I recently wrote about a small section of American Grace but I have had a chance to complete the full book. Here are my thoughts about this broad-ranging book about religion in America:
1. On one hand, I like the broad overview. There is a lot of data and analysis here about American religion. If someone had to pick up one book about the topic, this wouldn’t be a bad one to choose. I also liked some of the historical insights, including the idea that what we see now in American religion is a fallout of action in the 1960s and two counteractions that followed.
2. On the other hand, I’m not sure this book provides much new information. There is a lot of research contained in this book but much of it is already out there. The authors try to produce new insights from their own survey but I this is an issue in itself: after reading the full book, it was somewhat unclear why the authors undertook two waves of the Faith Matters Survey. The questions led to some new insights (like feelings toward the construction of a large religious building nearby) but much of it seemed duplicated and the short period between the waves didn’t help.
3. There is a lot of talk about data analysis and interpretation in this book. While it is aimed for a more general audience, the authors are careful in their explanations. For example, they are careful to explain what exactly a correlation means, it indicates a relationship between variables but causation is unclear, over and over again. Elsewhere, the authors explain exactly why they asked the questions they did and discuss the quality of this data. Some of these little descriptions would be useful in basic statistics or research classes. On the whole, they do a nice job in explaining how they interpret the data though I wonder how this might play with a general public that might just want the takeaway points. Perhaps this is why one reviewer thought this text was so readable!
4. Perhaps as a counterpoint to the discussions of data, the book includes a number of vignettes regarding religious congregations. These could be quite lengthy and I’m not sure that they added much to the book. They don’t pack the same punch as the representative characters of a book like Habits of the Heart and sometimes seem like filler.
5. The book ends with the conclusion that Americans can be both religiously diverse and devoted because of the many relationships between people of different faiths and denominations. On the whole, the authors suggest most people are in the middle regarding religion, not too confident in the idea that their religion is the only way but unwilling to say that having no religion is the way to go. I would like to have read more about how this plays out within religious congregations: how do religious leaders then talk doctrine or has everyone simply shifted to a more accomodating approach? Additionally, why doesn’t this lead down the path of secularization? From a societal perspective, religious pluralism may be desirable but is it also desirable for smaller groups?
On the whole, this book is a good place to start if one is looking for an overview of American religion. But, if one is looking for more detailed research and discussion regarding a particular topic, one would be better served going to those conducting research within these specific areas.