Human beings need narratives. They provide purpose, explanation, and meaning. They underlie religions and nations alike. To be sure, they sometimes reinforce preordained categories that prohibit nuance and leave listeners less willing to grapple with others' narratives. Many people end up reading and watching "analysis" that only convinces them of his or her own story, while simultaneously condemning the unfamiliar. It is a rather sad condition in a country whose founding story is one of mutual respect and pluralism.
Unfortunately, Robert Putnam and David Campbell's "God & Caesar in America" (March/April 2011) falls victim to an exclusionary narrative. Their essay employs powerful statistical evidence to conclude that young Americans have decided to "opt out of religion altogether." Although their data seem compelling, however, their conclusions leave no place for the experiences of many Americans.
Putnam and Campbell believe politics has pitted "devout conservatives against secular progressives," leaving Republicans to "appease their fervently religious base without alienating a general electorate that increasingly finds the mixture of religion and politics distasteful." The result is a growing group of "nones" -- that is, those not religiously affiliated -- who understand "religion" in the Republican context as "intolerant" and "homophobic."
More, the overall logic of the article suggests that if a person is religious, then that person is a Protestant Evangelical and politically conservative; that a person cannot be faithfully devout and politically progressive; that if a person is not religious then he or she has no belief or faith at all; and that Americans do not want faithful conviction in the public square.
Yet these assumptions of Putnam and Campbell in particular do not bear out, at least among the group of evangelicals with whom I am most familiar. Theologically orthodox (lowercase o) and seeking to be biblically faithful, this sector is a relatively silent and leaderless but large. This group is of all ages, but they tend to be younger. They do not identify with capital-E Evangelicals -- whose national and global reputation is
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