David Campbell’s and Robert Putnam’s American Grace left me historically puzzled on my first reading, and my second didn’t clear things up. Its 550 pages of text, plus 97 pages of appendices and notes, probe the range and complexity of contemporary American religiousness with remarkable patience and detail. No other book so thoroughly documents the polarization of religion (and politics) in America, from the irenic 1950s to the angry 1990s and 2000s, or charts the often complex and sometimes seemingly anomalous consequences that this transformation has had for contemporary American religion, politics, and culture.

Although American Grace doesn’t leave historians on the whirling dime, wondering “So what?” it does raise questions about historical context. In other words, how do the changes that Campbell and Putnam retrace fit three centuries of evolution in American religion, politics, and culture?

American Grace is hardly without history. Its most sustained historical analysis occurs in the third chapter, “Religiosity in America: The Historical Backdrop.” A subheading outlines a principal point: “The 1950s: the high tide of civic religion.” Campbell and Putnam rightly caution against accepting some of the common enthusiasm about the purportedly ubiquitous religiosity of the 1950s, such as is suggested by Gallup polling data on church and synagogue attendance. But their main point is straightforward: “Virtually all experts agree, however, that the period from the late 1940s to the early 1960s was one of exceptional religious observance in America”—the experts ranging from the historians Sydney Ahlstrom, Patrick Allitt, Maurice Isserman, Michael Kazin, and Uta Andrea Balbier to the ever-looming Will Herberg.

However, my sense is that “backdrop” well describes how history works in American Grace. The book isn’t historiography and wasn’t meant to be.  When it invokes history, often the point is to demonstrate religion’s continuing importance, as well as its new divisions, in America, the authors’ argument about religion’s contemporary centrality being supported by reference to patterns continuing from earlier decades. Consider the first pre-1950 historical reference, which concerns evangelicalism:

Evangelical Protestants comprise one of the most significant religious traditions in America—particularly for understanding change in American religion. Historian Mark Noll notes that evangelicalism dates as far back as the early eighteenth century, when a movement began within Protestantism to find a ‘true religion of the heart.’

Campbell and Putnam describe evangelicalism as “the dominant strain within American Protestantism through most of the nineteenth century,” then raise the fundamentalist-modernist split that “spilled over into American society more generally.” But rather than illustrate change, my sense is that these references limn a comforting continuity, the “religion of the heart,” and even its divisions, remaining a primary mode of American religiosity.

Neither the concept of “religion” that informs American Grace nor longer-term historical patterns provoke much discussion. Campbell and Putnam shun theoretical issues: “One can quibble over just how religion, and religiosity, should be gauged.” They don’t. They seem, literally, to opt for Justice Potter Stewart’s “I know it when I see it” approach. “By any standard,” Campbell and Putnam write, “the United States (as a whole) is a religious nation.” So ends, or begins, their discussion; perhaps one might say that American Grace is itself a riff on the American meaning of “religion.”

Although history doesn’t operate by the “by any standard” approach here used for religion, the “backdrop” slant given it by Campbell and Putnam makes weak-kneed history. Their discussion of “civic religion” serves as an example. Unlike their operative concept of religion, they do define it, as the notion that “religion—or at least a belief in God—serves to bind the nation together,” and this stands at the center of their discussion of the 1950s. But the only discussion of civic religion before 1950 comes 400 pages later, on a single page that cites Robert Bellah citing Jefferson and Lincoln, along with some words on George W. Bush and Barack Obama, all essentially emphasizing a soothing continuity rather than a contested evolution.

What’s missing in American Grace is a sense of how the current polarization, or its development, from the seemingly peaceful 1950s to the antagonistic 1990s and 2000s, fits American historical patterns more generally. The references to both evangelicalism and civil religion implicitly stress continuity, with the authors’ emphasis on the “religion of the heart,” or on the importance of a broad commitment to a simple “belief in God,” both lasting from the eighteenth century into the twenty-first. Yet the history of American evangelicalism itself is as much one of anger, argument, schism, defeat, organization, dead-ends, and yes, triumph, which might well fit the diagnosis of polarization that Campbell and Putnam find alarming and claim to have developed mainly in the last twenty years. Yet, if we rethink the issue, American civil religion also wallowed in the anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Mormonism that created at least one American political party, deeply shaped others, and produced much violence, fire, murder directed against Catholics, Jews, and Mormons for many, many decades, even into the 1950s.

Because American Grace makes much of Campbell’s own Mormonism and contains ample discussions of contemporary Mormon belief and behavior, its approach to Mormon history is itself intriguing. Its account of Mormon origins bypasses the upheaval of the movement’s radical, polygamous, and harassed past. An acknowledgement that Mormons were “driven from place to place by persecutors” entices no detail, and a plain reference to “the death of Joseph Smith” raises no mention of his brutal assassination by a Missouri mob. Instead, this “backdrop” jumps to the triumphant present and Mormonism’s status as a “global church some 13.5 million strong,” whose “success at winning converts owes largely to its strongly evangelical spirit.” Lacking is an account of Mormonism’s truly extraordinary transformation from polygamous, sometimes communitarian radicalism into the epitome of twentieth- and twenty-first century American political and religious conservatism. Is the intensity of contemporary Mormon conservatism in any way related to consciousness of Mormonism’s radical past, as though Mormons still needed to prove their cultural and Christian orthodoxy?

Even the seemingly simple issue of heaven unravels in the face of both history and theology. Campbell’s and Putnam’s polling data shows that Mormons are far ahead of any other religious group in believing that even non-Christians can enter heaven; 98% of Mormons—but only 83% of Catholics, 79% of mainline Protestants, 62% of black Protestants, and 54% of evangelical Protestants—hold such views. But the Mormon heavens and means of getting to them are remarkably different than those of other Christian groups. Only Mormons have held, since the 1840s, that heaven is complex, with “three degrees or kingdoms of glory,” and that Mormons may baptize the dead by proxy to provide the foundation for their entrance into heaven. These views and this history shape modern Mormon behavior. Mormons have collected birth and death records worldwide for a century, now in microfilm and digital form, and are the originators of the fabulous Ancestry.com, which provides access to more than five billion birth records—a gold mine for historians (it’s by far the best route to fully digitized U.S. census returns up to 1930), genealogists of all kinds, and Mormons verifying records for proxy baptism.

This history and this theology upend one of the seemingly innocuous questions Campbell and Putnam pose in American Grace—can even non-Christians enter heaven?—because the respondents simply don’t share the same understanding of “heaven.”  Mormons pointedly understand heaven differently than do other Christians, and they have a mechanism for getting even the dead there, of which others disapprove, most notably Jewish leaders, who have sometimes bitterly protested Mormon proxy baptism, especially of Holocaust survivors. (Campbell and Putnam do refer to Mormon “posthumous baptism” in an endnote, but one limited to Mormon convictions that theirs is the only true faith.)

Similarly, Campbell and Putnam do not systematically engage Catholic, mainline Protestant, black Protestant, and evangelical Protestant theologies of heaven.  For them, one might wonder if the issue has less to do with heaven than with reluctance to believe in hell, which Campbell and Putnam do discuss, and whose historical decline for Protestants was charted a long time ago, in D. P. Walker’s The Decline of Hell: Seventeenth-Century Discussions of Eternal Torment. Of course, that would also seem to include the “nones,” the non-religious who might feel that if people go anywhere, it must be “heaven,” which our broad popular culture seems to think is good.

I admire the complexity and fascinating ethnographic excursions American Grace offers. I wish I could write as cleanly as Campbell and Putnam do across more than 500 pages. I appreciate the effort at keeping the big picture constantly in focus. At the same time, for a historian, American Grace‘s many and complex “beliefs” float too free from their historical moorings, and not just because I like history, but because history is embedded in contemporary behavior—as in contemporary Mormon views on heaven—even when it doesn’t seem to be.  Maybe part of the general problem is taking the irenic 1950s as the departure point of its historical backdrop. We could debate whether or not the religious peacefulness of the 1950s is itself over-rated, but that’s a different discussion.  Instead, I would suggest that, even if the 1950s weren’t entirely peaceful, they may still have been the most unusual, and indeed relatively irenic, years in American religious history.

But for three centuries, tumult, disputation, and anger— i.e., “polarization” —characterized much of American religion. It is hard for a historian not to remember the hangings of Quakers in Boston in the 1660s, the jailing even of Quaker dissidents by other Quakers in Philadelphia during the Keithian schism of the 1690s, the suppression of much traditional African religious practice among enslaved Africans, even after emancipation, plus virulent American anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, anti-Mormonism, and both polite and impolite ridicule of evangelical fundamentalism, to highlight only some of the contentious, polarizing substance of America’s long spiritual history.

Campbell and Putnam acknowledge this historical religious polarization on the penultimate page of American Grace. Yet they not only trumpet its rarity but assert that “from its founding, America has had religious toleration encoded in its national DNA.” Our DNA?  Here, the episodic, conditional past is annihilated in a paroxysm of essentialist rhetoric. Most historians would say that religious toleration emerged fitfully in America but certainly wasn’t present at its founding; it’s the point of William R. Hutchison’s Religious Pluralism in America: The Contentious History of a Founding Ideal. We might hope it’s present now. But religiously based homophobia, anti-Muslim tension, and even the quietly continuing evangelizing of Mormons by Wisconsin Synod Lutherans suggest that America’s genetically assured triumph of religious toleration hasn’t yet arrived.

The religious polarization of our own and recent times, which Campbell and Putnam chart in such chewy ethnographic detail, is not at all “the same” polarization that began when England’s dissident Puritans joined gold-seeking Virginians to contest the land as well as the divine with American Indians, who themselves had long fought their own battles over both.

Yet maybe, in some very broad and general way, American Grace really announces, without saying so, “Welcome Back.”