Lots of people are talking about a book that won't be available for another year. It's titled American Grace: How Religion is Reshaping our Civil and Political Lives, and its being written by Robert Putnam, who gave us Bowling Alone, and David Campbell. The book will assert, among other arguments, that contemporary religious practice has been shaped by a shock and two aftershocks--the 60s revolution, first of all, and the rise of the "religious right" thereafter, a movement which struggled mightily against the changes wrought by those scurrilous 60s.
But now, Putnam and Campbell argue, a second after-schock has rattled church life: the researchers have discovered a significant demographic alienation among young people, who are no longer darkening the church doors, young people who have not necessarily rejected the faith, but have become disillusioned about contemporary Christianity by the essential negativity of a polarized culture, created by "religious entrepeneurs," fighters like Falwell and Dobson.
Here's the way Michael Gerson, in the Washington Post, explains the phenomenon: "The politicization of religion by the religious right. . .caused many young people in the 1990s to turn against religion itself, adopting the attitude: 'If this is religion, I'm not interested.'"
Belief, Putnam says, has become "correlated with partisan politics." And the result--at least in terms of keeping the pews full, have not been good. They're not.
I am not among the young, but I am among those who have felt the wrath of the religious right, and for that reason I think I understand and even share some of their alienation. That people have different political views is not only understandable but desireable within American political life. But when I lay out the straight-and-narrow, beyond which everything else is seen as the road to perdition, I set myself up, all too easily, as God almighty. Such self-righteousness has never been particularly comely, except for true believers.
What Putnam maintains is that the democratic impulse to alter the nature of faith to meet the times suggests that, once again, new "Christian entrepeneurs" will champion new methodologies to garner those who are presently disenchanted by the polarization which characterizes American culture today. Look for new churches that champion "grace, hope, and reconciliation," Gerson says, "a compassion and healing that appeals to people of every political background."
If that doesn't seem so new, it's good to be reminded that there's nothing new under the sun; but the times, even in churches, they are a'changin'.
Bowling Alone may not have changed American life, but that book helped people see more clearly what many were feeling. My guess is that American Grace will too, even though it's still a year away from publication.
That God reigns is a constant. How we see him and practice our faith, however, is as changeable as the seasons.
God's sovereignty and man's depravity--that's an old song too, saith the Calvinist.