Winter 2011

Bowling With God

– Kevin M. Schultz

If we've become more religiously polarized, how have we also become more tolerant?

Harvard’s Robert D. Putnam is probably the most famous sociologist in America, especially since 2000, when he published Bowling Alone, a landmark book about Americans’ increasing disconnection since the 1950s from family, friends, neighbors, and community institutions. In the decade since Bowling Alone came out, Putnam has turned his gaze on religion, and now, with Notre Dame political scientist David E. Campbell, he has produced American Grace, an expansive survey of religion in American life during the past half-century.

It’s a good book, though not as revealing or provocative as Bowling Alone. Putnam and Campbell’s thesis, supported by numerous surveys, including two they conducted themselves, is that since 1950 the American religious landscape has become simultaneously more polarized and more tolerant. While 72 percent of Americans today think “America is divided along religious lines,” a “whopping 89 percent” (including 83 percent of evangelical Protestants) nevertheless believe that heaven is not reserved solely for those who share their faith, a finding that suggests tolerance absent just a generation ago.

How has this come to pass? Regarding polarization, Putnam and Campbell propose a three-phase theory. First, the widespread liberalization of sexual mores during the 1960s pushed some people away from the pews. But this initial “earthquake” led to a more important “aftershock”: the Religious Right. Those who came of age from the 1970s to the 90s provided the bulk of this evangelical movement’s membership (currently about a third of the population), animated not by frustrations with Great Society liberalism or changing gender roles, but mostly by the liberalization of sexual attitudes. When sexual issues became political, evangelicals mobilized. They initially tacked toward Jimmy Carter, the first self-proclaimed born-again president, but once the Democratic Party came out in support of abortion rights in 1980 and the Republicans in opposition, evangelicals aligned with the GOP.

For those who came of age in the 1990s, the likes of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell were a massive turnoff. That generation became “nones,” proclaiming no religious affiliation, and they became Democrats. This was a second “aftershock,” and its effects are still evident. Nones currently constitute about 17 percent of the population, and, among twentysomethings, they outnumber evangelicals better than 1.5 to one. (The authors do not, however, predict widespread secularization anytime soon.)

If we've become more religiously polarized, how have we also become more tolerant? Putnam and Campbell argue that America’s religious marketplace—nearly one-third of Americans at some point change faiths—has created a churning environment in which relatives and friends are likely to be of other faiths. We all have an Aunt Susan who is the most delightful person we know—certainly meritorious of heaven—but who is not of our faith. (The authors call this the “Aunt Susan Principle.”) A Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor, confronted with data showing that more than four-fifths of his denomination don’t believe that one’s faith is the only avenue to heaven, remarked that he and his fellow pastors had “failed.” But while most clergy side with that pastor, most parishioners are quite happily tolerant. This is the American grace of the book’s title.

Those familiar with the scholarship on religion in America will find these conclusions unsurprising. The rise of the nones, the fact that churches that make stringent demands gain followers at the expense of those that don’t, and the “browning” of American Catholicism as whites depart the faith in droves and Latinos join it are also well-established trends. And one can quibble with some of the authors’ analysis. They paint the 1950s as a time when religious divisions were muted (they weren't), creating an artificially placid baseline against which to measure events in the years since. The authors also sometimes identify a change over time by comparing surveys that are just one year apart.

But what makes this book a joy to read is the statistical data Putnam and Campbell have collected. Mormons express appreciation for everyone, for instance, while almost everyone dislikes Mormons. Jews are the most loved religious group in America. Half of all married Americans have spouses of a different faith. American religious observance has decreased since the 1950s—fairly significantly since the early 1990s. Adherence to biblical literalism has diminished too. Meanwhile, the intensity of people’s religiosity is predictive of their views on only two political issues, abortion and gay marriage.

Intriguingly, on these two issues Putnam and Campbell find the nation growing less polarized. On the one hand, Americans are increasingly comfortable with gay rights, as greater numbers of people realize they have a gay friend or colleague. On the other hand, members of the generation that came of age in the 1990s, influenced by the widespread availability of contraception (and perhaps ultrasound imaging), are more reluctant to support unregulated abortion. It is feasible that these transformations will take the sting out of the country’s religious polarization, which would likely provoke another realignment of American religion.

* * *

Kevin M. Schultz, an assistant professor of history and Catholic studies at the University of Illinois, Chicago, is the author of the forthcoming book Tri-Faith America: How Postwar Catholics and Jews Held America to its Protestant Promise.

Reviewed: "American Grace: How Religious Divides and Unites Us" by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, Simon & Schuster, 2010. 

Photo Credit: "Rosary". CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.