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2011 Woodrow Wilson Foundation Award

The Woodrow Wilson Foundation Award is given for the best book published in the U.S. during the previous calendar year on government, politics, or international affairs. The award is supported by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation.

Award Committee: Stephen Macedo, Chair, Princeton University; Lee Epstein, Northwestern University; and James A. Morone, Brown University

Recipient: Robert D. Putnam, Harvard University, and David E. Campbell, University of Notre Dame

Title: American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (Simon and Schuster)

Citation: American Grace provides an impressively rigorous and remarkably lucid account of religion’s impact on the cleavages that animate American politics, and that commonalities that hold us together. 

The book chronicles the increasing polarization along religious lines that began after the 1950’s, as the most and least religious Americans moving to opposite ends of the partisan spectrum, and the moderate religious middle shrank.  Today’s landscape is the result of this seismic shift and two aftershocks.  The initial quake coincided with the sweeping social changes of the “long 1960’s,” including the challenges to traditional authorities and changing attitudes on family and sexuality, epitomized by a sharp increase in the number of those taking a more permissive attitude to premarital sex.  The manifold changes of this era were accompanied by declines in religious observance and Americans’ sense of religion’s importance.  The first aftershock, in the 1970’s and 80’s, witnessed an upturn in religiosity and an increasing association of religion with social conservatism and the Republican Party.  A second aftershock is still being felt, as a growing number of Americans – the young in particular -- disavow organized religion (though not a personal religious faith) based on their unease with its close association with conservative politics.  As Putnam and Campbell show, these religiously unaffiliated “nones” now outnumber Mainline Protestants to compose the third largest “religious” group in the U.S.

And yet, in spite of the much-remarked upon partisan divisions, religion also, and more profoundly, unites Americans.  Putnam and Campbell’s findings confirm that Americans are, with some notable exceptions, remarkably tolerant – indeed warm – to those of other faiths and no faith.  Americans in large numbers change their religious affiliations, and while this allows them to congregate with the like-minded, as the authors report “these clusters are not bunkers.” Mutual acceptance is greatly facilitated by the increasing tendency of Americans to have social ties with persons of other faiths, as neighbors, friends, and family members.  One telling consequence is that, while much of the clergy adheres to doctrines that rule out admission to heaven for those outside the true church, Americans overwhelmingly believe that all good people go to heaven. So polarization has generally not been accompanied by faith-based segregation or hostility. 

Among the most impressive discussions in this book, we single out one that illuminates the microfoundations of religion’s apparent contributions to civic life.  Religious Americans are more civically active and trusting of others, and more apt to give their time and money to charities, including secular charities.  Putnam and Campbell furnish evidence suggesting that the increased civic activity is not the result of increased religiosity as such (in the sense of belief or intensity of belief), rather, what matters are religious social networks: having friends from church.  So the positive civic effects apply to those religious doubters who nevertheless attend church -- perhaps with a more devout spouse -- and participate in its social affairs.  What seems to matter are the church-based friendships and activities, not the intensity or character of religious belief.  In addition, making friends at what may seem like the secular equivalents of churches – such as the PTA or Rotary Club – does not have the same pro-civic effects. 

The news is not all good.  Deeply observant religious people are more generous with their own time and money than their less religious fellows, but they are less supportive of government policies to address the structural causes of poverty.  Religious Americans are less tolerant of dissent, and Americans’ warmth toward people of other faiths chills with respect to Mormons and especially Muslims.  The reason that the authors’ suggest is that Americans are less likely to know personally people of these faiths.  

While many of the findings of American Grace are confirmatory rather than revisionist, the book deepens our understanding in a wide variety of ways.  Its analysis brings richness of detail and social scientific rigor to some of our most important and enduring political questions.  The authors conducted two large surveys, and drew on a wide range of other publicly available data sets, testing their own finding against others and seeking convergent validation.  Their study is further enriched and enlivened by its broad historical overview and by a series of congregational vignettes at various places of worship across the country which both vivify the findings and enliven the narrative.  We applaud the authors’ painstaking diligence in so thoroughly cross-checking their findings, and also their capacity to present the results of their work in such readable prose and clear graphic form. 

In short, we think this impressive book is exemplary in its combining the highest standards of social scientific rigor, with a clarity and accessibility that is too rare in the social sciences.  The authors have produced a major work of political science that illuminates some of the most important questions of our time, and in a form that is fully accessible to the attentive reader.