A complex picture of religion in America

by Darrell Turner

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By Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell
Published by Simon & Schuster, $30

A student of religion in the United States could consult several volumes to find information about contemporary interfaith relations, the interplay between religion and politics, the changing ethnic makeup of church bodies, and how attitudes are changing on such issues as abortion and homosexuality. Alternatively, such an information seeker could consult one book -- American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us -- to find a treasure trove of material about these and similar subjects.

The book by political scientists Robert D. Putnam of Harvard University and David E. Campbell of the University of Notre Dame presents the findings of their Faith Matters surveys, conducted in 2006 and 2007, and compares them with other studies of religious and civic beliefs and practices. The result is a series of striking examples of how the country has been able to avoid religious strife, in contrast to the claims of commentators who fear that there is either too much or too little tolerance between people of different religious beliefs.

Putnam and Campbell present a more complex picture of religion and politics than the standard media portrayal of evangelical Protestant churches as the most politically active religious groups in America. They find that liberals are more likely to report political activity in their churches than are conservatives. In fact, they say, a visitor to a black church or a Jewish synagogue would be more likely to hear politics discussed from the pulpit than in an evangelical Protestant, Catholic or Mormon church. At the same time, the lack of attention paid to or influence exerted by such churches may reflect the fact that liberals who attend politically active congregations make up 2 percent of the population.

The researchers’ analyses of specific issues provide further insights into this dichotomy. They report that opponents of same-sex marriage and abortion consider such issues much more important than do supporters. A striking finding is that people in the post-baby boom generations (born after 1965) are more reluctant to support abortion rights than those in either their parents’ or their grandparents’ generations. This is especially notable because it contrasts with the post-boomers’ more liberal stances on issues of sexual behavior, including same-sex marriage. Putnam and Campbell speculate that improvements in medical technology such as ultrasound may have been a factor in this development.

Although Putnam and Campbell report that nearly 75 percent of Americans currently espouse the religious tradition in which they were raised, this is not true of Catholics. About 60 percent of Americans raised as Catholics no longer practice the faith, and about one-third have left the church entirely. According to the researchers, the new strength of the church is found in its Latino population, which has been growing to the point that Latinos make up 59 percent of Catholics aged 18 to 34. The Faith Matters surveys found that Latino Catholics have more conservative beliefs than Anglos on such issues as divorce, abortion, same-sex marriage, and women in the priesthood. This will be especially significant in the future, according to Putnam and Campbell, because Latinos “are reshaping the American Catholic church.”

People who are active members of religious congregations tend to be less tolerant of diversity and dissent than others, the researchers report. Their studies found that unchurched conservatives tend to be more tolerant than religious conservatives, and churchgoing liberals are less tolerant than secular liberals. At the same time, religious Americans of all stripes are much more tolerant than they were in past decades. According to Putnam and Campbell, this may be because they have more contacts with people of other beliefs in their extended families and friendships, which the researchers label the Aunt Susan Principle and the My Friend Al Principle. They conclude, “America manages to be both religiously diverse and religiously devout because it is difficult to damn those you know and love.”

Putnam and Campbell manage to combine scholarly sociological analysis with a style that is understandable to the nonspecialist. Although their findings are often surprising, they cannot honestly be reduced to sound bites by political or religious pundits. Readers of all religious persuasions and those with none will find much to marvel at and learn from in the pages of American Grace.

[Darrell Turner writes the religion article for the Encyclopedia Britannica Book of the Year.]

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