As I pointed out in a previous post, Robert Putnam has a new book out describing the current status of religion in America, based on a large survey he conducted. I recently heard Putnam give a lecture about his new book. One of his key theses is that America is highly religious, but extremely diverse and tolerant.
Putnam’s survey, like others in the field, reveals that most Americans describe themselves as religious and many go to church regularly. The numbers in America are significantly higher than in other developed countries. This religiosity is spread across a wide diversity of faiths and denominations. Interestingly, although the vast majority claims to be religious, there is a strong polarity in how seriously they take their religion. When asked whether they said grace regularly, sometimes, or never, the responses were 44%, 10% and 46%, respectively. In other words, people either practice hard or not at all, with very little in the middle. This matches the polarization of politics that is tied to religion.
However, unlike the political polarization, in which the two sides seem to hate each other, when it comes to religion America is highly tolerant despite its polarization. When asked whether they had positive views of other faiths, most Americans said yes. The most popular faiths: Judaism, Catholicism and mainline Protestantism. Only 13% of Putnam’s respondents said that their faith was the only path to heaven, and 80% said there was some truth in all religion.
Why such tolerance? Putnam, who thinks like a sociologist despite being a political scientist, provides a social explanation: diversity breeds tolerance. With all the different faiths in America, and more geographic mobility than in the past, we are all more likely to know, and like, someone of a different faith. Putnam supports this with data showing that more people change religions now than ever before, and pointing out that the majority of marriages are now interfaith, at 51%, compared to 25% a century ago. Putnam calls this the “Aunt Susan” phenomenon. We all know someone, perhaps our aunt by marriage, who is of a different faith, but who is totally awesome. How can Aunt Susan not go to heaven just because she is Methodist rather than Catholic?
An additional reason for the tolerance, which Putnam didn’t point out but I will, is that while Americans are broadly religious, they are also somewhat shallow about it. In other words, and despite the data on saying grace mentioned above, many Americans don’t take the teachings of their faith that seriously. For example, not only do 87% of Americans believe people of another faith can go to heaven, but 54% of evangelical Protestants believe that non-Christians can go to heaven. This means that 54% of evangelical Protestants are rejecting (or don’t understand) a basic tenet of their faith. Catholics, at 22% of the country, should alone swamp the 13% figure, but they clearly don’t. In other words, Americans’ willingness to ignore (or ignorance of) some of the key teachings of their faiths allow them to be more tolerant of other faiths.