The American Model of Religion: The Adoption of Religious Pluralism and the Problems of the 'True Believers'

In regards to the American model of religion, Magagna does not call it superior but is supportive of separations which is similar to the “religious influx” because of the social changes that are associated with the balance of power between sacred and secular. This stems from the “Founding Fact” which was the period of religious pluralism from 1776 to 1865. Within this period, there were multiple competing Protestant religions which made it almost impossible to consider one solely as the national religion due to the fact that they were too diverse and none of the groups had a clear absolute majority. There was an attempt by certain groups during the Civil War to build churches but they were undermined due to immigration, religious pluralism, and diversity. The immigration can be seen by the increase of Catholic immigration primarily from Ireland due to the potato famine which caused the people to escape hunger since Irelan was heavily reliant on potatoes as its main crop, therefore when the disease started to wipe out the potato, it caused problems on an all front scale. More than 3 million Irish people immigrated across the Atlantic Ocean due to the lack of work due to the potato famine. With the immigration, the Irish people brought the practice of Catholicism which changed society from not only a Protestant society but also a Catholic one. These immigrations of faith also included Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims. As we get closer to the 20th century, tolerance becomes a cultural and institutional imperative which can be seen in the Constitution in the First amendment where there is no government influence in no establishments and no restriction on religious acts in public. Magagna compares the American Grace to his experience of getting information forced on by Jehovah’s witness but that is what Magagna calls religious competition and pluralism whether in public or in private. This leads to the model called the Quasi-Competitive Faith Market and the beginning of religious entrepreneurship. Religious entrepreneurship allows different groups of religions to compete for members, resources, and recognition. In the case of America, it was the competition between the Protestants and the incoming influx of Irish Catholics. The competition between the religions is what keeps American religion vibrant, fresh, and new unlike in Europe since there isn’t any incentive to innovate and modernize religion since it's mostly based on tradition which is unchanged. This leads to the American conscience which is tied to a religious faith which connects faith and collective action as one. Faith can be very important in motivating collective action and cannot be taken for granted. Magagna argues that simply having a common interest does not equal collective action because even if people have a collective interest can break down because the people cannot cooperate collectively. This is because even if people were interested in similar things like the cost of tuition, cost of living, and how much wage is, it does not mean everyone will do something about it. There is a cost with collective action that people are not usually willing to pay for and rather have other people pay for it which creates what you call a prisoner’s dilemma. The prisoner’s dilemma is a paradox in which two individuals will act in their self-interest so there is not an optimal outcome. In this case, the people will choose to do nothing for the collective action because they do not want to pay for the cost. Therefore, nothing is done because everyone will protect themselves at the expense of the common good. This leads to the argument of what is the just proportion for one to pay and how is collective action to be paid. Just like religious entrepreneurship, there is political entrepreneurship to provide the resources and organizations for collective actions. However, that should not be taken for granted because it is more theoretically based and does not physically exist. Magagna proposes that the benefit that one receives from doing a collective action should not be what do “I” get from it and it should rather be what did “we” get from it. We rather than “I” are facilitated by a common faith. Religion can make collective action a moral obligation or a matter of conscience. Collective action would not work if it is reliant on self-interest but as a moral obligation such as not littering, giving to charity, or helping the poor then it changes how society views collective action as a benefit for the whole public rather than just an individual benefit. It changes it from a prisoner’s dilemma into a problem of coordinating expectations. Faith, a religious tradition, can turn collective action problems from a simple “I” problem of what do “I” get to a “We” problem of what we do and how far we go by making it into a moral obligation.

Like Magagna, Putnam also believes that the American religion is changing itself. In a sense that religion helps shape and direction of American politics. With politics becoming a continuous and ever-growing industry within academia and broader culture. Putnam and Campbell’s core claim is that the changing nature of American religious practice and especially its intersection with social and familial connections have worked to bolster democratic life. The reason behind this is “religious flux” because Americans are more likely to grow up in one tradition but change to one or multiple religions by the time they are adults. The widespread and repeated switching of religious affiliations is the “religious flux”. The reason behind the “religious flux” was because of social changes that happened in the 1960s which was the change of the liberal-to-moderate Protestantism and the rise of conservative evangelical churches. This is similar to what happened when the Potato Famine tragedy happened and there was an increase of members of Irish Catholics immigrating to America where it was predominantly Protestants. Putnam uses the increase of different religious groups of people increasing but conflicts are not popping up. This is because of the religious entrepreneurship that Magagna stated. There is competition between different faith groups. Putnam discusses how even though there were shifts in American society in religious pluralism there was not an outbreak of religious wars due to the fact that religious believers across the spectrum not only respect their fellow citizens’ different faith but also admire them. The answer to this is that historical trends have embedded Americans in social and familial networks of the association have engendered amiability towards different believers and made them more civically oriented. The two crucial thing about this amiability are the American “flux” which shows that Americans are rather more intimately connected to people who do not share their own religious commitments. I think the reason behind this is religious entrepreneurship because religious groups are constantly fighting for more members and resources due to the Quasi-Competitive Faith Market. This leads to the vast majority of religious believers of all stripes that a wide variety of people can go to heaven.

Putnam and Campbell have addressed the positivity of the American Model of Religion in the aspects of how different faith groups show amiability towards each other. But they get into the problem with the growing numbers of Americans, especially young adults with liberal political sentiments. This is because they believe that people with political sentiments are incompatible with religious beliefs and practices. This is the result of the public association between religion and conservative politics that has produced a second “after-shock” where young adults with liberal political sentiments began to describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated. Putnam and Campbell predict that if this trend continues then the civic benefits of America’s high rate of religious participation will decline. Which means secularization might result in a less robust and healthy American polity. Putnam and Campbell are more worried about the persistence of people calling themselves “true believers” The problem with the “true believers” is that they are deferential to religious authority such as they do not believe all faith groups can go to heaven, quite conservative on moral issues and are less comfortable with religious pluralism. With the rising numbers of the “true believers”, Putnam believes that it will make the chances for a happy American civic life worse. Magagna would categorize this as the “collective action” from the public is what is becoming less effective due to the people starting to call it an “I” problem rather than a “We” problem. You have to consider the religion-politics model implicit in American Grace’s narrative first. It describes religious belief and practice shifts in reaction to any number of external and internal phenomena. These changes include the changes in sexual mores and women’s entry into the workforce which can either have an indirect or direct political impact which can also impact religion in a recursive cycle. This is because one of the central things political institutions does is frame the distribution of benefits and burdens across a discrete population and to the degree that states favor or disfavor religion. This will result in the types and rates of religious belief and practice a state has due to the various religious groups that inhabit across a state. An example is the state of New York where it shuts down its facilities to religious worship but allows other sorts of meetings which puts religious congregations on a playing field which can be seen as some kind of secularization effect. Putnam and Campbell also believe that religious believers are better citizens because religious believers are more involved and civically active. The reasoning behind this is that faith can make “collective action” a moral obligation so religious believers will see their civic duties as their moral duty. In American Grace, it argues that the experience of participation in religious congregations’ activities that work to make believers more civically virtuous but it is actually more crucially important that this participation is leavened with connections to friends and family who have different religious faiths that can be fundamental than their own. Compared to “true believers” they are more willing to point out and try to enforce theological or doctrinal distinctive and are more concerned about maintaining those distinctive across generations since they tend to not stray away from traditional values. Religious and moral pluralism requires citizens who are able to treat their fellow citizens with a level of decency and respect unlike “true believers” which suggests “true believers” to be a problem to contemporary American politics. Putnam and Campbell believe “true believers” are a problem because, within the last 50 years, there is a decline in more liberal mainline churches but an increase in the rise of more conservative ones. One reason behind this phenomena is that members of conservative congregations tend to have more children compared to more liberal ones therefore the membership for more conservative congregations grows. Another reason is the increase in inter-religious marriages which they have labeled as “easygoing” religious believers.

Magagna sees the American Model of Religion as supportive of separations which meant people were supportive of switching from one religion to another. This is because of “religious entrepreneurship” which helps spread amiability in society. Putnam and Campbell also believe that the American Model of Religion as a positive thing because with the “religious influx” it helps make “collective action” a moral obligation with faith and that makes people more civil. However, they also see the model as changing itself due to people like “true believers” who tend to criticize other people due to their “modernization” of traditional values. Overall, Putnam and Campbell see the model relying on the ideas of association, existing in an environment of tremendous fluidity, and finding ways of maintaining distinctive identities as the Model of American Religion.

Works Cited

  1. Putnam, RD, and DE Campbell. American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010.
07 July 2022
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