“That is the great blessing of the United States:
to have preserved faith without sacrificing
tolerance—a distinctively American grace.”
—Robert Putnam
ost Americans love someone who is in a different religion,” declares Professor Robert Putnam. “Among their loved ones, among their relatives, their family, their in-laws, their closest friends, is someone who is praying to a different God, or praying in a different way to God, or maybe not praying at all.”
He is illustrating the intricate network of relationships across faiths that contributes to the happy American anomaly of strong religious convictions co-existing with widespread tolerance. This is the phenomenon he calls “American Grace,” the title of a new book based on his research that will be published in 2009. It will be the culmination of two successive research programs: the “Faith Matters Survey” of 2006 and the “Religion and Social Capital” program running from 2007 to 2008.
Putnam gained global recognition for his development of the theory of Social Capital—the amalgam of civic, social, and political associations that bond a society together—when he published his best-selling book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community in 2000. His discovery that more than 50 percent of social capital was generated by faith communities led to his further research into religion in America with the “Faith Matters Survey” supported by the Foundation.
Its successor study, “Religion and Social Capital,” has broken new ground. “The purpose of the second wave was to try to understand how stable individual people’s religious and civic attitudes are,” explains Putnam. “We wanted to find out whether things like belief in God, or church attendance, or frequency of prayer were stable characteristics of individuals or whether they were highly malleable and changeable over the course of the year. Moreover, this research design enables us to get unique leverage on what causes what.”
The important feature of this second program was that it was a panel survey, interviewing the same people twice, to measure changes in attitude over a year, the first such study anywhere in the world. Putnam was startled by the emerging conclusions. “I would say we have been a little surprised to discover what appears to be evidence that people’s religious behavior is to some extent influenced by their political choices and values.”
If the final data analysis bears this out, it will reconfigure how social scientists and politicians interpret the relationship between religion and politics in America. “We, like most people, assumed people were making their political choices on the basis of their commitments to faith. I have to say the evidence suggests there is at least as much influence going in the other direction, in which people are making choices about religion that are influenced by their political views.”
slugPutnam expresses this more concretely, “In church in America, there are fewer liberals in the pews than there used to be and there are fewer unchurched conservatives than there used to be, and that is in part because people are bringing their religious behavior into alignment with their politics, rather than the reverse.”
He offers another example of how the new study will deepen our understanding of religion. “It’s long been known that religiously observant people are happier than others, but no one knew whether going to church actually makes you happier or whether upbeat people simply go to church more. This new research offers new evidence that going to church actually increases life satisfaction.”
His new book will be called American Grace: the Changing Role of Religion in America. Putnam explains the title, “In the world as a whole, religiosity and intolerance are positively correlated. More religious places have higher rates of intolerance and violence.” But his research shows that America has bucked that trend, in being both very religious and highly tolerant. “That is the great blessing of the United States: to have preserved faith without sacrificing tolerance—a distinctively American grace.”
He attributes this to the separation of church and state as well as a broad consensus about the role of religion in public life; almost nobody wants either a theocracy or a completely secular polity. There is also the bridging social capital represented by dense cross-faith personal networks—between 50 and 60 percent of Americans are married to spouses of a different faith, for example. That makes it impractical to maintain hardline attitudes that people of another religion are excluded from salvation. This is the “Aunt Susan” scenario.
“Most Americans have in their family an Aunt Susan, who is of some other faith, and our basic attitude is: ‘Well, Aunt Susan is (say) a Catholic and I know Catholics aren’t supposed to go to heaven, but if anyone is going to go to heaven, Aunt Susan is—she’s a perfectly saintly person.’ Because all of us have somewhere in our intimate circle of family and friends an Aunt Susan, it is difficult to demonize people of other religions.”
Putnam brings to his final analysis the same qualified optimism with which he invested his earlier study of social capital. “In the long run, I think those two features—the fact that we do have a rough and ready consensus on a significant role for religion in civic life but not a theocracy, and because we have this interwoven bridging social capital—mean we are able to maintain this otherwise high-wire act of being pretty religious and yet remarkably tolerant.”