The Common Good
November 2010

And the Survey Says...

by Julie Polter | November 2010

When it comes to God and country, who are we? And who might we become?

Especially in an election year, there's no shortage of people proclaiming who the American people are and why they will vote this way or that. Our ages, family structures, religious affiliations, and incomes are sucked up by campaign pollsters and spit out again in tidy bundles with catchy names (oh, soccer moms, we hardly knew ye). In media reports, people of faith have grown accustomed to being divvied up between political parties like players in a giant game of Red Rover (culture wars edition).

But of course, not all surveys and studies are about someone's campaign strategy. Here are a few books that offer fresh insights into Americans as believers (and nonbelievers), citizens, and neighbors.

According to scholars Robert D. Putnam -- author ofBowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community -- and David E. Campbell, the U.S. is growing more polarized, with increasing numbers of us identifying as either very religious or completely secular. But, they write in American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (Simon & Schuster), we're also increasingly diverse when it comes to religion -- and tolerant of religious differences. Putnam and Campbell explore this seeming paradox, drawing from some of the most comprehensive surveys on faith and public life to be done in the U.S. This expansive work looks at the past 50 years of changes in American culture and religious practice; how religion has been affected, or not, by major social currents; the ways religion and politics interact in the U.S. today; and whether practicing faith tends to make people better or worse neighbors. While noting the dangers of polarization, Putnam and Campbell observe that as people of different faiths increasingly intermarry and live and work side by side, "pluralism is often personal." They argue that those relationships might prove strong enough to hold our society together, despite strong commitments to different beliefs.

America's Four Gods: What We Say About God -- and What That Says About Us (Oxford University Press), by sociologists Paul Froese and Christopher Bader, is based on the Baylor Religion Survey, which included questions asking respondents to characterize the personality of God. Froese and Bader categorize the responses to reflect four different types of God -- judgmental and engaged in the world (Authoritative); engaged, but nonjudgmental (Benevolent); judgmental, but disengaged (Critical); nonjudgmental and disengaged (Distant). Which God you believe in, they argue, will predict your political and moral attitudes more accurately than your religious affiliation.

The Next Christians: The Good News About the End of Christian America (Doubleday) is by Gabe Lyons, coauthor of UnChristian, which discussed research on younger people’s increasingly negative perception of Christianity. In The Next Christians Lyons describes a new generation of believers that he calls Restorers, "because they envision the world as it was meant to be and they work toward that vision." Unfazed by Christianity's loss of dominance in American society, they are, he says, more interested in creating culture than fighting culture wars. They value sharing the gospel, but also "show up as a force of help, healing, and goodness" in situations of need and brokenness. Whether or not Lyons turns out to be correct that such folks represent the ascendancy of a new movement, he paints a hopeful portrait of how some younger Christians are bringing renewal to the faith and the world.

The 2003-2005 National Study of Youth and Religion found that many American teenagers, whether raised in a faith tradition or not, have a religious outlook that, as Kenda Creasy Dean describes it, "helps people be nice, feel good, and leaves God in the background." In Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church (Oxford University Press), Dean, an associate professor of youth, church, and culture at Princeton Theological Seminary, uses NSYR’s findings as a springboard to advocate for Christian education that nurtures a "consequential faith" -- one that is self-giving and rooted in a communal story and community. Her exploration of the need for "missional imagination" in congregations -- a deep, active understanding that the church’s call is to embody God's love in the world -- is inspiring, convicting reading for all of us, not only those who work with youths.

Inside Out Families: Living the Faith Together, by Diana Garland (Baylor University Press), raises similar themes, as she explores the role that serving others plays in the development and maturing of faith within families. In her research Garland found that families who participate together in Christian service to others -- who "turn themselves inside out in a calling larger than their own daily life together" -- tend toward more engagement in prayer, scripture study, and conversation about what their faith means.

Julie Polter is an associate editor of Sojourners.

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