Religious Polarization Is Part Of 'American Grace' What kind of force is religion in American life today? A new book by professors Robert Putnam and David Campbell seeks to examine some of the changes.
NPR logo

Religious Polarization Is Part Of 'American Grace'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Religious Polarization Is Part Of 'American Grace'

Religious Polarization Is Part Of 'American Grace'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


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: 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: 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: 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: 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: Gentlemen, thanks so much for being with us.

PUTNAM: Thank you, Scott.

CAMPBELL: Thank you, Scott.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.