Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Heart of Religion by Lee, Poloma & Post

Is religion in America a positive force for good? The authors' research has shown that millions of Americans are striving to make a positive difference in the lives of others. Their Christian faith is generally the motivating factor.
The authors' interest is in people who have had a spiritual awakening resulting in spiritual empowerment. They write about how Americans experience the reality of divine love in a Christian context and then attempt to express that love to others through benevolent acts. “This is the heart of religion.” (6)
Their study, GLNS (Godly Love National Survey), sampled 1,208 Americans (plus hundreds more targeted surveys and responses). They interviewed over 120 Christian men and women from all walks of life to better understand the patterns their study revealed.
Some of their findings: Over eighty percent said they “feel God's love increasing their compassion for others.” (15) “...[T]he clear majority of contemporary Americans tend to consider themselves to be highly religious and spiritual.” (28)
They report, “Godly love does appear to be alive and well in America.” (30)
They investigate specific types of spiritual experience and the roles they play in the unfolding of godly love. They categorize the expression of benevolence as Servers (engaging in community service), Renewers (working to revive the church), and Changers (advocating peace and justice).
They note the importance of the pentecostal worldview in predicting the experience of divine love. They investigate the role of prayer in energizing godly love. They found that knowing God's allows for seeing beyond pain and suffering, an important by-product of divine love that affects benevolent service. They revealed the debt their interviewees owed collaborators and beneficiaries.
Our finding that religious people are more benevolent than nonreligious is not new; what is new is that we trace this benevolence, at least in part, to experiencing God's love.” (190)

Their work is statistical and they note the difficulty of statistics capturing the movement of spiritual activity. They have taken the survey results and used it as a skeletal form, then clothed it with narratives of case studies based on their interviews. Some of the interviewees include Heidi Baker, Tony Campolo, Anne Beiler, and C. Peter Wagner.

Perhaps the greatest importance of the survey,” they write, “is that it provides solid empirical evidence demonstrating that spiritual experiences are alive and well, transforming individual lives and communities in American society.” (73)

The authors cover just about anything you would like to know about religious experience in America related to benevolent acts (ethnicity, denominations, prayer, collaboration, social filters, tribalism, etc.). The book is academic in style although the authors have tried to make it as readable as possible for the general public.
If you are interested at all in what motivates people to make a positive difference in the lives of others, this book will certainly add insight to your understanding.

Find out more at

Matthew T. Lee is Professor and Chair of Sociology at the University of Akron. He is co-author, with Margaret Poloma, of A Sociological Study of the Great Commandment in Pentecostalism.

Margaret M. Poloma is Research Professor of Sociology, University of Akron. She is the author of Main Street Mystics, among other books.

Stephen G. Post is the President of the Institute of Research on Unlimited Love (, the author of The Hidden Gifts of Helping, and a Professor of Medical Humanities at Stony Brook University.

Oxford University Press, 301 pages.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from The B&B Media Group for the purpose of this review.

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