American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell
“I have seen no country,” wrote Alexis de Tocqueville, “in which Christianity is clothed with fewer forms, figures, and observances than in the United States, or where it presents more distinct, simple, and general notions to the mind.” Tocqueville was among the first of many students of our country’s exceptional religious character; in this volume, a decade after Putnam brought out the blockbuster Bowling Alone, he and Campbell are the latest. Of particular note is Putnam and Campbell’s chapter on religion and generosity. It covers familiar ground; indeed, Arthur Brooks has trod it repeatedly in the pages of this magazine. They find, unsurprisingly, that devout religious practice is positively correlated to giving: the most religious quintile of Americans is more than four times as generous as the least religious quintile. Religious people are even more likely to give to secular causes than are secular people. The devoutly religious are also far more likely to volunteer, participate in civic activities, and just plain be nice. Putnam and Campbell’s twist is attributing this not to the strength of religious beliefs, but rather to the believer’s being enmeshed in rich communal networks that strengthen trust and social capital: “Bowling in a league may move you in the right direction, but not nearly so effectively as bowling in a church league.”
Generosity Unbound: How American Philanthropy Can Strengthen the Economy and Expand the Middle Class, by Claire Gaudiani
“Generosity Unbound,” writes Gaudiani, “is my love letter to American philanthropy.” It’s an apt description. Her book is more sympathetic than systematic, lyrical rather than analytical. Its structure consists of three basic parts. The first looks to the present, sketching a theory of how philanthropy creates prosperity, while warning against rent-seeking activist groups—she focuses on the Greenlining Institute—who would disrupt the virtuous cycle. Her defense of philanthropic freedom is eloquent and admirable, although it may have been better anchored in principle (i.e., philanthropic freedom as a component of freedom itself) rather than in practice (i.e., her plausible but underdeveloped theory of the symbiosis of philanthropy and prosperity). The second part of the book looks to the past, offering a short history of American civil society in the early republic and a “greatest hits” tour of the accomplishments of private foundations. Gaudiani may not be breaking new ground here, but her presentation is concise and approachable. The book’s final section looks to the future, calling on foundation leaders to commit to a “Declaration Initiative” by July 4, 2026—the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Her proposed initiative would recommit foundation leaders to the work of rebuilding civil society, expanding the middle class, and strengthening the economy. It is a heady proposal, brimming with hope, almost dizzying, giddy and joyful and romantic. It has all of the adoring warmth—and all of the optimistically outsized expectations—of a love letter, making the concluding proposal very much what the book purports to be.
Fortunes of Change: The Rise of the Liberal Rich and the Remaking of America, by David Callahan
Progressive activism among America’s super-rich is not new, and Callahan is hardly the first author to note it. His suggestion that previous generations of business elites were all rampaging capitalists is off-base. His admiring account of the liberal rich suffers from a number of other flaws, including facile zingers—“The day will come when [Mark] Zuckerberg starts to tire of business and will want to do something useful with his pile of money”—and dubious methods of categorizing wealthy individuals as “liberal.” Nevertheless, Callahan does provide a valuable service in allowing progressive philanthropists to give voice to their own giving. For example, GeoCities founder David Bohnett has funded national gay rights organizations and local LGBT centers across the country in an effort to “create an environment which destigmatizes homosexuality,” he explains. Steelcase heir John Hunting put $100 million into a foundation and spent it down in 10 years. “I believe that it is immoral to hoard money when global warming is on the verge of destroying the ecosystems we depend on,” he says. His foundation was a major supporter of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, and Earth Justice. E-commerce pioneer (and early StubHub investor) Edward Scott Jr. tells Callahan that “when I was in the business world, I had tunnel vision. . . . Once I left the business, I had to re-educate myself about the state of the world.” This re-education led him to an interest in Central America, and in developing-world debt relief. With $10 million, Scott was a founding donor of the Center for Global Development. Bohnett, Hunting, Scott, and the several dozen other progressive donors featured in Fortunes of Change all illustrate the diversity of philanthropy in America. Despite the book’s many other flaws, reminding readers of that vitality is something to appreciate.