I recently went to hear a lecture by Robert Putnam, a Harvard professor who is best known as the author of Bowling Alone, a book about the decay of civil institutions in America. Putnam has a new book out, called American Grace, about religion in America and its intersection with politics, and his lecture was a summary of that book. The book is based on both historical study and a large survey of US citizens, and has two main theses:
- The mix of religion and politics in America is new and massively polarizing
- American religion is so diverse and tolerant, especially among the younger generation, that the above polarization will likely moderate over time
This post is about Putnam’s first thesis; I will add another post soon summarizing his second thesis.
Putnam started his lecture by describing the rise of the religious right and how this is a new development in America. Of course the founding fathers were – mostly – deeply religious men; that’s how people rolled 250 years ago. But historically you could not correlate a person’s religious belief with their political beliefs. There were devout Christians who were liberal and secularists who were conservative. The Democratic and Republican parties each contained a mix of religious beliefs and commitments.
Things began to change in the 1960’s, with the rise of hippies and free love and drugs and rock & roll (all the stuff my parents dug, man). In reaction to this libertine environment, conservative people moved toward more bedrock values, generally in the form of evangelical Christianity. These people got more serious about their religion and then certain church leaders (eg. Jerry Falwell) saw an opportunity to turn that movement into political power. As the religious right gained power there was something of a backlash, and non-evangelicals moved further toward secularism.
Thus you have significant movement to the poles – the religious right and secularism – without any growth in the center. And now you have, according to Putnam, significant correlation between religion and politics. Putnam says the best way to understand how someone will vote is to ask about their church-going, or vice versa. This plays right into the polarization that we are seeing in modern American politics. Of course, Putnam’s theory of religious trends is not the only explanation for the rise of the religious right and political polarization. There were also geographic, economic and racial trends at work. But religion clearly played a role, and this is Putnam’s bailiwick, so I give his theories some weight.
An interesting side note: Putnam says that according to his research, if a person’s politics and religion don’t match, they are more likely to change their religion than their politics. In other words, conservative people move to more conservative churches and liberals move to more liberal churches or to none at all. Given that religion controls your soul whereas politics affects your pocketbook, this is surprising, but the surveys say what the surveys say. Another, less interesting, side note: the waves of religion and backlashes toward secularism described by Putnam could make for a classic dialectic, with their thesis and antithesis, but there is no synthesis. Instead, the movement trends apart rather than together. This is further proof of my pet theory that Hegel was an idiot.
Here is a photo of someone bowling, possibly alone:
Interesting. I’m going to have to take at look at Putnam’s books.
I was listening to Gary Wills speak the other day and he suggested something else that may have been motivation for the rise of the religious right, along with the others you cite. He says that we are in the last of three major evangelical resurgences (most conservative Christians other than Catholics refer to themselves as evangelical). Each time they began during tense times peaking during war and falling off during more peaceful times. Right now America is suffering through a unique era as, with the current “War on Terror” following on the heels of the Cold War and the Second World War before that, we have been at “war” for nearly 60 years. Hence, there has not been the anticipated falling off of evangelical fervor. I hope Putnam is right about the variety of the younger generation’s religious experience hastening its demise.
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