December 17th, 2010
06:00 AM ET
By Richard Greene and Eric Marrapodi, CNN
How can the United States be devout, diverse and tolerant?
David Campbell pondered this question at a lunchtime forum at the Pew Research Center on a blustery Thursday in Washington. How could a country that is more devout than Iran (at least in terms of worship service attendance) get along so well?
Campbell, a professor at Notre Dame, and Robert Putnam, a professor at Harvard, sought to find the answers to those questions through an exhaustive examination for their recent book, "American Grace: How faith Divides and Unites Us."
The authors conducted the Faith Matters survey of 3,000 people in 2006 and then came back to many of them again in 2007 to see how things may have changed. They combined that with snapshots of a dozen distinctly different congregations spread out across the country and just about every recent survey done on religion in America to try to get the fullest picture possible of religion in America.
"The U.S. actually does present a very unusual environment for religion," Campbell said while manning the Power Point presentation solo (his co-author was stuck on a runway in New York).
The fact that America is devout and diverse might lead to the conclusion (that) as a country it would be less tolerant. But their research showed the opposite.
In their book, Putnam and Campbell aim to rise above the recent decades of mistrust and even hostility that have marked relations between religious and nonreligious Americans - and, not coincidentally, the country's political right and left.
Relax, they say. Religion is good for America, and mostly, things are working out fine.
They're not the first to argue that church/state separation combined with an entrepreneurial spirit has produced a decidedly tolerant religious culture in the United States. John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge of The Economist magazine advanced much the same thesis in "God is Back" last year, going so far as to argue that other countries should decouple religious and state institutions in order to get similar results.
But Putnam and Campbell drill much deeper into the data to demonstrate their case, cramming charts, graphs and tables into the massive tome.
Putnam and Campbell argue that several specific factors contribute to what, in the book's closing line, they grandly call "America's Grace."
Campbell said on Thursday it is surprising, but "Americans are quite accepting of people of other faiths, which is a remarkable thing given that so many Americans themselves are not only religious in a nominal sense, that they have a religious affiliation, but they're also quite serious about their religion."
First, as is well documented, the United States is filled with people professing deep religious faith. Even given the rapid recent rise in those who say they have no religion - what students of religion call the "nones" - Americans are far more religious than people in just about any other industrialized country.
And the "nones," Putnam and Campbell remind readers, are not necessarily atheists or agnostics. In fact, most say they are not, and even those who disavow any belief in God know much more about religion than their counterparts in Europe.
Secondly, because Americans change their religion with relative ease, they have friends and even family members of different faiths.
Not quite one in five Americans had converted to a different religion at the beginning of the 20th century, they say - but by the end of the century it was more than one in four.
Marrying people of another faith became so commonly accepted that Gallup stopped polling how people felt about intermarriage in 1982.
In fact, it's partly the willingness of Americans to change religions that led to the alignment between faith and politics that seems such an ironclad fact of American life now. Younger readers may be surprised to find that it's only about a generation old.
Putnam and Campbell found, to their surprise, that when an American's religion and politics don't "match" - an evangelical votes Democratic, or a Republican hails from a family with no religion, for example - they're more likely to change their religion than their politics.
The result of this mixing and mingling is that Americans tend to have pretty positive feelings about people of other religions, the authors argue.
Nearly half of all Americans, for example, report they have never in their lives heard someone make a negative comment about their religion.
Conversely, those religions Americans feel least positively towards - Mormons, Buddhists and Muslims - may suffer at least partly because their communities are relatively insular, with less intermarriage and interfaith friendship, the authors speculate.
The third and final piece of the puzzle is that, by and large, Americans don't think their friends and family are damned if they belong to other religions - or none.
Putnam and Campbell call this the "Aunt Susan principle." In a country with so much religious mixing within families, many Americans have a relative who they are sure is going to heaven, even though they're of a different religion.
"Aunt Susan is that relative we all have. She is the sweetest, kindest, nicest person you know. She's the one who brings the casseroles to people when they're sick. She's the one you call when you're in trouble," Campbell explained at the forum.
"But your Aunt Susan is of another religion, and your religion you know teaches you theologically she's not supposed to go to heaven. But you know if there's anyone who is destined for heaven, it's Aunt Susan," he said.
Even among evangelical Christians, more than half believe that a good person of another faith can go to heaven - although even the most liberal Christian denominations officially say otherwise.
Putnam and Campbell summarize their theory in a not terribly catchy formula: devotion plus diversity, minus damnation, equals comity.
They also argue that religion itself produces many practical benefits for American society.
Religious people are more likely than nonreligious people to do good deeds in 10 out of 15 categories they surveyed, such as donate blood, help someone find a job or allow a stranger to cut in front of them in line. And they're no less likely than nonreligious people to help out in the other five categories, like giving directions to a stranger.
They volunteer more time and donate more money than nonreligious people - both to religious and to secular organizations.
And it doesn't seem to matter what religion they practice, the authors find, or even what they believe.
They found no correlation between what they call "good neighborliness" and belief that the Bible is literally true, for example. What matters is actually going to church and having lots of friends there, they say, concluding that religious networks "supercharge" neighborliness.
Putnam and Campbell are not simply cheerleaders for religion, though.
They find that religious people are less supportive of civil liberties than their nonreligious counterparts.
And religious and nonreligious people do not have positive feelings about one another. Each group tends to see the other as intolerant and selfish, while viewing their own kind as tolerant and selfless.
But overall, Americans see religion as a good influence on national life - and despite the apparent ambivalence of their subtitle, "How Religion Divides and Unites Us" - Putnam and Campbell clearly do, too.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.