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Notable books

Notable Books | Four books on religion reviewed by Marvin Olasky

Issue: "Babies are back," Jan. 29, 2011

American Grace

Robert Putnam, famous for his decade-old book Bowling Alone, now co-authors a massive work with the subtitle "How Religion Divides and Unites Us"-and the divisions are so clear that the book could be titled Praying Alone. With 673 pages full of survey material about religious beliefs and actions, Putnam and David Campbell show that the United States is perhaps the world's first mega-supermarket of religion-and, as opposed to Europe, shoppers are still selecting boxes off the shelves. Sample fact: Three-fourths of Jews, about two-fifths of Catholics and mainline Protestants, and one-fourth of evangelicals have left their parents' religious tradition.

America's Four Gods

Why, when such a huge percentage of Americans express belief in God, do so many support ungodly practices? The short answer is sin, with hypocrisy and selfishness as its wingmen, but Baylor sociology profs Paul Froese and Christopher Bader argue that Americans look at God in four different ways: Some see Him as engaged in the world and as "benevolent" or "authoritative," and some see Him as disengaged with a "critical" or "distant" disposition. The problems with such characterizations are instantly apparent, since God as depicted in the Bible is authoritative for all but also benevolent toward those with faith in Him. Nevertheless, such charting is a useful discussion-starter.

God of Liberty

Thomas Kidd, a Baylor history professor, gives us a pro-religion history of the American revolution. He shows how the idea of religious liberty unified the colonists who were suspicious of not only British tyranny but any denomination's ambitions for national control. Kidd shows that the Constitution, despite its lack of Christian language and its ban on religious tests, assumed that God is in charge. Kidd also offers anecdotes such as one about a Connecticut preacher who, arguing that fine clothing is a barrier to godly commitment and should be burned, "contributed his plush breeches to the growing pile, but a female supporter plucked the pants out, threw them in his face, and told him to come to his senses."

The Legacy of Liberty and Property

Kidd's book is great for general readers and is usable at secular colleges; Daniel J. Ford's is a clearly written text about 17th- and 18th-century America that Christian schools and homeschoolers will find useful. Ford emphasizes religious liberty as does Kidd but shows that institutions of private property were vital to the preservation of liberty: He quotes Declaration-signer John Witherspoon's warning that if "we yield up our temporal property we at the same time deliver the conscience into bondage." Novelist Walker Percy rightly satirizes conservatives who care more about economics than theology and celebrate "Property Rights Sunday," but it's important for Christians to be able to say no to anti-Christian employers w­ithout leaving their children without bread.

Spotlight

In American Grace, Putnam and Campbell show from survey data that younger Americans are becoming more pro-life and also more pro-homosexual-rights: "In 2008 the most religious young person is just as likely to support gay marriage as the most secular member of his or her grandparents' generation." If these trends continue, liberals and conservatives will both have to face changes that each group considers ominous: an eventual end to the Roe v. Wade abortion regime and an institutionalizing of same-sex marriage.

Putnam and Campbell also argue that "abortion attitudes appear to have a weakening connection to religiosity among the rising generation," with secularists also becoming more pro-life. Froese and Bader, in America's Four Gods, have a different take: Believers in an "Authoritative God" tend to be strongly pro-life, but "believers in a Distant God are the most likely to argue that the decision to have an abortion should be left to the woman."

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