Religion is good for America, authors argue
December 17th, 2010
06:00 AM ET

Religion is good for America, authors argue

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.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Church and state • Interfaith issues • United States

soundoff (535 Responses)
  1. James

    I won't hire people who are religious, they are just too immoral to trust, plus they are known to be mentally unstable to the point of being dangerous.

    December 17, 2010 at 12:01 pm |
    • John

      Careful, Better check laws against discriminating against the mentally ill. πŸ˜‰

      December 17, 2010 at 12:06 pm |
  2. Sane

    Religion has been a leach on civilization since the begining, it is the oldest of con artist scams which say essentially:

    "Build me a house (church/mosque/temple/synagogue) to live in and give me money (food, gold, etc.) and once a week I will promise you that your miserable life and all that you do to support me (so I don't have to work) will buy you a wonderous after life (something I never have to actually produce for you)".

    December 17, 2010 at 11:56 am |
    • David

      Odd. This suggests that all religious leaders today don't actually believe in their own religion, they are just con-artists trying to scam people. But of a tee limb you're out on there. Granted, a few televangelists probably fit the bill.
      fyi, the pastors I have known have all led very modest, middle-class lives. You generally don't go into that line of career for the income.

      December 17, 2010 at 3:10 pm |
    • Jay

      Sane, you have to be willing to accept apologies when they're given. I'll admit that I've given into my passion and said hateful things a time or two; we all have. The Notre Dame editor resigned, and she and others issued what appear to me to be very sincere apologies. To say the least, this cartoon is not consistent with the Love Others mantra that Jesus preached. So her publication of it doesn't prove that Jesus' teachings were bad, only that they're being implemented by flawed human beings, which we all are.


      December 17, 2010 at 4:03 pm |
  3. LeeCMH

    More likely to let a stranger cut in line? Lest they be a gay, then scream hateful, "you are going straight to hell."

    Jerry Falwell said of people with AIDS, "They should be shot and buried like cattle with anthrax."

    Reverend Phelps sends is religious followers all over the nation protesting funerals because "God hates gays"

    A person was killed during the Anita Bryant, "Save our Children" campaign while the assailants screamed, "here's another one for you Anita."

    Mr. Campbell's employer is Notre Dame. A Catholic school noted for anti-gay hatred. Their campus newspaper published a cartoon last January 2010 that read, 'What’s the easiest way to turn a fruit into a vegetable?' 'No idea.' 'A baseball bat.'

    I've lived 55 years around hateful and violent Christians. Read news accounts of extreme hate and violence Muslims execute against gays.

    Religion is BAD for America!

    December 17, 2010 at 11:52 am |
  4. The_Mick

    One value of religion is that it teaches a code of living that is absent from our relatively undeveloped national culture. We should have an official "American Code of Living" we teach our children that includes helping one another, honesty, responsibility, cooperation with authorities against crime, etc. but there are too many "don't fence me in" yahoos out there to let that happen in today's survival-of-the-fittest America. Religion is the last resort for learning such things. Many non-religious parents go to church, synagogue, mosque, etc. when their children are young to make sure they get those ideas impressed on them.

    December 17, 2010 at 11:52 am |
    • vel

      nonsense. Religon only teaches the "morals" appropriate to that religion. They aren't universal and if one actually does read the holy books of those religons, they advocate hating, and often killing, anyone who doesn't agree with you. Luke 19 is a lovely example of that in the Christian bible. I do agree that a civics course should be taught to children in the US. But definitely not the selective hatreds of the various religions.

      December 17, 2010 at 12:06 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      'We should have an official "American Code of Living" we teach our children that includes helping one another, honesty, responsibility, cooperation with authorities against crime, '
      Why make it an american code? why not a human code?

      December 17, 2010 at 2:50 pm |
  5. Dan

    organized religion is scary, militant atheism which calls for the abolition of religion = worse than organized religion.

    December 17, 2010 at 11:46 am |
    • jesus

      Militant atheism is needed to off balance the cancerous influence of organized religion. One day I hope to hear the President of the USA end his speech NOT with the idiotic God Bless America, but with Have a Good Day Folks or a simple Thank You.

      December 17, 2010 at 11:51 am |
    • John

      I am aware of no militant atheists or militant atheist groups. Where are the guns, the hand grenades, the rocket launchers, the kidnappings to advance the atheist cause? I only know of outspoken, compassionate, reasonable atheists. I would be against violent actions of any militant atheist.

      December 17, 2010 at 12:02 pm |
    • GrammarGnatsie

      Militant anyone calling for anything is bad news.

      December 17, 2010 at 1:56 pm |
  6. adam


    December 17, 2010 at 11:43 am |
  7. Matt

    Organized religion is man-made and is very scary.

    December 17, 2010 at 11:39 am |
  8. JXC

    Religion is for the mentally ill, especially christianity- which contradicts the very commandments it purports to advance. Worshiping a man, crosses of gold, and churches of marble- how so First Commandmenty of you small-minded thumpers.

    Anyhow, as their own book points out- Hell is for christians, and no one else.

    HAPPY HOLIDAYS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    December 17, 2010 at 11:38 am |
    • Believer

      Actually the Old Testament speaks of hell also and so the Jews believe in it, if they know their scriptures. It is very interesting that everyone here is bashing Christianity. That is because they know that they are not going to be put on a hit list for doing it. It is the politically correct thing to do. Also down through the years many Christians have been put to death or punished for their faith and as we see here, ridiculed also. Yes there are phonies in Christianity, but also in other religions as well. I would recommend people read "The Case for Christ" by Lee Strobel a former atheist.

      December 17, 2010 at 2:26 pm |
  9. Vilay

    The most religious states (in the bible belt) are also the poorest of the US. So yes, religion is bad for America.

    December 17, 2010 at 11:37 am |
    • Dan


      December 17, 2010 at 11:38 am |
    • Bill

      That data is available at the US census website.

      Top 10 poorest. All Red, very religious states. Mostly southern and appalachian, which directly coincides with the UG Govmt welfare data.

      42) Montana
      43) Tennessee
      44) Kentucky
      45) Louisiana
      46) Alabama
      47) Oklahoma
      48) Arkansas
      49) West Virginia
      50) Mississippi

      Top ten richest, mostly blue, less religious states.

      1) Maryland
      2) New Jersey
      3) Connecticut
      4) Hawaii
      5) Massachusetts
      6) New Hampshire
      7) Alaska
      8) California
      9) Virginia
      10) Minnesota

      December 17, 2010 at 1:42 pm |
    • David

      "The most religious states (in the bible belt) are also the poorest of the US. So yes, religion is bad for America."

      What apositively unscientific conclusion. In other news, an atheist. killed a store owner during a robbery last week. Therefore, aatheism is bad for America. Also, rains flooded parts of the midwest. Therefore, the sky is bad for America.

      December 17, 2010 at 3:00 pm |
  10. Dan

    Stark & Bainbridge already showed why America thrives in terms of religion back in the 1990s, with their "Market Model Theory of Religion" approach. Everything since then has only confirmed their hypothesis.

    December 17, 2010 at 11:37 am |
  11. wcb2009

    The ten commandments are pretty constructive but religion in general requires blind faith which is never a good thing...

    December 17, 2010 at 11:32 am |
    • thorrsman

      I prefer the Nine Noble Virtues instead. Even militant Atheists could profit by attempting to live by them.

      December 17, 2010 at 9:58 pm |
  12. ryan

    This data seems to state that tolerance and acceptance are good for America, not religion itself. From the article, it states religion teaches that people of other faiths wont go to heaven, and it is IN SPITE of this teaching that people's grace and kindness compels them to believe otherwise.

    America is, therefore, good in spite of religion. Religion teaches intolerance, it teaches that only 1 belief system is right, and it teaches that most humans are destined for eternal torment. In America, it teaches that science is wrong about evolution in spite of overwhelming physical evidence to support evolution. IN SPITE of this teaching, human nature and common sense prevail and people realize that religion is actually wrong about most things, and they do good to each other because of "Aunt Susan", despite what the dusty old holy books "command" them to think.

    December 17, 2010 at 11:31 am |
  13. Brian

    "Comment awaiting moderation" – Repost

    Religion needs to go away for the human race to progress. Throughout history it has been the bane of our existance. Killing, systematic ra.pe of young boys, crusades, witch hunts, tyranny, oppression, etc. Just because religion (at least Catholicism in America) has seemingly turned a corner away from it's horrid past, does not mean we should forget exactly what purpose it served for thousands of years.

    December 17, 2010 at 11:30 am |
  14. Maxfield in Canada

    "Tell a devout Christian that his wife is cheating on him, or that frozen yogurt can make a man invisible, and he is likely to require as much evidence as anyone else, and to be persuaded only to the extent that you give it. Tell him that the book he keeps by his bed was written by an invisible deity who will punish him with fire for eternity if he fails to accept its every incredible claim about the universe, and he seems to require no evidence what so ever."
    β€” Sam Harris

    December 17, 2010 at 11:16 am |
    • Bob

      Not only that, but they'll try to equate their beliefs as a rational conclusion and seek to reduce terms like "evidence" and "proof" to accept personal experience, dream visions and what his buddy down the street said.

      December 17, 2010 at 12:24 pm |
    • NL

      Or what they imagine they see burnt on toast, or on candy it seems according to a new CNN story here.

      Self-fulfilling prophecy where you are told that God will send you a sign that He is actually there, and you are given absolutely liberal parameters for what const.itutes a 'sign' then, inevitability, it's only a matter of time before you will as.sign something as that expected 'sign.'

      December 17, 2010 at 12:52 pm |
  15. Bob

    If there are people in our society that would be on a continuous murder and crime spree if they didn't have the fear of eternal damnation to make them not act that way, I'm happy they have that in their lives. Certainally doesn't make them superior to those that don't need that. Let's just try to not have a new version of the crusades and everything should be fine.

    December 17, 2010 at 11:12 am |
    • AGeek

      Sadly, it's too late for that. I think the term you're looking for is "Islam."

      December 17, 2010 at 11:18 am |
    • Bob

      Newsflash – There are fundamentalist Christians that are every bit as scary as fundamentalist Islamics.

      December 17, 2010 at 12:10 pm |
    • AGeek

      @Bob: absolutely agreed. Fundamental is pretty much a universally bad thing when it comes to religions.

      December 17, 2010 at 1:50 pm |
  16. chuck

    Hypocrite, tolerance? Yes they all belong on a true christian. We all are sinners and fall short. Too many people confuse that with a christian being self righteous. We do sin and it does not have to be what the world see's as a sin. It only has to be in God's eye's because he knows everything about us. So God tells us to love the sinner and hate the sin.
    don't know who the evangelist are that think there are more than one way to heaven, but they are not christian's. I can't judge if they know christ, but nowher in the bible does Christ say there are many ways.

    December 17, 2010 at 11:10 am |
    • John


      The problem with this is that the christians definition of "sin" is based on the almost arbitrary and oftentimes contradictory writings of the bible. The "sins" of the bible represent to me a compilation of some good, some bad, and some just plain wierd ideas of primitive desert nomads. In practice, many christians translate "hate the sin, love the sinner" as "hate the sin and the unrepentent sinner, love the repentent sinner." The christian includes as a moral basis these made up "sins" which have no rational basis for immorality. Then, the christian tries to affect social policy and laws and judges the actions of their fellow humans on the basis of the morals of the bible (well, those cherry picked morals which are not discarded even by christians due to absolute lunacy).

      December 17, 2010 at 11:55 am |
  17. Terry from West Texas

    Religion is not a doctrine, it is an emotion. It is a feeling of transcendence and connectedness that blind evolution programmed into the human race long before it left Africa. Some of us have a strong religious emotion and those people seek out situations where they can experience that really good feeling that religion gives them. Some of us, don't have so much of an inclination toward the religious experience and to those folks, religion is mostly uninteresting. These people may go to church, but the church picnic is much more fun than any religious service or experience.

    If you inherited a strong disposition toward religion, it really doesn't matter WHAT you believe as long as you believe SOMETHING.

    December 17, 2010 at 11:05 am |
    • John

      Religion is an emotion? Religion is a doctrine of prescribed behaviours and beliefs to which one is coerced to adhere through fear tactics and delusion. A "religious experience" may be an emotional response such as you describe which is co-opted by whichever cult of belief happens to hi-jack a person's mind to serve its selfish purposes.

      December 17, 2010 at 11:26 am |
    • GrammarGnatsie

      Religion is not an emotion. It is not inspired by how we are treated from moment to moment. You don't feel Christian when someone says "good job", nor do you feel Jewish when a friend stands you up.

      Also, for the record, as much as I liked "it doesn't matter what you believe", you kinda lost me at "believe SOMETHING". I believe no one has any right to mandate the thoughts and actions of others. There are no orders, only requests and suggestions.

      December 17, 2010 at 1:47 pm |
  18. JoeT

    Religion is good, mostly because it gives a moral framework and set of punishments and rewards for people who otherwise might not behave within ethical bounds. But do please prevent religion from constricting civil rights, researc, and teaching.

    December 17, 2010 at 11:04 am |
    • AGeek

      WHAT?! If you need imaginary punishments and man-made guidelines to be moral and ethical, you're technically a sociopath. Morals and ethics exist just fine outside the framework of any belief system. Otherwise, the human species would have died out long, long ago. I dare say we're far worse off for the inclusion of a belief system. People seem to have no problem being unkind (at a minimum) to those who believe differently... which is neither moral, nor ethical.

      December 17, 2010 at 11:10 am |
    • David

      "If you need imaginary punishments and man-made guidelines to be moral and ethical, you're technically a sociopath."

      Then most people are sociopaths. What do you think would happen to the crime rate if laws didn't exist? Laws and ideologies help to shape and guide people, hopefully for the better.

      December 17, 2010 at 3:05 pm |
  19. AGeek

    "Religion is good for America, and mostly, things are working out fine."

    What the f–k. The authors are blithering idiots who have never notice what the Religious Right and a fair number of Repulicans are doing to this country.

    No, religion is BAD for ANY country. Why? Because too many f–king idiots feel that if your beliefs don't match their beliefs, you're wrong. And they will happily cram their tripe straight down your throat while trying to change public policy to suit their whims .. all without compunction.

    So, yeah. I'm going to sit here, quiet and happy with my beliefs. I won't tell you what they are because they're *mine*. If you try to cram your beliefs down *my* throat, don't be surprised to find your tongue in my hand, via your rectum. Doubly so if I haven't asked you for your view. I've HAD it with you people pushing your sh-t on me.

    December 17, 2010 at 11:04 am |
    • Maxfield in Canada

      Religion of that kind emboldens the people who think, "Me and my buddies, we don't like anyone who ain't just like us". Breeds intolerance.

      December 17, 2010 at 11:12 am |
  20. Andrew

    let the trolls feast!

    December 17, 2010 at 11:02 am |
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About this blog

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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.