Quick Review: American Grace

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.

How Americans would respond to a new large religious building nearby

I’ll post a Quick Review of American Grace soon (see an earlier post here) but I wanted look at an excerpt about another topic I have written about recently: how suburban governments respond to requests for the construction of religious buildings (this includes churches and mosques). Here is a description of findings from the 2007 Faith Matters Survey (pages 512-514)

How Americans respond to land use matters involving religious groups depends on the religion in questions. According to the 2007 Faith Matter survey, an overwhelming majority of Americans (92 percent) say that the construction of a large Christian church in their community would either not both them (55 percent) or is something they would welcome (37 percent). This level of acceptance is high even among the most secular tenth of the population (87 percent), although their reaction is far less supportive. Eighty-two percent of the highly secular say that they would merely “not be bothered” by a large Christian church, while just 5 percent would explicitly welcome it.

Because of the near-ubiquity of Christian churches in American communities, we were also interested in reactions to a religious facility that would unfamiliar to many Americans, and so we asked about the construction of a “large Buddhist temple.”…

The point of asking about both kinds of religious structures it to distinguish among different reasons for opposing their construction. Some people might oppose both a large Christian church and a large Buddhist temple because they object to the construction of any sizable structure in their neighborhood, whether it be a church, a temple, a restaurant, a store. Or it could be because they have an aversion to religion of any kind. However, opposition to a Buddhist temple but not a Christian church would suggest that the concern lies with Buddhism specifically or perhaps “exotic” (or non-Christian) religions more generally.

For Buddhists who might be planning to build a temple, our results contain good news and bad news. The good news is the high overall support, at least in the abstract for a Buddhist temple. Three quarters of Americans (76 percent) say they have no problem with the construction of a large Buddhist temple in their neighborhood. The bad news is that only a small number (15 percent) would explicitly welcome it in their midst. Even worse news for the Buddhists is that one in five Americans (20 percent) say that they have no problem with a large Christian church but would object to a Buddhist temple…Approval of a Buddhist temple drops precipitously as personal religiosity increases…

These are interesting findings that suggest Americans are pretty favorable toward large new churches in their community and a majority would be favorable toward a large Buddhist temple. A few thoughts about these findings:

1. The interchanging of the term “community” and “neighborhood” bothers me. The original survey questions (see here) ask about buildings built in a community. I would assume many survey respondents would perceive a neighborhood as a smaller, closer geographic area and might respond differently. It would be one thing for a Naperville resident to express support for a Buddhist temple on the other side of the community, perhaps 7-8 miles away, compared to expressing support for a temple within a 15 minute walk.

2. I would suspect that more Americans would be less supportive if the questions asked about large religious buildings very close to their home. Residential neighbors often get worked up about such structures, not people from the other side of the community (unless it is a smaller community). This would be NIMBY in action.

3. The word “large” in the survey questions is a bit unclear here: are we talking about a megachurch or a congregation of 300? The sorts of problems Americans complain about regarding large structures, such as traffic, are larger with bigger buildings.

4. It’s too bad there isn’t a third question asking about responses to a proposal for a large mosque. While both Buddhists and Muslims are rated low according to larger American religious groups (see pages 501-509), I wonder if many Americans wouldn’t see Islam as more foreign than Buddhism.

On the whole, I am a bit skeptical that these survey results reflect zoning and municipal discussions regarding large religious congregations. Perhaps a very vocal minority tends to oppose such buildings – this tends to characterize a lot of local development discussions. But when residents feel threatened by such large structures, their magnanimity may decrease.

Reviewing “American Grace”: it is readable!

The book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us was released this past week. In addition to being co-authored by Robert Putnam (author of well-known Bowling Alone), the study has been hailed by several sources as a (and perhaps the) comprehensive look at religion in American society.

But a feature of a positive review written by a historian in the San Francisco Chronicle struck me as intriguing:

Among the great virtues of this volume is its combination of two features that are all too rarely found in close proximity. One is a commitment to the most rigorous standards of contemporary social science, bolstered by statistical sophistication. Do you like multiple regression analysis? You’ll find lots of it here. The other feature is a commitment to get their message across to educated readers who are put off by the excessive jargon and abstraction of most sociological studies. Only such a combination could make a 673-page tome worth the attention “American Grace” deserves.

Reading between the lines, here is what is being said: sociologists are not often able to combine statistical evidence (regression analysis of survey results is the gold standard for studies like this that claim to be comprehensive looks at American society) and winsome writing. Essentially, the book is “readable.”

A few thoughts come to mind:

1. What exactly about it makes it “readable” or “understandable”?

2. When reading a book using regression analysis, how much should the “typical educated reader” know about this kind of analysis? This might say more about general statistical knowledge, even among the educated, than it does about the book.

3. This is a valid concern for a book that hopes to be read by many people – writers should always consider their audience. However, it still strikes me as a lower-level priority: isn’t the argument of the book much more important than how it was written? The style of writing can detract from the argument but what we should grapple with are Putnam and Campbell’s conclusions.