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. Ian

    No war was ever fought in the name of Wicca. A proud Wiccan Druid.

    December 17, 2010 at 6:30 pm |
    • Cory N

      True that – of course, Wicca hasn't been around that long. 😉

      December 17, 2010 at 7:15 pm |
  2. Mark

    How funny, religious people feel their religious BS is "good" for our country! I religiously disagree!

    December 17, 2010 at 6:22 pm |
  3. Muneef

    Whole Creations and universe are of matter that consists of energy and matter of minerals atoms. Assembled and Disassembled by one word from God Allah.
    So if you want to find God and believe in fairy tales read from the links about number of worlds in one world as visible's and invisibles living in different dimensions of time and waves as in Radio Waves.

    December 17, 2010 at 6:18 pm |
  4. BL

    Organized religion is the single most destructive force in human history. Ironically, religion is the enemy of spirituality. It's all about process, ritual, dogma, rigid belief systems, hierarchy, separation and a list you must fulfill to become "worthy" (someday, in an undetermined future). You must always "do something" to "get some where." The religion expressed in this forum has nothing to do with knowledge of any God, but is about human ego-my God is better than your God. And my God save us from religion!

    December 17, 2010 at 6:13 pm |
    • LouWho

      Support my god . . . or I'll kill you !

      December 17, 2010 at 7:28 pm |
    • NL

      Seriously, what does believing in a god, but not following a religion really mean? You believe God is out there, but you don't do anything about it, or are you saying that you refuse to follow any standard formal religion?

      If so, then aren't you pretty much inventing your own response, beliefs about and form of worship to God? Basically creating your own personal religion? If so, how is that really any better than simply shopping around for a ready-made religion that matches what you believe in already?

      December 18, 2010 at 12:52 am |
  5. DKJ

    Religion is the core of all evil and most wars through out history.
    Religion was invented as a way to control the masses through fear & ignorance, mainly the slaves of old. It is brain washing at its best since it begin at birth.
    All their holy books were written by men instead of some invisable being.
    How ever I don't hold it against my neighbors or family if religion is what they need to survive the cahos of mankind, the most vicious animal on earth.

    December 17, 2010 at 6:13 pm |
    • LiberateUs

      Religion can't hold a sword.
      Religion can't raise a shield.
      Humans can kill. NOT religion

      December 17, 2010 at 7:55 pm |
    • NL

      Are soldiers simply humans who kill, or are they humans who have been taught who to kill and to feel good about that choice being right? Religion can be used in much the same way, right?

      December 18, 2010 at 1:16 am |
  6. Emmett

    I think this is a bad idea, since i like separation of state, since i would like to make my own thoughts about religion since i DO NOT agree with a lot of church says, so why should people that are a different religion be screwed over from the church just for joining the state. since its pretty much proved that evolution exists and the big bang really did happen and saying it didn't because of some thing and the saying its wrong because your religion say different is not an answer. Its like saying 2+2 doesn't equal 4 because of your religion says that i made 2+2 and i say it equals 5. I'm not saying religion is bad im just saying i'd rather have church just stay out of the state since, its going to be a very bad move.

    December 17, 2010 at 6:07 pm |
  7. Mike

    Believing in imaginary beings is for children and those with delusions. Sadly, one certain delusion has become a mass delusion and the rest of us sane people have to deal with that insanity affecting public policy. Think electing a black president is challenging? Try to imagine an atheist running for president.

    December 17, 2010 at 6:04 pm |
  8. JennyTX

    Virgin birth? Really? Come on...

    December 17, 2010 at 6:04 pm |
    • Mike

      Virgin birth, talking snakes, a boat with 2 of EVERY animal, someone turning into salt, burning bush, zombies.....yep, completely rational to believe these things.

      December 17, 2010 at 6:09 pm |
    • Beethovenopus27

      The ignorant will follow anyone and believe anything. Religions learned this 1000's of years ago. Religion is about control, not higher spiritual powers.

      December 17, 2010 at 7:21 pm |
    • GrammarGnatsie

      That's just it, though. God's omnipotence is a catch-all, so really anything claimed in his name cannot be debated with logic, since He has the power to defy logic and reality.

      That's why I say it's almost impossible to debate against religion.

      Inversely, anyone can demand God make a Coke appear in their hand, wait a few seconds, and consider themselves proven right. Thus, Atheism is also almost impossible to debate against.

      The ONLY way for the debate to definitively, and unquestionably, be ended is if God/Jesus blatantly exposes himself to everyone, and proves he is omnipotent, omniscient, everything. Which is unfair, since that means Atheists don't have any chance at all, because you really can't say He doesn't exist just because He doesn't reveal Himself.

      December 17, 2010 at 8:05 pm |
  9. Henry Harris

    We have it backwards. As analysis shows, America is good for religion. Whether religion is good for America is debatable as world-wide violence and ignorance perpetrated in the name of religion continues. Not that science has all the answers, but at least its truths are verifiable. On the other hand, religion, as history shows, is about using all means including murder and torture to suppress the truth, which, of course, makes religious tolerance in America seem so remarkable. The irony is thick here. We're celebrating religion with faint praise like hey, we're not slaughtering each other like has happened in other countries, so isn't religion grand! What we really need to do is pass a law that prohibits the religious indoctrination of children under the age of twelve so they are given a choice in what they believe. Give our children the gift of choice. GIve them Rationality!

    December 17, 2010 at 6:02 pm |
  10. andy

    If you read the Bible, you will find messages as we live today, from the beginning to the end. Its going to happen and you will remember this read, Choice is is all about you.

    December 17, 2010 at 6:00 pm |
  11. Pal

    Do not blame god. God is good. Human do evil things.

    December 17, 2010 at 5:41 pm |
    • Muneef

      Humans are Minirals and each does according to his Miniral some are Rustless like Gold and some take all the Rust like Tin...we are nothing but a matter of energized atoms just as universe and the day of ressuraction means the date we hear the scream and all energy stops erupting all in the most fearful sceneries discribed in the Quran for the bad ones before and after judgment day.

      December 17, 2010 at 6:16 pm |
  12. SusieKJ

    The article states "Nearly half of all Americans, for example, report they have never in their lives heard someone make a negative comment about their religion."
    - That really surprises me. I would be curious to know geographically where those that have never heard a negative comment are. I have not been as fortunate as 50% of the respondents. I've had some horrible and ugly things said to me when some theists have found out I was an atheist.

    December 17, 2010 at 5:36 pm |
    • Jeysa

      Funny, because on any given day you can read the CNN comments section and see horribly ugly comments directed at Theists by Atheists. They usually hold the majority.. huh.

      December 17, 2010 at 5:40 pm |
    • NL

      Would you consider the statement "There is no proof that God exists" a horrible ugly comment? How about "The bible is full of contradictions and mistakes. It is therefore unreliable, and what it says about God or anything else cannot be trusted simply on face value"?

      Apart from the name-calling that flies both ways there are a lot of thoughtful, well-constructed arguments placed forward by atheists regarding certain religious beliefs. It's a free country and we have the right to make these kinds of statements, do we not?

      December 18, 2010 at 1:06 am |
  13. David Davidson

    Religion is a competing power system that is at odds with a democratic structure of governance, one relies on a concrete sense of enlightenment and free will, the other supplants this with an abject morality premised on primordial mysticism and subservience of mind, body and soul to "divine provenience" . It seems as though some individuals conveniently forget about the Dark Ages, The Inquisition, The Crusades, and numerous other conflicts and governments that were"blessed with a divine right". I find it amusing that the word "God" and "Gullible" begin with the same letter..................

    December 17, 2010 at 5:35 pm |
    • Brett

      A lot of works begin with G. Hey, David and dick begin with the same letter too!

      December 17, 2010 at 5:37 pm |
    • David Davidson

      works......you mean words........hey your ignorance is showing...............

      December 17, 2010 at 5:40 pm |
    • Brett

      A typo is a sign of ignorance? Thanks for the chuckle, if that's all you got.

      December 17, 2010 at 5:43 pm |
    • David Davidson

      That, compounded by the fact that rather than taking the time to form a cogent sentence premised academic or even borderline intellectual refutation, you went straight to baseless vulgarities.

      December 17, 2010 at 5:52 pm |
    • LiberateUs

      The Dark Ages was not a war, but a period of barbarian invasions and plague. The Crusades were supposed to push back Muslim invaders from Jerusalem, but MOST of the tragedies were done by the Templars. The Spanish Inquisitions were initiated by a Spanish governor that believed that a group of people were conspiring against him. Thus it was more of a POLITICAL motive than a religious one. I read books about these events rather than internet sources.

      December 17, 2010 at 7:39 pm |
    • GrammarGnatsie

      David Davidson,

      This isn't a Julian Assange article, why are you reading this page? Hopefully you aren't on the EFG bandwagon with everyone else defending a terrorist. Those guys need to understand that he went from a journalist to a terrorist when he threatened to use the Doomsday File if the trial didn't go his way. Supporting journalism is great, but your guys should reconsider supporting Assange himself. The DF threat is textbook terrorism. I'm just hoping my old /b/rothers don't risk any charges for aiding Assange, if he gets officially labeled a terrorist. Take care of each other.


      December 17, 2010 at 7:56 pm |
  14. James

    I fail to see how can Iranians attend less worship services than Americans? Christians don't do "worship service" every morning, every sunset, and every afternoon – like Islam. He probably classified religious service as going to actual church, and even then Islam is far more diligent in that regard as well. The writer's very assertion is flawed straight from the start.

    December 17, 2010 at 5:34 pm |
    • Jessica

      But you can't honestly make that statement saying "probably". You may be right but you should probably look at the research before you ASSUME something.

      December 17, 2010 at 5:36 pm |
  15. 21k

    hey, it's a great business model. make up stuff, and people give you money. and no one can say you are wrong. it could create a LOT of jobs. we'd all end up killing each other in 20 years, but hey, that would create jobs too!

    December 17, 2010 at 5:30 pm |
  16. Jeysa

    God is good. You can hate religion, you can hate people with religion, but no matter what you say about how "evil" religion or religious people may be, God is still good and you can't change that. Ever.

    December 17, 2010 at 5:29 pm |
    • Thomas

      If you can tell me why, i'll agree with you.

      December 17, 2010 at 5:30 pm |
    • Jeysa

      Well, He created you and gave you the right to disagree – and by all secular accounts He loves you just as much as he loves the most devout follower, whether you believe in Him or not.

      December 17, 2010 at 5:32 pm |
    • Thomas

      How do you know he loves you, or I, or anyone?

      December 17, 2010 at 5:35 pm |
    • Jeysa

      I have faith and that's all I need. Why are you so determined that he doesn't? Love is the best thing someone can offer you.. are you that miserable?

      December 17, 2010 at 5:39 pm |
  17. Edward Messenger

    An atheist is obviously moderating all the comments on this story so don't be surprised that most of the comments that are posted are pro-atheist. This article really has NOTHING to do with atheism. It has more to do with toleration towards different cultures, and religion is a primary component to most cultures, groups, in-groups. etc. As such, all the pro-atheist comments on this story just shows the reader how INTOLERANT some choose to be in America today.

    December 17, 2010 at 5:21 pm |
    • James Conroy

      I honestly think most of them didn't bother to read the artic and sprinted down here to tell that rest of us that we're stupid and God doesn't exist.

      December 17, 2010 at 5:31 pm |
  18. KrisR

    The thing that Christians do not seem to realize when they want "God" to be put back into our government, prayer in schools, etc. is whose brand of Christianity are we talking about? Southern Baptists would call for dancing and card playing to be made illegal, Seventh Days would want the blue laws to be enforced on Saturday. And prayer in school? Would it be ok if some muslims unrolled their prayer rugs in the quad? Think about what you are really asking for!

    December 17, 2010 at 5:20 pm |
    • Helen

      Muslims are accomodated in most places when they ask to be.

      December 17, 2010 at 5:28 pm |
    • 21k

      pretty sure the southern baps would also want to see slavery re-introduced. after all, that's what the civil war was really about.

      December 17, 2010 at 5:32 pm |
  19. Religious Sects

    The 1st line got me: "How can the United States be devout, diverse and tolerant?" Tolerant?! How about accepting or caring? Tolerant means you put up with someone but really don't want too.

    December 17, 2010 at 5:14 pm |
  20. Necrosis

    Bruce said:


    If you would stick to reason and not speculation we could have some good dialogue. I never said the word "superior", you did and it takes the thought the wrong way. Please do not make yourself look like the victim here. If you can add to your "reason" vocabulary a new definition for faith you would broaden your reasoning power and religion would be something you could discuss better that just calling people or groups silly names.

    If you think evolution is true and the valid proof is billions & billions of years I would have to say that there is a flaw in your reasoning. Two (2) things forbid my mind to go in the direction of evolution:

    1. Where did the big blob come from before the Big Bang?

    2. There is not even the slightest chance of the right combination out of the 118 elements in the right weight and proportion under the perfect conditions to come together by chance. Evolution is such a thin thread through all of the infinite combinations possibilities that no human can even think it through, much less, some guy that came up with the idea in the 1850. A super computer wouldn't be able to produce the chances much less, a man. (Maybe a woman)

    I will give you credit for the funny example you gave.

    I say:
    1. Well, Bruce, where did your god come from? And, by the way, the theory of evolution and the big bang theory are separate theories. One does not imply the other. Your ignorance is showing here.

    2. You are missing another possibilty, Bruce. Suppose that ALL possible universes exist, each having its own set of physical laws. The important point here is that all possible sets of physical laws are represented by these universes. Thus, this universe and the particular set of characteristics you mentioned, is not special; it's just one of all the possibilities. I find this explanation much more satisfying than yours. Why? Because there is at least some evidence for it. What evidence? This universe itself! If this one can exist, than so can all the other possible ones. Your explanation based on a bearded sky daddy who waved his magic wand and brought this universe into existence has not a single shred of evidence to support it.

    December 17, 2010 at 4:54 pm |
    • Emmett

      Ok, then why is it proved that it did happened, and then where did god come from? But saying some thing from your religion is not an answer to some thing

      December 17, 2010 at 6:10 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
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.