre-marital sex and its morality is more profound than the indications of questions like abortion and homosexuality.  And you look at it and say well I guess that makes perfect sense because it is an even more fundamental question.  And you look at it and you realize that evangelical Christians maybe among the very few in America who actually believe there is any moral significance to pre-marital sex at all.

Now let me suggest to you that’s a very important insight.  If Americans have experienced a great moral transformation on the issue of premarital sex than any other question then it tells us that that issue just might be driving many of those other questions as well.  When we’re talking to people about abortion or homosexuality, or same sex marriage or any number of other issues, well it’s important to know that that more basic divide about even the morality of premarital sex is there sometimes just under the surface.

Now  looking at this issue of the moral divide in America I think the big question of course for sociologists or political scientists is how Americans can get along and create a common public culture with that kind of values divide.  Well for Christians that’s a very valid question.  However in the world do we negotiate a world of such incredible values polarization?  How do we communicate our message?  How do we tell people the truth in a way that is hearable and in way that is understandable?  Did you notice when he talks about the religious predictor factor of voting.  I think one of the most interesting insights in this book is exactly what he talked about in this interview.  He said that they discovered that if you ask people if they say grace or if they say a prayer of thanksgiving and blessing before a meal, they can pretty much tell you exactly how they’re going to vote.  Now if you look at the data in the book it’s really interesting.  Because it turns out that Americans are divided between those who say a word of grace just before every single meal and those who never say it at all.   And so there’s a worldview that is involved here.  It’s not just a habit of the heart as Robert Bell and others would point out, it’s indeed a habit that is a predictor of a worldview.

He talked about Americans being nice, religious Americans as he defines them, being nice, that’s a good thing to know.  Nice is something that is, after all, nice but nice has limits.  And living in American public life, negotiating this issues, we desperately want to be nice as we tell the truth, but I’ll be interested to know exactly what the limitations and definitions of nice are.  I am glad to hear, I think we’re all glad to hear, that American Christians show up in this kind of survey as being ready to engage others in conversation.  That’s important.  Ready to help and extend compassion to others.  That’s very important and of course we have a gospel reason for that not merely a sociological or public relations reason for that.

I thought one of the key insights for his book has to do with what he said about when religion and political positions and these two worldviews are often held inconsistently.  He said something that I never heard said by a scholar in this field of inquiry before.  He said that they determined that when an individual had an incommensurate set of positions with religious beliefs on one hand and political convictions on the other, it was not the case that the religious convictions would drive a change in the political positions.  Instead it turns out that the political positions drive a change in the theological worldview.  Now for evangelical Christians that comes as an explosive bomb.  This is something that needs to get our attention immediately.  This is a hand grenade put on the table with the pin pulled out.  It’s also something that needs to be heard at both ends of the spectrum.  That is to say I think conservative Christians looking at that will immediately say, ok there’s the danger.  If you hold to liberal political positions pretty soon you’re going to hold to liberal theological positions and you’ll just simply make your religious convictions, your Christian convictions, come into line with your political affirmations.  But of course we need to hear that same judgment.  We need to make certain that we do not hold to conservative, theological positions in service to a political purpose.  But rather that we are driven by biblical truth to an understanding of the Christian faith from which we faithfully engage all the questions of the day.  It is absolutely frightening to me as a theologian, earthshakingly matter of concern to believe that people will basically sell out their theological beliefs and conform their convictions to  meet a political purpose or a political position.  That’s the kind of insight that’s crucial.  It’s the kind of insight you can gain by reading this kind of sociological analysis.

But I have to return here at the end of where I was at the beginning.  When an evangelical Christian reads this kind of analysis we learn a great deal.  We learn how to read this kind of analysis.  We learn how to absorb this kind of sociological data and it’s not just about a book like American Grace as important as it is, it’s also about the kind of survey data and newspaper reports and media accounts we get constantly as this study center or this forum or this think tank is releasing a study.  We need to be able to look at it.  We need to be able to analyze the data.  We need to be able to ask the hard questions not only about what this means for the research population but what it means for us.  But we as Christians need to look at it with a different lens as well.  A theological lens, we have to look at it with a missiological lens.  We have to look at it first of all as Christians and come to understand that when we look at this kind of data it’s telling us what is, not what ought to be.  We gain out understanding of what ought to be and what ought to be believed first and foremost from the bible.  We’re a people of the book, and so if we’re looking for what to believe we don’t look to this data we indeed look to the word of God.  We also look at it with a theological worldview that given our last conversation of the issue about whether it’s the political position that draws the theological conviction or vice versa , we’re the people who know it better be the theological and biblical conviction that drives all the rest.  Evangelicals since the 1970’s have learned the importance of the word worldview.  And the importance of making certain that our Christian convictions work their way out into everyday life.  We have a missiological lens through which we read this as well.  We desperately want to reach Americans as well as others all over the world with the gospel of Jesus Christ.  We want to reach them with gospel truth.  We want to reach them with the  truth of the Bible and with the message that we preach and teach the message we receive from Christ himself.  Understanding the lay of the land, understanding the sociological landscape is a very important part of understanding what we’re going to have to do in order to meet our ambition to communicate to Americans.  It doesn’t mean that we change the message it must not mean that we change the message.  It does mean that we need to know who we’re talking to.  We need to know their worldview.  We need to know their language.  We need to know their assumptions.  We need to know their hopes, and we need to know their fears.  That’s where reading a book like this, analyzing data like this, puts us in better position to be a better witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Now when it comes to Christian political and public engagement, when it comes to the big questions about how evangelicals engage the controversies over abortion, homosexuality, same sex marriage and all the rest, we don’t go to a work like this to find out what we believe, but it’s important to know what our fellow Americans believe.  And it’s important to re-think again and again how we translate those beliefs that we gain from God’s word into the traction and into the threads of everyday life.  As we try to weave faithfully a public witness and private devotion.

Many thanks to my guest Professor Robert D. Putnam for thinking with me today about his book American Grace but before signing off I want you to know about a very special conference to be held on the Southern Seminary campus in coming days.  The W Conference is about connecting women with the word.  It will feature our own Professor Marian Kassian, one of the best known writers in the Christian world.  And music provided by Heather Payne who for many years was with the group Point of Grace.  It will be held on this campus November 19-20 of 2010.  For more information about this conference and many others go to  You’ll want to go to the same website for information on Southern Seminary.  To know more about Boyce College go to  Thank you for joining me today for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking.  I’m Albert Mohler.