The Shifting Experience of Self   /   Spring 2011   /    Interview

An Interview with Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell

Richard Madsen

How religion unites and divides us.

Richard Madsen: Your new book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, is going to be an indispensable reference for anyone who wants to talk seriously about American religion in years to come. Would you summarize some of the main findings in the book, the things that really surprised you?

Robert D. Putnam: Religion is, of course, a very big part of American life, and in many respects, the book shows that religion makes an important contribution to American democracy. But religion taken in high doses, as you can tell by just looking around the world, is often toxic to democratic comity, so we wanted to know whether and how Americans were able to combine three things that are not typically found together. Americans are religiously devout and religiously diverse but also religiously tolerant.

We found a very high level of tolerance and open-mindedness across religious lines. Americans overwhelmingly believe that people of other religions can go to heaven, and that doesn’t mean just Methodists saying that a few Lutherans are going to make it into heaven. Large numbers, the majority even, of evangelical Protestants say that non-Christians can go to heaven if they’re a good person.

If you looked at the headlines about culture wars, you’d think that most Americans were in one of two extreme categories: They believe there’s very little or no truth in any religion—that amounts to about 6 percent or 7 percent of Americans. Or they believe that one religion is true, namely theirs, and other religions are not true—that’s only about 12 percent of Americans. The overwhelming majority of Americans are actually in the middle, saying there are basic truths in many religions. I was quite shocked that even very religious people say an American without religious faith can nevertheless be a good American. There’s a lot of tolerance across various denominational lines and even across the line between being religious and not being religious. We tried to understand this by exploring the growth of interpersonal connections in families and among friends that cross religious lines, and I think we showed reasonable evidence that this is probably a causal relationship: that making friends with someone who is in a different faith tradition actually does encourage you to be more tolerant across religious lines.

I think both of us would want to emphasize, especially in this venue, that we build on a lot of work that has been done over the last several decades by a lot of other scholars, so to some extent, we are restating and providing new evidence in favor of some generalizations that other folks have made.

To read the full article online, please login to your account or subscribe to our digital edition ($25 yearly). Prefer print? Order back issues or subscribe to our print edition ($30 yearly).