On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
It’s a paradox — Americans are deeply divided and polarized along religious lines. But Americans are also increasingly likely to intermarry, change religions and accept with tolerance the religious faith of others. Social and political scientist Robert Putnam helps us decipher the numerous and sometimes contradictory roles religion plays within society.
- Robert D. Putnam Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard; author most recently of "American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us" (Simon & Schuster)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. When John Kennedy ran for President in 1960, religion provoked a kind of tribal loyalty in the U.S. Kennedy had to win over Protestants, but got huge support from fellow Catholics. 50 years later, religion's role in American politics has changed. Today, the most important predictor of how people vote is not where they go to church, but how often.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIn 21st century America, the religiously devout tend to ally themselves with conservatives politics while people who are less religious line up with liberals. Pundits call it the God Gap. In a new book on religion and politics, Harvard scholar and bestselling author, Robert Putnam, says we're a nation of increasing religious polarization, even as our religions become more diverse. Robert Putnam joins us from studios at Harvard. He is the Malkin professor of public policy at Harvard University and co-author with David Campbell at the University of Notre Dame of, "American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us."
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBob Putnam, thank you for joining us.
MR. ROBERT D. PUTNAMIt's very good to be back with you, Kojo.
NNAMDIGood to have you back. American attitudes about religion and its place in public life have clearly changed in recent decades. In the 1950s, we added the words, in God we trust, to our currency and put, under God, into the Pledge of Allegiance. Then came the tumult of the 1960s and a sharp decline in religious observants, especially among young people. Continue, if you would, this time line for us. When did the big shifts occur?
PUTNAMWell, you've discussed two of the first parts of this story. The high degree of religiosity in America. Most American's were moderately religious. Nobody was or almost nobody was extremely religious or extremely anti-religious. Then came the '60s, which sent a bunch of Americans, especially younger Americans, off in a more secular direction. That lead to a counter reaction or an aftershock in the 1970s and '80s in which other Americans, who had been appalled by what they saw as the moral licentiousness of the 1960s, they moved off in a more religious and morally conservative direction.
PUTNAMAnd that was the basis for the rise of evangelical movement in the '70s and '80s. The rise of the evangelical movement was mostly over by about 1990 and in the last 20 years, there's been a second aftershock as another group of Americans, younger Americans this time, who came of age during the culture wars, essentially said, well, if all the religion is, is about being a conservative and a republican, and as they would put it, homophobic, I'm out of here, that's not me. And so a very large -- it's been a very large increase in the last 20 years. Not before that.
PUTNAMBut in the last 20 years, as a direct reaction of polarization of religion as they see it, a rise in the number of younger Americans who say they actually have no religious affiliation at all. They're not atheist, actually most of them believe in God, but they are certainly alienated from organized religion. And that means if you put the results of the shock of the '60s and then these two aftershocks, more Americans are either very religious or very not religious. Fewer of us in the middle and more over that, as you said in the introductory section, that now matters more for our politics.
PUTNAMWe're more -- there used to be, there were plenty of religious liberals and plenty of un-churched conservatives, but now those are both kind of vanishing species. So there's a closer correlation now between how often you go to church and your politics.
NNAMDIIn researching this new book, you conducted two surveys asking people a wide range of questions about their religious and their political views. How many people identified themselves as being religious and how do those numbers compare with previous generations?
PUTNAMWell, it varies depending on exactly what measure you use. One of the standard measures that's used by experts and we use it, too, for that same reason, is to ask people about their religious identities. Basically says, are you -- what's your religious affiliation? Are you a Catholic or a Protestant or Jewish or, you know, Mormon or Muslim or Baptist or whatever? And it used to be for many years, there was a kind of a standard fraction of Americans, about five to seven percent, who said, none of the above, who said basically, I have no religious affiliation in response to that question.
PUTNAMBeginning in 1990, that figure began to rise very sharply so it's now about 17 percent of Americans who say they -- what we call the nones, N-O-N-E-S. Not Catholic sisters, but the people who say they have no religious affiliation.
NNAMDIAnd that figure is even higher among, as you were pointing out earlier, young people. At 17 percent of Americans in general, what's the figure among young people...
NNAMDI...let's say 20-somethings.
PUTNAM...yeah, it's rising past 25 percent now, on towards 30 percent that -- of them say they have no religious affiliation. That is an enormous number. I cannot over-emphasize what a huge change that is. It's not like secularization in Europe, for example, which has been going on at the, you know, about a percent every decade for the last 100 years. This began -- Americans had not been changing by that measure (unintelligible) religious affiliation and then all of a sudden, in the immediate aftermath of the culture wars, that number shot up and it's going up very rapidly.
PUTNAMIf that persists, that is, if for this younger generation as they grow older -- I mean, they're certainly bound to become a little more religious just because almost everybody does, becomes a little more religious, as they have kids and, you know, settle down. But it's going -- they're starting that ride, that escalator ride at a way lower level of religious affiliation. And therefore, if this continues, America will see, in the succeeding generations, a substantial change in level of religiosity. That hasn't happened yet and we're actually not necessarily predicting that it will happen.
PUTNAMBecause we think with that prospect in mind, the basic idea that by getting too close to politics, religious leaders have begun to lose an audience among younger people. We think many religious leaders will likely, in the years ahead, actually make special efforts to pull away from politics, which is obviously costing them market share, you would say, if you're a commercial person or lots of souls waiting to be saved, if you're a religious person.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Robert Putnam. He's the Malkin professor of public policy at Harvard University and co-author with David Campbell of the book, "American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us." We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. What role do you think religion plays in American politics? 800-433-8850 or go to our website kojoshow.org. Send us a tweet at kojoshow or an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Your survey also proves something on a national level that you, Bob Putnam, already knew to be true on a personal level.
NNAMDIAnd that is that American families have an unprecedented level of religious pluralism. How does your own family exemplify this trend?
PUTNAMWell, I'll respond to that in a second. But let me just get the national picture straight. You're actually right. There's been a huge -- at the same time that we're becoming more and more divided in religious terms on the public stage, that is if you look at the politics and religions and so on, it looks like we're increasingly a polarized society. In our private lives, most Americans, over these same 50 years, have woven much thicker, much deeper interfaith personal ties so that it now turns out that of all the marriages nowadays, more than half, are interfaith marriages.
PUTNAMSo that when Chelsea Clinton was raised as a Methodist, I believe, married a Jewish guy a couple of months ago, that today is completely normal. I can tell you it was not completely normal, it was anything but normal, you know, 50 years ago. And this is the story you're referring to. I was raised as a Methodist. I was happy and practicing as a Methodist as a young person. I went to college, met a wonderful woman, well, girl, and -- who's Jewish and we spent a lot of time trying to figure out what to do about our different religions. Back in those days, it was a big, big deal that you were coming from different religious backgrounds.
PUTNAMEventually, I converted to Judaism. We raised our kids as Jews. One of our children married a Catholic. One of our children married a kind of a none. That is not a N-U-N, but a person who lacked really religious affiliation. Meanwhile, my sister, raised in that same Methodist household, the 1950s, married a Catholic, converted to Catholicism. Her kids now are all evangelicals of various flavors. So when we have a family get together, it's really hard to -- it would be hard to raise any kind of (unintelligible) ...
NNAMDII'm confused already.
PUTNAMYeah, well, you couldn't be anti-Semitic because there are lots of Jews there and you couldn't be anti-evangelical because of the evangelicals there. You couldn't be anti-Catholic because, you know, there are Catholics there. You couldn't even be anti-nones because there are unreligious people there. So what we found with the data, the surveys that we did, especially because we interviewed the same people twice and so we could see people getting a new friend of a different religion, it really does cause us to be -- and, you know, that makes total sense.
PUTNAMIf you know somebody personally, if you love somebody who's in a different faith, it's hard to demonize the people in that faith. Because you might say, well, okay, so I know, you know, on Sunday, people say, you know, Aunt Susan who's in a different religion from me -- poor Aunt Susan, she's a wonderful person, but she's not going to make it to Heaven because she prays at the wrong altar. On the other hand, I know Aunt Susan. Aunt Susan is for sure, I assure you, is going to Heaven. It doesn't matter what she prays -- she's just a Heaven-bent person.
PUTNAMAnd so that kind of syllogism, I'm saying, you know, these people can't be all that bad because Aunt Susan is one of them. That has permeated. It's not just my own personal story. That is the story of America...
NNAMDIThe rise of...
PUTNAM...over the last half century.
NNAMDI...the rise of interfaith families and therefore the likelihood of having family members or co-workers and neighbors of different faiths, you're saying, has, in fact, boosted religious tolerance and diversity in the U.S.
PUTNAMOh, a lot, yeah. And it's -- in a way, it accounts for what -- this otherwise paradox. America is a very religious place. The average American is more religious than the average Iranian, for example. We're a very diverse place and are becoming more polarized in religious terms and yet we're remarkably tolerant. So the puzzle is how -- almost no place in the world you find those things go together. You know, if you look around the world where people are deeply religious and where they have different faces in the country, there's almost always chaos.
PUTNAMAnd violence and civil war. I mean, Bosnia and Beirut and Baghdad and Belfast and Bombay and so on. And America has a lot of diversity in religious terms and we care about the religion a lot and yet we, more or less, get along. And we think Aunt Susan has caused that.
NNAMDILet me ask our audience members. Have you made the decision to practice a different religion than the one you were born into? Call us, 800-433-8850, share with us the reasons why. Did political considerations have anything to do with your decision? 800-433-8850 or go to our website, kojoshow.org, ask a question or make a comment there. Another thing you found, Bob Putnam, is that being religious or being part of a religious congregation tends to make people good neighbors and good citizens. Why?
PUTNAMYes, that was another one of the surprises we found. We were in the -- we were trying to understand the ways in which religion either contributes to or distracts from American democracy. And as you said in the introduction, it is true that, in some respects, religious people are not perfect democratic citizens. They are a little bit, on average, a little bit less tolerant of descent then non-religious people. But on all the other measures that we were able to compile, 20 different measures of being a good neighbor or a good citizen, religious people are substantially better neighbors and better citizens than non-religious peoples.
PUTNAMThey are more likely to volunteer. And not just a volunteer to be a church usher, but also to volunteer to be a, you know, a little league coach or something. They're more likely to give to charities. And not just to put money in the church plate on Sunday, but also to give to the United Way or secular causes. They're more likely to work on community problems. A lot more likely to work on community projects, two or three times more likely than a matched secular person. They're much more likely to give blood, to let other people cut in front of them in line, to give money to a person, a homeless person on the street.
PUTNAMTo take part in community activities in the community. And it turns out -- first of all, this is true regardless of denomination or religious tradition. It's exactly the same pattern for Jews and Muslims and Mormons and Catholics and Evangelicals and so on. And secondly, it surprisingly turns out not to have much to do with theology.
PUTNAMBelieving in God, that is saying you really, really, really believe in God, or praying often, or feeling God's presence in your life or believing fervently that you're going to face your maker in, you know, on judgment day, none of those things have any relationship to these measures of good neighborliness. The...
NNAMDIOne of the -- I would like to take a short break, Bob Putnam. But before we do, there's one point you made earlier that was probably a surprise to most of our listeners, I'd like you to underscore it again. You said almost offhandedly that the average American is more religious than the average Iranian. That's certainly not the perception that we have of Iranians.
PUTNAMNo, but it's -- these are data that were collected globally. We didn't collect these data, but they're collected globally on, you know, frequency at religious attendance and attitudes toward God and so on.
NNAMDIGot to take a...
PUTNAMThe data are in the book, "American Grace."
NNAMDIAnd the book is called "American Grace," we're talking with the co-author of that book, Robert Putnam. He's the Malkin professor of public policy at Harvard University. His co-author on "American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us" is David Campbell at the University of Notre Dame. The phone lines are busy so if you'd like to get in touch with us, go to our website, kojoshow.org, or send us an e-mail to Kojo@wamu.org or a tweet at kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Robert Putnam. He is the author of the national best seller, "Bowling Alone." His latest is called "American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us." His co-author is on that book is David Campbell of the University of Notre Dame. Robert Putnam is the Malkin professor of public policy at Harvard University. He joins us from studios at Harvard. Bob Putnam, allow me to start this section by going to the telephone to Jennifer in Fairfax, Va. Jennifer, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JENNIFERI wanted to make a comment.
JENNIFEROne of the...
NNAMDIYes, go right ahead.
JENNIFEROne of the things you said, Kojo, in the introduction is that people who are strongly religious tend to vote more conservatively and I don't want to deny that trend, but maybe speak to the exception that proves the rule.
JENNIFERAs a young person myself and someone who's very strongly attached to my Christian faith, I'm also part of that movement that Glenn Beck was so scared of, the social justice Christians. And there are certainly those of us who take our faith very seriously, but understand it as -- leading us more towards more liberal political positions, including things like gay marriage, and abortion and caring for the poor. So I just wanted to look that up.
NNAMDIWell, I have to tell you that Bob Putnam's survey uncovered what people like yourself might characterize as a dark side to being devoutly religious. Bob Putnam, why do you think people who are more religious tend to be less tolerant of civil liberties and political descent and, of course, you can also respond to the issue that Jennifer raises, the exception.
PUTNAMLet me, first of all, respond to Jennifer's question, which is a quite good question.
PUTNAMAnd then I will come back to the question you asked, Kojo.
PUTNAMFirst of all, Jennifer talked about one exception to this God gap. The God gap is the jargon that political scientists use to talk about this fact that republicans are much more religious on average than -- and conservatives are more religious than liberals. I'm going to say just two or three things quickly about that. First of all, the most important exception to that generalization in America today is actually the African-American community. The African-American community is the most religious community in America by a long shot. It -- black people are way more likely to believe in God, and to pray, and to go to church and so on. And yet, they're the most solidly democratic group in the country. So they really stand out as an important exception.
PUTNAMAnd Jennifer's kind of exception, which is social justice Christians, are an interesting group -- a very interesting group actually and I -- some of my best friends are in that group. But I have to say, in quantitative terms, that that's still a pretty small minority of all Americans. That is people who are progressive politically, but deeply religious. However, historically in America, this period we're in now is actually historically quite unusual.
PUTNAMNormally, in American history, God has not been a republican or a democrat. And if he has -- if religion has been associated with left -- or right politics, it's at least as often been associated with left-wing politics. So the evolution movement in the 18 century -- 19 century was rooted in and Evangelical Protestant reform -- I mean, revival, the so-called Second Great Awakening. Women's suffrage movement had powerfully important religious roots.
PUTNAMFor goodness sakes, the civil rights movement in the '50s and '60s was at bottom a very religious movement. So this correlation between politics -- I'm sorry, conservative politics and religiosity, it's very real and very important, but it's a kind of unusual period, given the whole sweep of American history. Now, on the question of the intolerant decision...
NNAMDIBeing devoutly religious...
NNAMDI...and apparently being less...
NNAMDI...tolerant of civil liberties and political descent.
PUTNAMWell, it is certainly true on average that religious people are a little less supportive of civil liberties. I don't exaggerate this. Let me take a specific -- particularly specific example. We asked, for example, should people be -- do people have a perfect right to give a speech defending Osama Bin Laden? To our surprise, actually about rough -- nearly 70 percent of all Americans say people have a perfect right to give a speech defending Osama Bin Laden.
PUTNAMAmong religious people, that's a little lower. It's about 60 percent. But you might say, well, gee, sure, but the glass is at least half full there, that even they're surprisingly tolerant of descent. Why that is, it tends to be associated with deeply conservative religious views. And why that should be associated with intolerance is enough -- another and harder question.
PUTNAMI do want to say however that the image that one gets of American -- of the American religious spectrum from listening to talk radio, not this show of course, but listening to, you know, to cable TV or whatever, reading the papers, is actually very misleading. We asked people to choose among the following three options. Would you say there's very little truth in any religion, that's -- call that the anti-religious option, or that there is -- that one religion is true and the others aren't true, let's call that the true believers option, or that there are basic truths in many religions? If you, you know, sort of paid attention to public life, you might think all of us are either in the God hating seculars or in the secular hating Godly people in America.
PUTNAMBut actually only seven percent of Americans say there's very little truth in any religion and only about 11 percent of us say that there's truth only in my religion, that is my way or the highway route. More than 80 percent of us say, no, there's truth in -- there's a little bit of truth or there's some truth in many religions. That is -- so we're actually not nearly as intolerant as you might think we are from, you know, listening to the public -- reading the public press.
NNAMDIWhile religious pluralism is on the rise religious polarization is also increasing in the U.S. but the divide isn't necessarily among people of different religions, it's among people with different levels of religious devotion. Can you please explain that transformation?
PUTNAMYes. Well, the story you told at the outset about religion in the 1960 election is -- captures that. Religion was, in 1960, and John Kennedy's election, and earlier, for probably 100 years earlier than that, an important factor in American politics, but it was not between the religious and the non-religious it was between the Protestants and the Catholics. And John Kennedy got a huge fraction of all Catholics, really whatever their, you know, social or ideological views, and his opponent got a huge fraction of the -- or disproportionate fraction, of the non-Catholics.
PUTNAMFast forward to the year in which John Kennedy -- John Kerry was running for President and John Kerry was defeated among Catholics by an Evangelical Christian, George W. Bush. Now, that would -- anybody back in the '60s would've been shocked that the old denominational differences basically have essentially disappeared in American life and they've been replaced by this -- basically a coalition of the religious, that is it brings together religious Catholics and religious Protestants -- I mean, deeply religious Catholics and deeply religious Protestants, deeply religious Jews and so on.
NNAMDIWhile there is that there is also this, an e-mail we got from someone who says, "We do not have equality of religion in America. As long as In God We Trust is on our currency and as long as we have to swear on a Bible to serve on a jury, we will continue to live in the effects of what is actually a country of spiritual imperialism. The extremists that were forced from their own country came here and forced their way of life on the native occupants. There is a secret hiding in the open. If you are not Christian, you are somehow less than those who are. As a non-Christian," says this e-mailer, "I deeply resent the hypocrisy." What do you say to that e-mailer, Bob Putnam?
PUTNAMWell, I recognize that set of views. It is the strongly anti-religious set of views that are representative of the American population. It's not actually a very large group of the American population, but it's a significant number of people. And it is -- certainly is true that -- it goes along with America being a deeply religious country, that there are things that non-religious people find objectionable about the society, not just so much the public policy, but the society that is more religious than they are.
PUTNAMI do have to say, however, that this kind of growing tolerance that we talk about in the book even extends among religious people to people who aren't religious at all. We asked, for example, all of our 3,000 Americans, they're chosen from the, you know, all walks of life and all -- and included the right number of atheists and the right number of Evangelicals and so on so it's a representative national sample.
PUTNAMWe asked them whether a person who had no religious faith could nevertheless be a good American. Now, you're not surprised to find out that the least religious Americans overwhelmingly say, yes, a person without religion can be a good American. But you might be more surprised -- we were shocked, actually, that about 90 percent of the most religious Americans say that a person without religious faith can be a good American.
PUTNAMSo while it is true that there are some biases, I guess I would say, in the fundamental features of American culture, that is in a pro-religious direction, I don't think that extends to the kind of intolerance that has been expressed in the past in other countries toward particular religious or non-religious minorities. For example, we ask everybody in America to feel -- how they felt about every other religion in America. And perhaps the most surprising single fact in the whole book was that the two most popular religions in America now as judged by people who are not in those religions, but we asked people to rank them, the two most popular religions in America are Jews and Catholics.
PUTNAMNow, that would not have been true, for sure, 50 years ago and absolutely for sure not 100 years ago. What's been -- what's happened is that as America has become more diverse, more Catholics, more integrated into normal American society, Jews more integrated fully into all aspects of American society, Americans non-Jews and non-Catholics have become much more comfortable with Jews and Catholics. So it's true that we're a religious country, that has some consequences, but it's not true that we're a country that really hates across religious lines, including the line between religious and not religious.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Robert Putnam. He's author of the national best seller "Bowling Alone," about his latest book, it's called "American Grace: How Religion Units -- How Religion Divides and Unites Us." His co-author is David Campbell of the University of Notre-Dame. We're taking your questions at 800-433-8850. Do you think the United States is becoming more religiously polarized? Are we a nation of religious conservatives and secular liberals? Is there anything we should be doing to change that? 800-433-8850. Here is William in Reston, Va. William, your turn. Go ahead, please.
WILLIAMHi there, Kojo. How are you?
WILLIAMGood. Thank you for taking my call.
WILLIAMProfessor Putnam, nice to talk to you. A little background about myself, I'm an African-American. I was born a Baptist. I actually accepted Islam, about almost 20 years ago married a Bosnian refugee. We've been married eight years, have a daughter. Our experience, in terms of religion, has been a lot more diverse now that we've accepted Islam as our way of life. And in terms of polarization, I think I witnessed more polarization growing up in the church than I've ever done with any other part of my life. You know, they say that Sunday morning is one of the most segregated times...
WILLIAM...of the week. Yeah. So my question is, getting more to the point, the polarization and the actual increase of people -- of the noners, of the nones.
WILLIAMN-O-N-E-S. Is science a part of that? There seems to be more of an advance in this country and technology and there's a more advance growth in science and things of that nature and how...
WILLIAM...that played a part in the history with Europe and how different scientific facts...
NNAMDIAnd you want to know if science is having any role at all and how we perceive...
NNAMDI...religion today. Bob Putnam?
PUTNAMWell, first of all, William, your own personal religious history is really interesting and actually kind of significant for another of the points we've been talking about, so allow me to just say a sentence or two about your personal history. Muslims in America -- we did this sort of popularity contest in which we ask how everybody felt about various religions and not surprisingly Muslims are lower on that list than most other American religions.
PUTNAMBut there's one group in America that is actually not so hostile to Muslims and that's black Christians. And if you ask, well, why are black Christians more open minded about Muslims, it seems to be the most important explanation is that because of the number of Muslims in the black-American community. There are more Muslim Aunt Susans in the black American community.
PUTNAMThere's more people who actually do know people like you, that is more -- you, in effect, by people knowing you and saying, oh, my goodness, William is a kind of nice guy so maybe Islam is not such a bad religion, that is exactly the micro mechanism, the way it works that America becomes -- has in the past become more open minded about Jews and Catholics and will, I'm pretty sure, become more open minded about Muslims. Now...
NNAMDII can testify. I have an African-American Muslim friend staying at my house even as we speak and I'm Episcopalian.
NNAMDIBut go ahead. (laugh)
PUTNAMWell, you can -- I mean, actually in -- because we interviewed people twice, we can see people getting new friends of a different religion. And when you get new friends of a different religion, you become not -- more open minded, not only about that religion, but about all religions. There's a spill-over effect. So if you get a -- you know, you don't actually know any Mormons, but then you discover that, you know, a guy in your bowling league is a Mormon and he's fine. He actually bowls pretty well and he's a very nice guy. Not only do you become more open minded about Mormons as a result of that, you actually become more open minded about, you know, Muslims or...
PUTNAM...Jews or whatever.
NNAMDIWhat about if he bowls very badly, should I let that affect my view?
PUTNAMI want to come back to that bowling league in a second, but...
PUTNAM...let me answer directly William's actual question, which is how much could the rise of the nones, that is this rise of younger Americans who are -- who disdain organized religion, how much of that is due to science? Maybe there's some of that going on, William, but actually it's -- I think it's -- that's not actually a major factor here. We can't find really any significant evidence in our data that the people who are -- the young people who are moving into the category of nones are any less -- are any more, you know, better educated, or any more exposed to science than the people who are not moving into the category of nones.
PUTNAMThe thing that distinguishes the people who have become nones from the -- from their peers, who have not become nones, is how they feel about politics and especially how they feel about homosexuality. If you're more open minded about homosexuality, and many of these young people are, that is the single most important clue or lead to the fact that you're going to then end up being a none.
PUTNAMAnd I think that's because back in the, you know, about in the last ten years, just as young people were zigging to the right on -- or to the progressive end -- I mean, let's say, zigging to the left, becoming much more open minded and liberal on issues of homosexuality, gay marriage and so on, the most visible religious leaders in America were zagging to the right, that is, becoming more conservative and, you know, ginning up these anti-gay marriage referenda and so on.
PUTNAMAnd in effect, the leaders marched in one direction, and their followers said, I don't want to go there, I'm out of here. And that's why I think -- it's because of that kind of pattern in our data that I think it's not so much science as it is the fact that religion has become too closely associated with politics. Let me say one more -- yeah, go ahead.
NNAMDII was about to say, for purposes of clarity for those who are just joining us who may have heard you referring to none and nones a lot, we're talking about N-O-N-E, people who say they have no religious affiliation. But as you've been talking about zagging on the issue of homosexuality, it would appear that the young people seem to be zagging, if you will, to the right on the issue of abortion.
PUTNAMRight. I'm -- I wouldn't want to put those two trends...
PUTNAMYou're absolutely right. There is the trend in the way you described it. Young people are way more open minded, young people of all religious faiths. Young evangelicals are more open minded about gay marriage than older seculars. There's been this generational change in attitudes towards homosexuality is enormous, and it's one reason why I think -- it's one reason why I think Don't Ask, Don't Tell passed so easily, frankly.
PUTNAMYou can see the electorate becoming -- especially the younger electorate, becoming much more -- not so much sympathetic to homosexuality as open minded about it. The abortion case is somewhat more -- somewhat different. It's not that among young people there's this vast movement in a pro-life direction. That would be -- that's not true. But it is true that the younger generation of Americans are a little less unqualifiedly pro-life.
PUTNAMThat is, young people are more likely to say yes, but, on the issue of abortion, as compared to their own parents and even their own grandparents, many of whom were really, you know, this is a free choice issue and it's not about life and it's not about, you know, the fetus and so on. It's an issue about women controlling their own bodies.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break, Bob Putnam. And there are a lot of people waiting to talk to you so I'll take that break and try to shut up when we come back so as many of these people as possible can get through to you. If you're trying to get through, try it at our website, kojoshow.org, because the phone lines are tied up. Right now when we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Robert Putnam. He is co-author of "American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us." I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIRobert Putnam is the Malkin professor of public policy at Harvard University, and co-author with David Campbell of the book, "American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us." He joins us from studios in Harvard. One quick question before I get to the telephone. Bob Putnam, according to your survey, Americans are more likely to change their religion to fit their political views than to adapt their politics to fit their religion. Was that a surprise to you?
PUTNAMIt was a shock. In fact, I didn't believe it for a long time. That is, we could see that there were fewer and fewer unchurched conservatives, and fewer and fewer progressive people in the pews on Sunday. So we knew that people were somehow bringing their religion and their politics into this new alignment. But I just couldn't believe that people would change their religion and their religious observance to fit their politics.
PUTNAMI couldn't, frankly, believe that people would put at risk their immortal soul. After all, that's what's at stake if you're a religious person, put at risk your immortal soul over how you feel about George W. Bush or Bill Clinton. But actually, and, uh, there are some people who adopt their politics to fit their religion, but the majority of Americans have been adjusting their -- they've been sorting themselves out and adjusting their religious behavior to fit their political views.
PUTNAMIt is quite a surprise. And what it means, when you work through all the numbers, is that the underlying division here is not actually mostly about religion. It's mostly about politics.
NNAMDIOnto the telephones now. Here is Susan in Washington, D.C. Susan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SUSANHi. Thanks for taking my call. I happen to be an atheist, meaning that I'm not anti-religious, but I personally don't believe in a higher power. I just don't believe in a God. And I've noticed a paradox, which is that on the one hand as you've described, there is definitely tolerance in my day-to-day life. You know, I've never experienced any kind of persecution, and it's also true that there's this very large segment of non-affiliated people.
SUSANBut on the other hand, even those non-affiliated people, they do believe in God for the most part. And on the public stage, I get the feeling that, you know, we will see a Mormon or a Muslim, or a Jew elected President before we see someone who acknowledges they don't believe in a higher power elected as President. You know, you always see the Presidents having to choose, you know, what place they go to church, and making a public show of saying, God bless America.
SUSANAnd just this sense that while people may have no problem with an atheist, you know, as a friend, when it comes to trusting someone, that's where the line is drawn. And I'm wondering whether you agree with that, why you think it is, and whether you think there is any chance...
NNAMDII for one, Bob Putnam, am fascinated by this race to the top. But go ahead, please, to see who will get there next or first, whether it's going to be a woman, whether it's going to be...
PUTNAMWell, I largely agree with the caller in what she said. It is -- she made some really important points. There are atheists in America. There are not as many atheists in America as atheists sometimes think. When we ask people, and other surveys have done the same thing, have asked about belief in God, how firmly you believe in God or whether you believe in God at all, and the best estimates are something like five to seven percent of Americans are atheists.
PUTNAMThat's a much smaller number than the fraction of Americans who say that they have no religious affiliation. So exactly as the caller said, the category of non-affiliated is much larger and not the same as the category of atheist. And she's right that when you ask people would you prefer to vote for someone who has a religious affiliation, or religious sentiments or something, most Americans say yes. And if you ask them specifically, would you vote for an atheist to be President, many Americans say no.
PUTNAMAnd I actually probably agree with her about the -- her projection that we're more likely to get a Mormon president before we get a -- before we get an avowedly atheist president. Now, of course, there have been lots of American presidents who have not at all been religious in any deep sense. I don't mean they're sinners, but -- well, maybe all of us are sinners, but I mean, there are lots of Americans who were -- lots of American presidents, I mean, and American leaders who have been not all that -- religion was not all that big a deal in their own private lives.
NNAMDIPresident Reagan for one.
PUTNAMBut calling yourself -- yeah, exactly. But calling yourself an atheist, I agree, evokes a stigma, and why that is, I think, frankly goes back to the earliest years of our Republic. The fact that this was a country that was, you know, for better or worse, founded by people and then joined by people who were very religious. Not only the original founders -- by the way, I'm not saying that -- sometimes people say this is a Christian country or Christian nation or whatever.
PUTNAMAnd I don't actually agree with that, even historically. But it is true that Americans who came here were unusually religious, and that's always true of immigrants. All immigrant groups of whatever flavor turn out to be more religious when they get here than the rest of us are or that they were in their own home country.
PUTNAMBecause religion is closely bound up with a sense of identity, and for immigrants who are, you know, just strangers in a strange land, holding onto the faith of their fathers is an important way to maintain some sense of identity. You can see that in all of the data, that immigration and ethnicity are closely tied to religious solidarity.
PUTNAMIt's, I think, one of the reasons why America is so religious that we keep having our level of religion in America refreshed every generation or two by a new arrival of immigrants. It was true of Catholics and the Italians and Irish and so on, and Jews at the end of the 19th century. It's true of Hispanics today.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Susan. Onto Leslie in University Park, Md. Leslie, your turn. Go ahead, please.
LESLIEThank you, Kojo. I'm really enjoying the program. And the conversation is incredibly rich and interesting. I guess, at this point, I'll just make an observation. I just was in London a week ago, and every Christmas time I go for about four days. And I really noticed a difference of feel and I think it's cultural, around Christmas time. And it has to do with religiosity.
LESLIEAnd I think when I come back to the states, the feeling of Christmas really is much more religious than it is in England. I'm Episcopalian. I visit the Anglican churches in London, and they are quite empty and desolate. And when I come home, there is a very different feeling in America. It is much -- we're not especially religious, but there's a greater vibrancy, I think, of our religious life here.
PUTNAMI totally agree with Leslie. It happens that we're now writing a book comparing religion in the U.S. and Britain so I'm familiar with that comparison, even statistically, so to speak, and all I can say is she's completely right.
NNAMDIIndeed, Leslie. Thank you very much for your call. We got this e-mail saying, "It was really interesting hearing about Mr. Putnam's personal experiences with interfaith marriages within his own family. I recall reading an article several years ago about how most places of worship remain racially segregated, the exception being large evangelical churches. Any indication as to whether the rise of interfaith marriages is breaking down the historical racial divides?"
NNAMDII know in the book, Bob Putnam, you talk about the Catholic church being more diverse because of Hispanics, but the other thing that I did find interesting is how the diversity is affecting evangelicals, especially large evangelicals.
PUTNAMYes. I -- it certainly is true that when we went looking for evidence on this question that an earlier caller mentioned about, you know, the most segregated hour in American society being 11:00 a.m. on Sunday morning, and it is still true that most people are worshipping in largely racially homogenous congregations.
PUTNAMIt's also true that the two most important exceptions are Catholic churches. They are much more likely to be significantly integrated because of the arrival of Latino Catholics and large evangelical mega churches. I personally -- I'm not an evangelical mega -- I'm certainly not an evangelical, and I don't attend a mega church, so I'm not trying to sell that brand of religion, but it is true that many of the large evangelical mega churches that I have gone to personally in the course of this research, have been the most racially integrated gatherings I've ever been in in my life.
PUTNAMAnd I don't know quite why they have been able to do that. I guess I think that evangelicals, and especially these more, you know, contemporary evangelicals that are the people who are managing and creating the mega churches, have been pretty attentive to trying to become more diverse in racial terms. There's not actually so diverse in political terms, but they're very diverse in racial terms.
NNAMDIHere is Susan in Washington, D.C. Susan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SUSANOkay. Thank you very much. Thank you. Enjoy your vacation, too. Bye-bye.
NNAMDIYou are now on the air. We are glad you wished a friend or colleague a happy vacation, but it's now your turn to raise a question with Bob Putnam.
SUSANI'm multitasking. Sorry about that.
NNAMDII can see that. I can hear that.
SUSANI'm just -- I just wanted to comment. I am really enjoying this program, and I want to read this book because I have -- I am viscerally opposed to organized religion. I am African-American, raised Catholic with a capital C. I now say I'm Catholic with a little C -- or I used to say that. Now I know I'm a none. So I've really evolved in just listening to this program.
SUSANIn any event, I do want to read the book. I think it's fascinating. The whole topic is fascinating. And I think people do struggle to find some meaning and religion informs that for a lot of folks. It just doesn't do it for me because it just seems that it gets in the way of so much good that could be done.
NNAMDIYou're an African-American. As the book points out, you come from the most religious community, or most religious racial community in the United States. How does that affect you relationship with family and friends?
SUSANWell, it really doesn't.
NNAMDIIt really doesn't because, I mean, you know, I'm also divorced. My ex-husband became Catholic and is a very strong practicing Catholic. I can't really discuss religion with him. He thinks I'm just way out there because I don't care if gay people get married. I think that we only need the one rule, which is the golden rule, and he just thinks I'm just a left-wing liberal, I suppose.
SUSANBut it doesn't seem to really impact my family. I have a pretty international family.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Bob Putnam...
SUSANSure. Thank you for the program.
NNAMDIBob Putnam, we don't have much time left, but could you talk about the decline of the religious middle in this country? How does that correspond to what seems to be a decline of the political middle and the growth of partisan politics?
PUTNAMThat's a -- that's a really good -- very good question, Kojo, and I -- and I will answer it. And I also want to make another point that we -- that sort of got lost a little earlier in the broadcast.
NNAMDIYou got about a minute and a half.
PUTNAMI'm aware of that. I do think -- you can tell, and your listeners can tell, I'm actually pretty optimistic about the role of religion in American life. I think basically we have strong religious views and diverse religious views, but actually, we all know that and we're pretty comfortable with it. And as in Susan's case, in our families and in our friendship circles, they're very diverse and we're not a religiously actually very divided country when you get down to personal relations.
PUTNAMI'm much more concerned about political polarization in America. I actually -- if this were a program on political polarization, I'd be deeply pessimistic because I'm a political scientist by profession. I'm supposed to know about this stuff. But I just can't even see how we're going to get out of this mess that we've gotten ourselves into, in which you can no longer have an adult conversation with people who disagree with you politically.
PUTNAMIt's very disturbing. And sadly, I don't have a -- there's not an optimistic end to that part of my story. I want to go back to the issue of why church people are more religiously -- more better citizens and better neighbors, more likely to, you know, volunteer and help old ladies across the street and so on.
PUTNAMI said that that was not due to theology, and that's true. It turns out, when you poke and probe at that, it's entirely due to having close friendships in your religious congregation, whatever that congregation is. Well, it's the -- what we call in shorthand, church friends. Church friends are really important. The more church friends you have, the nicer you are. And if you have holding constant the number of church friends you have, theology doesn't make any difference.
PUTNAMSo you -- an atheist who has church friends -- you might think how could that possibly be. But imagine somebody who went to a lot of church suppers with their spouse. They're not very religious. Their spouse is, and they end up knowing people at church. Statistically speaking, they look just as, quote, "nice," just as neighborly as the most religious person.
PUTNAMAnd conversely, someone who sits alone in the pews and is deep -- prays deeply, deeply devout, believes in God and so on, but has no church friends, they don't look any more neighborly than the most secular person. It's about the church friends. And it's not just that the church friends are friends, church friends are supercharged friends. They make a bigger impact on your reach into the community, your generosity, your good neighborliness.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's about all the time we have. Bob Putnam, thank you so much for joining us.
PUTNAMGreat pleasure, Kojo. Thanks for your hospitality.
NNAMDIRobert Putnam is the Malkin professor of public policy at Harvard University and co-author with David Campbell of the book, "American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us." "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Brendan Sweeney, Tara Boyle, Michael Martinez, and Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, with help from Saraja Barrackton (sp?), Beet Ramaez (sp?), Kathy Goldgeier and Elizabeth Weinstein. Diane Vogel is the managing producer.
NNAMDIThe engineer today, Rebecca Berlin. Dorie Anisman has been on the phones. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
Kojo talks with author Briana Thomas about her book “Black Broadway In Washington D.C.,” and the District’s rich Black history.
Poet, essayist and editor Kevin Young is the second director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. He joins Kojo to talk about his vision for the museum and how it can help us make sense of this moment in history.
Ms. Woodruff joins us to talk about her successful career in broadcasting, how the field of journalism has changed over the decades and why she chose to make D.C. home.