March 17, 2011


An Interview with Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell (Richard Madsen, Spring 2011, The Hedgehog Review)

Madsen: Your new book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, is going to be an indispensable reference for anyone who wants to talk seriously about American religion in years to come. Would you summarize some of the main findings in the book, the things that really surprised you?

Putnam: Religion is, of course, a very big part of American life, and in many respects, the book shows that religion makes an important contribution to American democracy. But religion taken in high doses, as you can tell by just looking around the world, is often toxic to democratic comity, so we wanted to know whether and how Americans were able to combine three things that are not typically found together. Americans are religiously devout and religiously diverse but also religiously tolerant.

We found a very high level of tolerance and open-mindedness across religious lines. Americans overwhelmingly believe that people of other religions can go to heaven, and that doesn’t mean just Methodists saying that a few Lutherans are going to make it into heaven. Large numbers, the majority even, of evangelical Protestants say that non-Christians can go to heaven if they’re a good person.

If you looked at the headlines about culture wars, you’d think that most Americans were in one of two extreme categories: They believe there’s very little or no truth in any religion—that amounts to about 6 percent or 7 percent of Americans. Or they believe that one religion is true, namely theirs, and other religions are not true—that’s only about 12 percent of Americans. The overwhelming majority of Americans are actually in the middle, saying there are basic truths in many religions. I was quite shocked that even very religious people say an American without religious faith can nevertheless be a good American. There’s a lot of tolerance across various denominational lines and even across the line between being religious and not being religious. We tried to understand this by exploring the growth of interpersonal connections in families and among friends that cross religious lines, and I think we showed reasonable evidence that this is probably a causal relationship: that making friends with someone who is in a different faith tradition actually does encourage you to be more tolerant across religious lines.

I think both of us would want to emphasize, especially in this venue, that we build on a lot of work that has been done over the last several decades by a lot of other scholars, so to some extent, we are restating and providing new evidence in favor of some generalizations that other folks have made.

Campbell: We were surprised at the evidence we found both in our data and in other data, like the General Social Survey, that your politics can affect your religion. It can go in two directions. On the one hand, it can lead some folks to say, “well, I don’t want to be a part of religion,” because they don’t like what they see as the influence of politics on religion. But it actually also goes the other way. We do find evidence that people who are themselves politically conservative over at least a short period of time become a little more religious. That accumulates year after year, and they become increasingly so and separate from those who are liberal and not religious.

Putnam: For a long time I couldn’t believe that people were making choices about their religious behavior on the basis of their politics because I couldn’t imagine that people would be making choices that might affect their eternal fate on the basis of how they felt about George W. Bush or Bill Clinton. Yet, our data show that people make choices either to attend church or not to attend church based in part on their political views. That’s part of the larger story that we tell about how, over the last half century, one major earthquake—the 60s—was followed by two aftershocks—the rise of evangelical Protestantism in the 70s and 80s and then the rise of what we and others call the young “nones,” that is, young people who say they have no religious affiliation at all.

Campbell: When people’s personal friendship networks become more religiously diverse, that seems to make them more accepting of other faiths, but it also turns out that if you add friends within a congregation, more church friends, you actually become more civically engaged.

People who are religious are more likely to be involved in their communities, they’re more likely to be volunteers, and they’re more likely to engage in philanthropic giving. They’re actually more likely to give blood and behave in other ways that we might call simply being nice, but the explanation for exactly why that is the case has remained murky. One possibility is that it’s the beliefs that religious people hold. They believe in the need to be like the Good Samaritan, or they believe that, if they do good things here on earth, they’ll be rewarded in heaven. We actually thought that seemed quite plausible, so we tested a variety of beliefs to try to explain the relationship between being religious and doing good things in your community. It turns out that beliefs are not the things that actually drive that relationship. Instead, it’s your social networks, not simply having lots of friends, but whether or not you have a lot of friends in your religious congregation.

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Posted by at March 17, 2011 6:31 AM

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