Your Religion Questions Answered: Robert Putnam of ‘American Grace’

Last week, Paul Solman talked to Harvard policy professor Robert Putnam about religion in America and his new book, “American Grace.” Professor Putnam agreed to answer some of your questions — here are his replies.

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Name: Corlando

Question: How does America’s religious origins affect its public policy today?

Robert Putnam: This is a big important question, with many possible answers.

Historically, American public policy has often been moved in a progressive (leftward) direction by religion. The egalitarian impulse in the American Revolution had deeply religious roots. The abolition movement came directly out of the “Great Awakening” of the 1830s, a period of evangelical Protestant revivalism. Women’s suffrage and other policies of the Progressive Era (such as workers’ compensation and child labor laws) were pushed by religious movements.

The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was born in churches (first, black churches and then white churches). There are some exceptions: for example, the Prohibition movement against alcohol had deep roots in organized religion. But by and large, religion in America has NOT been a monopoly of the political right. Of course, the last 30 years have been different — religious leaders and organizations have led a movement toward more conservative public policies on social issues like abortion and gay marriage. That is a very important fact about contemporary American politics, but it is important to recognize that it is rather unusual in the full sweep of American history. Yours is a sweeping question, so there is much more to be said, but that’s a beginning of an answer, I hope.


Name: Lynn

Question: I was shocked by Prof. Putnam’s dismissal of “atheist” as a self-employed label. I am happily an atheist, as are many of my friends. However, if you read who he talked to (congregations, etc.) you get the picture. The NewsHour continues its tilt to the right, sigh.

Robert Putnam: Hi, Lynn. Sorry that I shocked you (and even seemed to diss you and your friends). It’s useful to distinguish three different sorts of people who are, like you, not into religion.

First, some people use the term “atheist” to describe themselves and their beliefs. That was what Paul asked me about in the excerpt that appeared in the video, and as I told him, only about 0.1 percent of Americans describe themselves that way. (I’m drawing on a large nationwide random survey that accurately represents the whole adult population, not our field studies of congregations. Many other researchers have found the same thing.)

Second, as my colleague Dave Campbell and I explain in “American Grace”, some people who say they don’t believe in God, whether or not they call themselves “atheists.” That’s a larger group, but still not very large. We asked people “Are you absolutely sure, somewhat sure, not quite sure, not at all sure you believe in God or are you sure you do not believe in God?” Of all American adults, 3.6 percent say they are sure they do NOT believe in God, another 2.2 percent say they are “not at all sure” that they believe in God, and 4.6 percent say they are “not quite sure” they believe in God. So somewhere between 4 percent and 6 percent of Americans could reasonably be considered atheists, and another 5 percent might be called agnostics (though very few of them would use that term).

You may be surprised to find that a substantial minority of those atheists and agnostics (in this second sense) are found in the church pews on Sunday — that is, they attend church even though they have doubts about God. (St. Augustine put himself in that category.) Again, all these figures are entirely consistent with the results reported by many other researchers.

Third, a significantly larger group of Americans (17 percent) say that they have “no religion,” when we ask them what religion they identify with, if any. Moreover, this third, larger group is heavily concentrated among younger Americans (27 percent of Americans under 30 say they have no religion), so we (and other researchers) call them the “young nones.” As we explain in the book and in an op-ed that appeared in the LA Times last weekend, the young nones are a very interesting and important group, but only a minority of them are really “atheists,” since virtually none of the nones use that term themselves, and many of them say they DO believe in God. In short, alienation from organized religion is not uncommon, especially among younger Americans, but atheism itself actually is uncommon.

All this is explained in great detail in our book, which (as I’m sure you realize) could not make it into the snippets that were broadcast. I’m not preaching religion here — atheists may well be right, after all — but our role is to try to provide an unbiased description of Americans’ religious beliefs and practices.

Thanks for your interesting question.


Name: Sarah Gormady

Question: Prof. Putnam, I’m almost positive that religion creates in/out group social dynamics as well as a system of honor based on morals. The religious in-group perceives those in the out-group (atheists, agnostics, and practitioners of different religions) as not possessing honor and are therefore not recognized as equals. Out-group members are targets for discrimination, harassment, and general ‘meanness.’ I was wondering if you have observed this phenomenon in your work, and if it was a phenomenon that you observed in non-religious in group settings.

Robert Putnam: Thanks for your comments, Sarah. I don’t have any doubt that in many parts of the world religiosity is associated with in-group/out-group hostility. As we say in “American Grace,” the combination of religious devotion and religious diversity is typically associated with mayhem. But that is NOT true in America. As we describe in great detail in our book, only a small minority of religious Americans seem to fit your theory: they say that their religion is true and everyone else is damned. We label them the “intolerant tenth,” because they amount to about 10 percent of the whole population. But not many Americans — even among religious Americans — fall into that category. A majority of the most devoutly religious Americans say that even non-Christians or unbelievers can be saved or go to heaven, regardless of what their preacher says on Sunday.

Similarly, 80-90 percent of religious Americans say that religious diversity is good for America, that truth is not the monopoly of any religion, and that “a person can be a good American if he or she does not have religious faith.” This puzzle is the central theme of our book: How can America be devout, diverse, and tolerant? The answer, as I told Paul in the interview, is “Aunt Susan.” Our personal networks in America (family, friends, neighbors) are so diverse that virtually all Americans — even most deeply religious Americans — know and love people in other religions or no religion at all. That is quite unlike other deeply religious societies. Intermarriage rates in America, for example, are much higher (50 percent) than in equally religious places like Northern Ireland (10 percent). It is hard to maintain the strict in-group/out-group view that you describe if some of your dearest friends and family members are in that “out-group.” That is, as we say in our book, using religious language, “America’s Grace.” Thanks for your thoughtful question.


Name: Andy Semmel

Question: Bob, I was your first Teaching Fellow at the University of Michigan some 35 years ago in a Comparative Politics course. You were terrific then, and now. Congratulations on a monumental study. Let me ask: How does your survey research compare with historic levels of religion tolerance in the U.S., given the fact that there have been periods in American history of manifest religious intolerance and violence. Have we been evolving towards greater mutual acceptance across and within religious affiliations, and, if so, what helps explains the trend lines?

Robert Putnam: Good to hear from you, Andy. You are certainly right that our history is stained by episodes and periods of vicious religious conflict. We don’t really have good quantitative data on religious tolerance much earlier than the 1960s (along with a few scattered bits of evidence as early as the 1930s), however, so it’s hard to track long-term trends in tolerance with precision. (In “American Grace” we discuss the history of religious toleration in America, relying on more impressionistic evidence.) What hard evidence we do have suggests that interfaith tolerance has been slowly increasing over that period. We also have fairly good evidence on intermarriage rates going back to the early decades of the 20th century, which we present in our book, and those data too suggest that interfaith barriers have been falling slowly but steadily over that period.

My guess (but it’s only that) is that throughout our history each new wave of immigrants has brought new folks with different religious outlooks, and that it takes a generation or two for those immigrant groups to become fully integrated into American society, but that as they do, barriers between them and the rest of us tend to decline. This pattern might provide a bit of long-run optimism about the current flare-up of hostility of Americans toward non-Judeo-Christian faiths.


Name: Cory Hartman

Question: Two questions, Dr. Putnam.

1) As an Evangelical Protestant, I am aware of how notoriously difficult it is to define what an “Evangelical” is (since there is no organization to issue us membership cards). How did you and your coauthor define the term for your study and your subsequent comments about Evangelicals? Was adherence to any classic Evangelical doctrinal assertions a criterion?

2) You explained American religious tolerance as a function of Americans believing that “Aunt Susan” (a good-hearted family member who belongs to another religion) must surely enter eternal blessedness no matter what one’s religion teaches. How did you conclude that tolerance and universalism go together? Are there Americans who believe that their religion exclusively teaches the path to eternal life but don’t see that as a basis to hate or fear people of other religions?

Robert Putnam: Two very good questions.

(1) As we explain in “American Grace,” we generally followed standard practices among students of religion in America and thus classified people on the basis of the denomination to which they adhere. In the last several decades there has been a boom in non-denominational “Christian” churches, and since the members of such churches seem to have all the characteristic beliefs and practices of evangelical Protestants, we’ve put them into that category, as well. We avoided classifying people into various faith traditions on the basis of their theological beliefs, since we wanted to examine empirically what beliefs were held by people in various religious traditions without falling into tautology.

In all that, we were following standard practice by other scholars, so that people could easily compare our findings with other people’s findings. That said, most of our empirical findings would remain unchanged if we had instead classified people by their adherence to classic evangelical doctrines.

(2) We used a number of different measures of tolerance besides the “get to heaven” question. For example, we asked people whether they believed that “one religion is true and others are not,” “there are basic truths in many religions,” or “there is very little truth in any religion.” In round numbers, 10 percent of Americans pick the first option, 10 percent pick the last option, and 80 percent picked the middle option. No matter which measure we used, about 10 percent of Americans seem to believe that they have the truth, religiously speaking, and others do not, and those 10 percent tend by many other measures to be less comfortable with religious pluralism and to be unusually deferential to religious authority.

I’m sure, as you say, that not everyone in that category “hate or fear people of other religions,” which is pretty strong language, but generally speaking, they seem to see the religious world in “we/they” terms than most Americans do. And not incidentally, they live in more religiously homogeneous environments with fewer Aunt Susans. We lay out all our evidence and argument in detail in “American Grace,” so you and other readers can take a look and see whether you find our case persuasive. We’ve tried to be fair-minded to all sides in what is admittedly a very controversial terrain.


Name: Barbara Bull

Question: Dr. Putnam, you seem concerned about the increase in religious polarization in the US, which you suspect is being driven by politics. Are you most concerned about the impact on our politics, or on our religious lives, or perhaps the combination?

The trend you describe seems to parallel observations about the disappearing middle class, toward a polarization of income brackets. Does your research show any connection to this trend?

Also, you seem to be delivering the good news that we are not as polarized religiously as we think (because of Aunt Sally); but then deliver the bad news that the trend is toward increasing polarization, with political, not religious, drivers.

Why (and how) do you think politics is having this effect on religious behavior, and is there a role for policy or regulation to play here?

Does your research provide any insights into the effects of electronic social networks on religious or political polarization? Did any of the “softening over time” due to increased familiarity with other religions occur over the Internet? Or is it more likely that decreased face-to-face contact due to time spent on line reduces the occurrence of softening?

Can you characterize the places in which this polarization is happening more or less, or is it fairly evenly spread?

In your “Better Together” type of research, do you find any particular models for increasing social capital in a way that reduces a community’s vulnerability to this political and religious polarization?

Thanks in advance for any answers you provide, and for the important work that you do.

Robert Putnam: Thanks for all these thoughtful questions, Barbara. I lack the time here and the wisdom to respond to them all. That said, in “American Grace” we lay out a historical framework that tries to explain how a series of shocks and aftershocks have increasingly polarized the American religious and political scene, beginning with the secular shock of the 1960s, followed by a conservative backlash in the 1970s and 1980s, which was followed in turn by a secular backlash against the religious right in the 1990s and into the 21st century. Many factors contributed to this polarization, of course, but we think the most important issue involved sexual and family morality (abortion, homosexuality, and other issues of personal morality), especially as those issues were subsequently used by politicians to expand and intensify their pool of supporters.

We don’t see any evidence that the internet has had much effect on that polarization so far, though the tendency for people to follow only media that reinforce their views is probably a contributing factor. I don’t myself see much role for “regulation” or even “policy” in this context, though I think that if some political and religious leaders could tone down the hostile rhetoric a bit, that would have a positive effect. It may well be that economic and social polarization (which has surely happened) is part of the story, as you say, and my colleagues and I are now looking at that issue in new research. Stay tuned! You can follow our work here and here.

This entry is cross-posted from the NewsHour’s Making Sen$e page, where business and economics correspondent Paul Solman answers your questions on economic news. Follow Paul on Twitter.