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Religious Polarization Is Part Of 'American Grace'

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Religious Polarization Is Part Of 'American Grace'


Religious Polarization Is Part Of 'American Grace'

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The United States is nation that was both founded by religious people and guaranteed liberty from any state-imposed religion. The religious landscape has changed substantially over the past three centuries with the addition of faiths in America that range from Islam and Judaism to the Church of Latter-Day Saints, mega-churches with huge congregations, and storefront churches and spiritual advisors.

A: How Religion Divides and Unites Us." Robert Putnam is the Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University. He joins us from the studios there. Thanks very much for being with us.

ROBERT PUTNAM: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: And David Campbell is an associate professor of political science at Notre Dame and director of the Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy. He's at member station WVPE in Elkhart, Indiana. Professor Campbell, thank you very much for being with us.

DAVID CAMPBELL: Well, thank you for having us.

SIMON: And maybe we need to be reminded from the first: there are a lot of people that don't claim any particular religious affiliation at all. You call them the nuns, Professor Putnam.

PUTNAM: Yeah. That category of people who when you ask them what the religion they are affiliated with say none historically was really a very small portion of America - about five, maybe seven percent. But beginning in the early 1990s, that figure began to rise quite dramatically. The fraction of all Americans, and especially of young Americans who say they don't have any religion has been skyrocketing, actually, in the last 15, 20 years. So it's now, roughly speaking, 35, maybe even 40 percent of younger Americans, by which I mean Americans under the age of 30, who say that they have no religious affiliation. That's a quite novel and interesting, significant development.

SIMON: Americans intermarry an awful lot between religious groups, between ethnic groups, between racial groups. How does that affect religious identity?

PUTNAM: The rate of intermarriage across various religious lines has been rising steadily, actually for a century or more. But by now more than half of all Americans are married to someone in a different religious or faith tradition. Our friendships increasingly cross religious boundaries, and all of that is actually an important part of the story in our book, "American Grace," because it weaved the country together and prevented what otherwise might have been a pretty unpleasant confrontation, because it's hard to demonize people of a certain religion when you have someone like that in your own family.

We call that the Aunt Susan effect. Almost every American has an Aunt Susan because of intermarriage and so on. Aunt Susan is...

SIMON: She can be a Mormon, she can be a Muslim.

PUTNAM: Yeah, and different from you. And you know that your faith says, you know, in her faith she's not going to go to heaven. But, I mean, come on, Aunt Susan you know, and if anybody's going to heaven, it's Aunt Susan. So every American is sort of caught in this dilemma that their theology tells them one thing but their personal life experience tells them to be more tolerant, and we are actually more tolerant.

SIMON: David Campbell, here's a high hard one: Can you, a scholar, confidently predict a person's political attitudes by his or her religion?

CAMPBELL: Well, we'd like to think we can - at least we can come pretty close. One of the most remarkable changes over the last generation or so in the United States in our political scene is the fact that religiosity - how frequently you attend church or, interestingly, how frequently you say grace - that turns out to be a pretty strong predictor as well - measures like that - how religious you are - have a pretty strong correlation with how you vote and which party you prefer. And we live in that world now, so I imagine that most listeners would not be surprised to hear that, with a few notable exceptions, people who are more religious are more likely to be Republican and to support Republican candidates.

But it really wasn't all that long ago when that was not the case. In fact, if you look back, say, at the election of Dwight Eisenhower, at that time there was literally no God gap in voting, that Eisenhower was just as likely to pick up votes from people who attended church frequently as those who did not attend church frequently.

And we've gone through some ebbs and flows, but now we've reached a point where there really is a pretty stark political divide on the basis of not so much the particular denomination you attend but rather the intensity of your religious commitment or the intensity of your religiosity.

SIMON: And Bob Putnam, how do you read that link? What do you think is responsible for it, or is it just a statistical oddity?

PUTNAM: Oh, it's not just a statistical oddity. One of the most important thing that's happened in our religious and political life over the last generation - by the way, we should make an important exception, which is that the most religious group in America are African Americans and they are the most solidly Democratic group in America too, so this correlation is not - how should I put it - God given.

But one interesting question is, okay, so if somebody is kind of odd man out - that is, they're religious and progressive, or they're non-religious and conservative - what do they change? Do they bring their politics in line with their religion; they listen to sermons and they decide to be should be voting conservative or whatever? Or do they bring their religion in line with politics?

And the answer is a little bit of both. But more often than not, people are actually changing their religion to match their politics.

A large part of the reason for this rise of young people who reject all religion is for them, growing up in the 1980s and the 1990s, it looked like to be religious meant to be conservative Republican. And lots of them who might otherwise have been in church have said, well, if that's all that religion means - just to vote Republican - I'm out of here.

So there's been a kind of a quiet backlash among young people against this politicization of religion. And I kind of suspect that many thoughtful religious leaders are probably - over the next 10, 15 years, 20 years - going to start pulling back a little bit from the most vociferous political nature of religion, because they're loosing customers.

SIMON: I'm fascinated by the subtitle of your book, "How Religion Divides and Unites Us," 'cause a lot of authors would have reversed that. It seems as if you're almost emphasizing the unite aspect. Could I get you to talk about that?

CAMPBELL: This is Dave Campbell again. And actually, Scott, you're very perceptive. That's precisely the way we wanted the title to be read. So, on the one hand, we know that religion can be a divisive force. It certainly is in other countries, and in some respects it is here in the United States.

We've already talked about how there is division along political lines that is related to people's religion, or at least their level of religiosity. And we also know that America is dividing in another sense along religious lines, which is that we've seen a growth in the nuns.

On the other hand, we've seen growth in conservative religion. That growth has actually stopped now. But it went through a period of growth through the '80s and '90s.

What that has meant is in the middle we've seen a drop-off in what you might call the moderate religious middle. And that's another way that religion has served to divide Americans. We've become polarized along religious lines.

But at the same time, the "American Grace" of our title is meant to refer to the unity that we find along religious lines, that we find people actually coming together of different faiths and different religions. And that's happening in our families. It's happening in our neighborhoods. It's happening in our friendships.

And it's because of that mixing and matching and intermingling among different religions that we manage to accomplish something that is historically and internationally unique - that we're a religiously devout country, a religiously diverse country, and a pretty religiously tolerant country.

PUTNAM: Scott, can I jump in this? I wanted to add something to that, which is that I think part of the purpose of this book is to say to religious Americans: Actually, you know, seculars are not that hostile to you. And to say to secular Americans: You know, even religious people are not nearly so intolerant as you think they are.

SIMON: Robert Putnam, the Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University, and David Campbell, associate professor of political science at Notre Dame. Their new book, "American Grace," is written with the assistance of Shaylyn Romney Garrett and it comes out on Tuesday.

Gentlemen, thanks so much for being with us.

PUTNAM: Thank you, Scott.

CAMPBELL: Thank you, Scott.

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