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Religious Diversity and the Building Blocks of ‘American Grace’

October 11, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Paul Solman talks with author Robert Putnam about his new book "American Grace," which delves into the role of religion in the United States.

PAUL SOLMAN: For the past six years, Harvard public policy professor Robert Putnam, along with Notre Dame’s David Campbell, has been studying religion in America. The result is “American Grace,” 3,000 Americans interviewed twice, congregations visited, conclusions drawn, many of them surprising.

We met up with Putnam at a Quaker meeting house near his home and office in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Bob Putnam, welcome.

ROBERT PUTNAM, co-author, “American Grace”: Thanks, Paul.

PAUL SOLMAN: For you, what were the major discoveries, the ahas?

ROBERT PUTNAM: Well, there were a couple. The first is that America is a very religious country. And we were able to show that religion in some respects has highly favorable effects for American democracy.

On the other hand, if you look across the whole world, you can see that religion taken in high doses is toxic. Most places in the world that are devout and diverse also have a high index of mayhem, Bosnia, or Beirut, or Belfast, or Bombay.

How can we be both religious and diverse and also tolerant?

PAUL SOLMAN: So, what’s the answer?



PAUL SOLMAN: Aunt Susan.

ROBERT PUTNAM: All Americans have an Aunt Susan. Aunt Susan is someone you know in your extended family. She’s Jewish, and you’re Baptist, or she’s Methodist and you’re Catholic, or she’s none and you’re, you know, Mormon or whatever.

And you know that your faith says, sadly, Aunt Susan is not going to heaven because she’s not in the right religion. But, come on, it’s Aunt Susan. You know, if anybody is going to heaven, it’s Aunt Susan. She’s made for heaven.

So, all Americans are caught in this dilemma that we know what we say on Sunday morning. I’m the way, the truth and light, my way or the highway. But we know Aunt Susan.

PAUL SOLMAN: But there are no Aunt Susans in Bosnia, Beirut, Belfast, Bombay?

ROBERT PUTNAM: No, actually, not many. The intermarriage rate, for example, between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland is roughly 8 percent to 10 percent. That is roughly 8 to 10.

In the United States, it’s 50 percent. So, we’re much, much more likely to be married to people who are in a different faith.

PAUL SOLMAN: How much more religious are people here in America than people in other countries which have achieved the same economic level of development?

ROBERT PUTNAM: We’re way more religious than most other advanced countries. The average level of church attendance in the United States, for example — there is a little bit of controversy, but it’s probably about 30 or 40 percent a week, roughly something like that.

In England, it’s 5 percent. We’re — Americans — the average American is more religiously observant and its religion is more important in their life than for the average Iranian. So, we are — America is a more religious country — I don’t mean we’re a theocracy, but we’re more religious at the grassroot levels than many, many, even countries that look like they are pretty devout, like Iran.


ROBERT PUTNAM: I think the most common explanation is, in a way, our religious diversity. That is, right from the founding of America, we have had no church, no official state church.

That’s why the Pilgrims came here. All sorts of religions have flourished here in this country because there’s not a state monopoly of religion. And Americans have been incredibly inventive, in religious terms. We have invented more religions actually in the last 200 years than any place else in the world, Mormonism, for example. Some of them have flourished, as Mormonism has.

PAUL SOLMAN: And we were so religiously tolerant, why?

ROBERT PUTNAM: Well, initially, we were tolerant because we had to be. There were so many different religions here in this, on this continent, that no one religion was powerful enough to impose itself on everything else.

But what’s happened, as I say, in the most recent 50-year period is, we have actually begun to live with one another, to sleep with one another, to love one another across religious lines. It’s not airy-fairy, kind of must be warm hands and be tolerant. It’s that, you know, I know Aunt Susan.

And it becomes very hard to demonize someone or demonize a whole religion if you know people in it. And in our research, actually, from a scientific point of view, because we interviewed people twice, we could watch them change and we could watch people who didn’t initially look so tolerant get a new friend who was Mormon or who was Jewish or who was evangelical, and we can see their attitudes soften, not only toward that religion, the religion of their new friend, but towards all religions.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, that’s the good news. Is there bad news?


It used to be, in the 1950s, that most Americans were kind of in a moderate, not very intense religious middle. And we have moved toward the extremes of being either very religious — this is the sort of evangelical Protestant part of the religious spectrum — or very non-religious. This is the more secular, not really atheist. Almost no Americans say that they’re atheist, but they’re certainly not churched. That’s especially true for younger people.

PAUL SOLMAN: How many people are atheists in America?

ROBERT PUTNAM: Almost nobody. In our — among our 3,000 people, we had two people who, when we asked them what they were religiously, said they were atheist or agnostic.

So, I don’t mean that every American believes in God, but the term atheist is not one that’s in common currency.

PAUL SOLMAN: But we have extreme religious polarization in this country, the pastor in Florida who was going to burn the Koran.


It’s true that there’s a higher level of intolerance toward Muslims in America. And part of that may be, you know, bound up with this — this so-called war on terrorism. But most of it actually is not — I’m sure it’s not driven by that, actually.

And the reason I know is because, in our survey, we asked about how people felt about building a Buddhist temple. Buddhists are really very peaceful people. And there have been no Buddhists going around blowing up buildings or whatever. And yet Americans feel just as negative about Buddhists as they do about Muslims.

That suggests to me that it’s the strangeness, it’s the esoteric-ness of Buddhism and Islam that are mostly responsible for the fact that Americans feel, express negative views.

PAUL SOLMAN: Aren’t you concerned that, within religions, as groups of people become more fervent, American Jews, some of them, American Christians, certainly, Muslims in other parts of the world, that that raises the level of danger?

ROBERT PUTNAM: Yes, I am concerned about religious polarization, although I’m much more concerned about political polarization.

Indeed, one of the things we find is that Americans nowadays are making their religious affiliations in part on the basis of their political affiliations. I mean, the underlying polarization, in other words, is not the religious polarization. The underlying polarization is — is really quite terrible political polarization in the country.

That’s what I’m most deeply worried about, how we can have a civil, adult conversation among people of different political backgrounds. Religion is part of that story, but I actually don’t think religion is the driver. I think the driver is in the field of politics.

PAUL SOLMAN: Robert Putnam, thanks very much.

ROBERT PUTNAM: Thanks very much, Paul.