God and Country
Despite increasing religious polarization, there is surprisingly little religious hostility in America. So why doesn’t it feel that way?
Mary Jo Bane
American Grace By Robert D. Putnam & David E. Campbell • Simon & Schuster • 2010 • 688 pages • $30
obert Putnam’s Bowling Alone was a surprise hit when it came out in 2000. The book, an expansion of a 1995 journal article by Putnam, put forth a relatively simple argument: Social capital, as embodied in the voluntary organizations and social practices that bind people together, has been declining dramatically in the United States over the last few decades. Putnam’s glum dispatch had an enormous impact on public dialogue. The phrase “bowling alone” achieved the kind of pop-catchphrase familiarity that few academics even dream of, and an entire industry of scholars and commentators emerged to both examine and challenge Putnam’s findings and interpretations.
Now, Putnam moves from bowling alone to praying together. American Grace, co-written with David Campbell, associate professor of political science at Notre Dame, may not quite achieve the same level of success, but it nonetheless has the potential to influence the public conversation. A comprehensive study of religion in America, it is full of new empirical data from both a large survey and intensive field work conducted by Putnam and Campbell and their colleagues, and it offers provocative insights into the state of faith in America. If Bowling Alone painted an ominous picture of the fraying American social fabric, American Grace, as the name implies, offers a more optimistic image–one nation of many religious and not-so-religious traditions, but learning to live as one. Sweeping and persuasive though their study of religion may be, their analysis of its intersection with politics is less compelling.
American Grace examines a basic question: In a nation with high levels of religious commitment, how can religious pluralism coexist with religious polarization? The authors dissect these two phenomena–and the tension, or lack thereof, between them–and conclude that, yes, levels of religious identification (self-identifying with one or another religious tradition) and religious practice (for example, attending church services, praying, and saying grace before meals) remain very high. And the religious landscape is extremely diverse, with a variety of denominations, a large number of independent churches, and a range of theology, style of ritual, and governance structures across congregations. But there is a qualification: Young people today show declines in both identification with some religion and depth of religious practice. The likely result is a slow but steady decline in both religious identification and practice over time. That said, the decline will be gradual, and from very high levels, so religion will continue to be a major force in American society for a long time to come.
A second strand of their argument is the increasing religious polarization in America. They note the growth in both the proportion of the population that identifies itself as having no religion and the proportion of church attendees who are devout evangelical Protestants. In other words, we’ve seen an expansion in what might be considered the two ends of the religiosity dimension. In this finding, Putnam and Campbell see a form of religious polarization of greatest concern to them–not between denominational groups, as with the Catholic-Protestant divide that characterized some periods of American history, but the chasm between the traditionally devout of whatever denomination (defined by them in various ways, but usually either as attending church services at least once a week and/or as saying grace before meals at least daily) and the secular or minimally religious.
Putnam and Campbell argue that despite this increased polarization, there is surprisingly little religious hostility in America. They base their conclusions on the findings from a survey they conducted that presented respondents with a “feeling thermometer” about other religious groups–questions that ask how warmly or coolly respondents feel about different groups, on a scale of 0 (cold) to 100 (very warm). The vast majority of religious groups, they report, receive scores above 50 from respondents who are not members of the religious group being asked about, which indicates they are viewed more positively than negatively. (Not surprisingly, most respondents feel very warmly toward their own religious tradition.) The most highly regarded groups, according to these data, are Jews, Catholics, and mainline Protestants. Evangelical Protestants and the non-religious are viewed less favorably by those who are not members of the groups, but both groups also have average scores above 50. Mormons, Buddhists, and Muslims score below 50, with Muslims the lowest, but still above 40.
Putnam and Campbell argue that this range of feelings is relatively benign. They note that a large majority of Americans see religion as a good influence in American society, and that this perception is backed by evidence that the devout are also more involved in charitable and civic activities and general acts of neighborliness than the less religious. A large majority also see religious diversity as a good thing. They overwhelmingly believe that people of other faiths can go to heaven. For example, 93 percent of Catholics believe that non-Catholics can go to heaven, and 89 percent of those extend entry to heaven to non-Christians. (Interestingly, according to a 2007 Pew Forum poll, only 82 percent of Catholics believe in heaven.)
But if most Americans think religious diversity is a good thing, what to make of last summer’s firestorm over the proposed Islamic center in lower Manhattan and recent polls showing decreasing approval of Muslims? American Grace was written before the controversy, which might have qualified the authors’ optimism. In an August 2010 Pew Forum poll, 30 percent of respondents reported a favorable view of Islam and 38 percent an unfavorable view, with 32 percent responding that they didn’t know. These responses are less favorable than responses to a Pew Forum poll in July 2005, which asked the same questions; to that survey, 40 percent of respondents reported a favorable view of Islam and 36 percent an unfavorable view.
ISSUE #19, WINTER 2011
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Mary Jo Bane , a former assistant secretary in the Department of Health and Human Services, is the Thornton Bradshaw Professor of Public Policy and Management at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
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