Harvard professor Robert Putnam

Harvard public policy professor and co-author of American Grace discusses the changes in religious tolerance in the U.S. over the last 50 years.

Robert Putnam is a noted political scientist and public policy professor at Harvard University. Founder of The Saguaro Seminar, a program dedicated to fostering civic engagement in America, he's consulted with international leaders, including Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and British Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. He's also written a dozen books, including American Grace—which challenges the way Americans think about religion and community. Putnam is a former Kennedy School of Government dean and served on the National Security Council staff.


Tavis: Robert Putnam is a professor of public policy at Harvard and a former dean of the Kennedy School of Government. He’s also a best-selling author of books like “Bowling Alone.” His latest is called “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.” Professor Putnam, good to have you on this program, sir.
Robert Putnam: It’s great to be with you, Tavis.
Tavis: When we say “American grace,” we mean what, as opposed to Soviet grace, or?
Putnam: (Laughs) No, I think America is blessed in that we are a very religious people. The average American is more religious in going to church and believing in God and so on than the average Iranian, so we’re highly religious. We’re also highly diverse in our religiosity and our religious affiliations, and most places in the world that have people who are very devout and very diverse in their faiths also have a lot of mayhem. Think Bosnia or Belfast or Beirut or Baghdad or Bombay.
We somehow have contrived to have a high degree of religiosity, we take our religious seriously, we’re very diverse and nevertheless we respect one another across our faith lines. That’s the American grace that we’re speaking of here.
Tavis: You’ve said two things now that I want to go back and get. One, are we as religious a people now as we once were? Where are we at as the trend goes for our religiosity?
Putnam: Well, on average we’re probably about as religious, maybe a little less religious, than we were 50 years ago. In this book we’re trying to provide the most comprehensive, an in-depth survey of religion in American life in the last 50 years.
One thing that’s happened over these 50 years is that we’ve become more polarized in religious terms. Some of us are less religious than people used to be, and some of us are much more religious than people used to be, and the people in the middle – the middle has sort of thinned out as we’ve moved to either the pole of being very religious or not religious at all.
Tavis: You didn’t say this, but you intimated this, I think, so this is my term, not yours. I’m not so sure that our religiosity these days makes us as tolerant as we think we are. Witness any number of examples of late; namely, Muslims come to mind.
Putnam: Sure.
Tavis: About how our tolerance is, it seems to me, decreasing, not increasing.
Putnam: Well, you have to have the right historical perspective here. A hundred years ago there were anti-Catholic riots in America; people were killed in the conflict between Catholics and Protestants. By now, our book shows Catholics are, along with Jews, probably the most popular religious group, outside their own circle, I mean, in America.
Muslims are a special case. They’re new to America, largely, and of course it seems to be tied up with the whole war on terror and all that. But we’ve found that there were three groups, actually, not just one, that was kind of a little less popular among Americans – one is Mormons, one is Muslims and one is Buddhists.
Now, last I heard there weren’t any Buddhist terrorists wandering around. I think the reason that Muslims and Buddhists and Mormons are held in less high esteem is because we don’t know them. Most Americans really don’t know a Muslim or a Mormon or a Buddhist.
The proof of the pudding is that in the African American community, which looks like a lot of the rest of America in most of its religious views; in fact is even more religious than most Americans, African American attitudes toward Muslims are substantially more favorable.
Why is that? Because in the African American community, there are more Muslims and therefore more folks in the African American community, when they’re asked that question, are responding about real people that they really know and have respect for.
Tavis: I don’t have data on this, but I think it’s also because Black people know what it means to be disavowed, to be disenfranchised, to be the “other” in America.
Putnam: Yup, that’s right.
Tavis: And they resonate with what Muslims may be going through at this moment in American history, but I digress on that point.
I want to stay with this title before I go inside. It’s a dense text, so before I go a little deeper inside, I’m still so fascinated by this title, “American Grace.” As you were talking just now, I’m thinking that to my mind, at least, grace is – how would I define this? – an unmerited favor?
Grace is an unmerited favor, and if American grace is, then, an unmerited favor, I’m trying to juxtapose that grace with what some see as our increasing arrogance, our increasing elitism, how it is that we could be the beneficiaries of this unmerited favor, this grace, and yet around the world we don’t appear to be graceful to so many other people. They see us as arrogant, elitist, pompous, and not even just patriotic, but increasingly, nationalistic.
Putnam: Yeah. Well, if I were writing a book about international affairs, I would completely agree with you. That’s exactly the stance that we seem to be taking in the world, and although the advent of Barack Obama as the leader of the country has had some effect on that, because he doesn’t seem like such an arrogant guy, I agree that in terms of foreign policy we seem like a pretty strong, powerful, sometimes even to people seem like a bully.
But we were looking at a different aspect of American society here in this book. We’re looking at the degree to which Americans are able to manage strong, divergent faiths, and as I say, we think that Americans are surprisingly tolerant.
Most Americans who are very religious nevertheless say you can be a good American if you’re not religious. Most secular Americans say that there’s a lot of good that comes out of religion for American democracy. So I think we are not as divided in religious terms as we might think we are.
Tavis: Yet the subtitle suggests that religion divides and unites us.
Putnam: That’s right.
Tavis: Let me pick them apart. To your point now, how does our religion, our various faiths, divide us?
Putnam: Well, over the last half-century, as I said before, a series of shocks and aftershocks have caused Americans to become more polarized – either very religious or very not religious – and at least outside the African American community that degree of how religious you are is now much more correlated with your politics, so it used to be that there were plenty of White progressives in the pews on Sunday mornings, and there were plenty of unchurched conservatives.
But now, those are vanishing species. More and more White folks who are progressive have left church and more and more White folks who are conservative are now sitting in the pews, so our politics and our religion are now more tightly bound up with one another.
The African American community is a very interesting exception to that because the African American community is, as you know, by far the most religious of all of America’s racial and ethnic groups and also the most solidly Democratic. So it’s kind of the exception that proves the rule, but the rest of the country has become much more polarized into either a very religious and very conservative or a very secular and very progressive or liberal pole, and that’s the kind of division that we’re talking about here.
Tavis: So our religion, to the contrary, then, unites us in what ways?
Putnam: Well, in the sense that we think that the so-called culture wars – that is, this notion that Americans are deeply divided and hate each other along religious lines – is a vast exaggeration.
We think that in fact that’s a function of a kind of a funhouse mirror which we get from the media – not this show, but from the talk radio shows and so on – which suggests that we are in two camps in the sense that the most liberal and progressive people really hate religious people and the most religious people really hate secular people.
But if you talk to people, that’s not true. Over the same period that we’ve become more polarized, we built more personal ties across religious lines. So now, more than half of all marriages in America are interfaith marriages – that is, the marriage of Chelsea Clinton and her new Jewish husband is now completely normal, and it didn’t used to be. That kind of intermarriage was not at all normal 50 years ago.
Similarly, half of all of our most intimate friends, our go-to friends, the people we want to go to if you discovered you had cancer or your marriage was falling apart – half of all of the average American’s go-to friends are in some other faith tradition, and that didn’t used to be that way.
So at the private level, Americans are actually much more knit together by personal relations. We say in the book that all Americans have an Aunt Susan. Aunt Susan is some other faith than you; Aunt Susan is Catholic and you’re Baptist, or Aunt Susan is Baptist and you’re Jewish, or Aunt Susan is Jewish and you’re nothing.
You know that your faith teaches you that poor Aunt Susan, she’s not going to make it to heaven because she’s praying at the wrong altar, but come on, you know Aunt Susan. Aunt Susan is the salt of the Earth. If anyone’s going to heaven, it’s Aunt Susan.
So all of us are caught between what our theology formally says – my way or the highway – and Aunt Susan, and Aunt Susan mostly wins.
Tavis: I noticed on the back of the book here you’ve got a number of progressives, a couple of good progressives on here – my dear friend, Dr. Cornel West blurbs the back of the book. Jim Wallis from “Sojourners” blurbs the back of the book.
Back to something you said a moment ago – is it just my read or do we see progressives – I want to be careful about this – if not running away from their faith, not embracing it or maybe not even proselytizing in the way that the right is about their faith. Does that make sense?
Putnam: It does, and I think many of your viewers who have come of age in the current period we’re talking about will think there’s something natural, normal, about there being this tight relationship between conservatism and religion, but that’s very unusual in the whole sweep of American history.
In the whole sweep of American history, very often progressive movements – the White abolition movement, for example, in the 19th century, had deep religious roots, roots in an evangelical awakening in the 1830s and 1840s. Women’s suffrage had deep roots in a religious movement, not just in a secular movement. For goodness’ sakes, the civil rights movement was all about churches and their role playing on the side of progressive causes.
We’re in the middle or maybe toward the end of the period in which – this very unusual period – in which religion seems to be only the monopoly of the right, politically, and not the left. I think that’s not likely to continue, actually.
Tavis: Three times now, by my count, you have cited as uniquely different the African American religious experience in this country. Is that informative, is that instructive, is it dysfunctional? You tell me; I don’t know.
Putnam: No, I think first of all it’s very instructive. It’s not only among African Americans that there’s a close relationship between ethnic or racial identity and religious identity. As we say in the book, that’s also true in White communities. Historically, there was a very close connection between Germans and being Lutheran, between Italians and being Catholic and so on, and you can still see that connection, even in the White community, between someone’s sense of ethnic identity and their sense of religious identity.
The religious identity helps to reinforce and strengthen and deepen their ties to other people of their race or ethnicity. The African American community is the most striking example of that, and you know better than I do that the Black church has played a crucial role in the whole sweep of African American history, and that shows up in all of the statistics that we pull together in the book.
African Americans are, oh, two or three times more likely to say grace over meals than White folks are. They’re many times more – they’re more likely to go to church. Even very well – in the White community, sometimes well-educated people are not all that religious, but in the African American community, even very well educated people are deeply religious.
The African American community is a standing example of the fact that you can be deeply religious and also quite progressive in social and political views.
Tavis: As I mentioned earlier, it’s a deep and dense text. I can’t do justice to it in a 12-minute conversation. But because there is so much data in this book, what’s the hope for you and Mr. Campbell that Americans will take away from this data?
Putnam: Well, we hope to provide a kind of unbiased – we’re not trying to enter the culture wars. We’ve tried to provide a kind of a call them as we see them description of how religion fits –
Tavis: You did a very good job of that, by the way.
Putnam: Thanks very much, and we hope by telling Americans, holding up this mirror – not a distorting mirror, but an actual mirror of how religious fits into our daily lives, we hope to tell people, either the people who are very religious or very secular, cool it. We’re all Americans and we’re really much more tolerant of one another than you might think if you just looked at the funhouse mirror in the media.
Tavis: It’s unbiased, it’s unvarnished and something I think you’ll want to check out if you are at all fascinated about religion in this country. It’s called “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.” The co-author is Robert D. Putnam of Harvard. Professor Putnam, good to have you on this program.
Putnam: Thanks very much, Tavis. Good to be here.
Tavis: My pleasure.

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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm