Robert D. Putnam: America's grace

In his classic book, “Bowling Alone,” Robert D. Putnam chronicled the decline of social capital in the U.S. In his new book, “American Grace,” he examines religious institutions and Americans’ tolerance for religious diversity.

Religion in America is innovative, flexible, diverse and remarkably tolerant, according to the new book “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us” by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell.

The authors examine extensive data about American faith and explain a number of trends, including the rise of the “young nones” -- people who are not part of organized religion -- the combination of diversity and tolerance, increasing polarization and the “Aunt Susan phenomenon.”

Putnam, author of the best-selling book “Bowling Alone,” is the Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University and former dean of the Kennedy School of Government.

He spoke with Faith & Leadership about religious trends in America. The following is an edited transcript of the interview.

Q: Tell me about your writing about social capital in “Bowling Alone” and how that got you to the book “American Grace.” 

The core idea of social capital is simply that social networks have value. “Bowling Alone” was an effort to examine the trends in social capital and the trends in social attractions in America over the last half-century.

It turned out that for most of the 20th century, social capital was rising in America. In the period since the late ’60s/early ’70s, virtually all forms of social connection began to decline -- not only Rotary Clubs but also spending time with your family. Having family dinners, for example, began to decline, and bowling in leagues began to decline. People were bowling more, but they were not bowling in leagues. They were bowling alone or maybe with small groups of friends.

As a rough rule of thumb, about half of all social capital in America is religious. If you add up all the bowling leagues and Rotary Clubs and Boy Scouts and garden clubs and so on and put them in one pile and then you add up all the prayer groups and Bible study groups and congregations and so on and put them in a different pile, those two piles are about equally high.

So how we’re doing on religion makes a good deal of difference for social capital in America. I don’t mean how saintlike we are, but to what extent we connect with other people in our various communities of faith. That’s probably the most important reason why we decided to do this research on changes in religion in American life.

Q: What’s your outlook about American society in “Bowling Alone”?

In “Bowling Alone” we were recounting the fact that many forms of social capital, many of which had been created roughly 100 years ago at the turn of the 20th century were disintegrating. The next-to-last chapter of “Bowling Alone” pointed out how similar the periods at the end of the 20th century and the end of the 19th century were.

There were a lot of parallels, but one of them was that older forms of social capital at the end of the 19th century were mostly in disarray. As we moved from a rural to an urban population, the older forms of connections, quilting bees and barn raisings and so on, didn’t cut it on the Lower East Side of New York. So there was a similar period of declining social capital at the end of the 19th century.

Then, in about 20 years, we basically fixed the problem by inventing a whole lot of new ways of connecting: the YMCAs and the Boy Scouts and the 4-H. It’s hard to name a major form of social capital in American life today -- even though they’re mostly now declining -- that were not invented in about 20 years at the turn of the 20th century in response to this problem, much like the problem we have today.

In “Bowling Alone” I said -- and I continue to believe -- that we would go through another period in which people invented new ways of connecting.

I don’t mean that I predicted the Internet, but in some respects social network sites and so on could be seen as a contemporary equivalent to the invention of these organizations. Today, you know, it’s hard to think of anybody having to invent the Red Cross or Kiwanis. They seem like they’ve been around forever, but all those were inventions -- mostly by young people -- trying to replace the quilting bees and barn raisings and things that didn’t work anymore as social connections.

Q: Do you address those issues in “American Grace”?

Religion is a slightly different case, actually. I don’t want to make it sound like “American Grace” is simply the sequel to “Bowling Alone” with attention to religion. There are different issues that are raised in “American Grace.”

We talk about many of the ways in which religion divides Americans. We also address the rise of what we and other social scientists call the “young nones.” These are the young people who just in the last 10 or 15 years have been moving sharply away from religion.

One of the surprises to us, to me personally, as we were doing the research was to discover that even in the midst of the culture wars and the greater polarization, we’ve actually become more connected personally with people across faith lines, including the line between faith and no faith.

In personal terms we’re pretty remarkably tolerant. We’re a very tolerant people even though most places in the world that are as religious as we are and as divided as we are aren’t tolerant at all.

Q: You talked about the nones -- I think you said that the nones now are larger, percentagewise, than mainline Protestants.

I don’t think that the fact of that increase is a surprise to most people. I think understanding when and why it happens may be more of a surprise to people.

The first thing you have to understand is that it’s unlike the long-term secularization in Europe. That is a process that has been occurring for 100 years. It has gone on so steadily and so long that it has a big effect.

The American phenomenon is actually very different from that. It is less than 20 years old, and it has risen very sharply. If you look at the graph, it looks like a hockey stick.

The fraction of Americans who disclaimed religious identity until 1990 had been essentially flat for a very long time -- as long as we have records, actually. It was flat at about 5 or 7 percent.

But then, especially among young people, that has grown very rapidly since 1990. I think there’s a misunderstanding by all sides that it’s somehow to do with atheism. But it actually isn’t to do with atheism hardly at all. Most of these young nones say they believe in God. Most of them were raised in a religious home, and indeed most of them went to Sunday school or religious education of some sort. These are not people who have no exposure to religion, and they’re not people who reject the whole idea of religion. Many of them say that religion is important to them personally. A significant number of them even attend church occasionally.

But they reject the existing menu of organized religious alternatives in America. Most of the explanation for the rise -- and this is another misunderstanding -- by far the largest single cause, is that these are young people who are moderate to liberal.

The most distinguishing characteristic predicting which young people become nones and which don’t is their view on homosexuality. Because this is the generation, going back to about 1990, that has become substantially more open-minded about homosexual people. This very sharp generational change in attitudes toward homosexuality among young people coincided with a sharp move to the right on the issue among the most visible religious leaders.

Obviously, not all religious leaders or not all religious organizations, not all denominations or whatever, have made a big deal out of homosexuality. But the most visible religious leadership was zigging to the right just exactly as these young people were zagging to the left.

Many of them -- actually, I think most of them -- say they pray fairly often. So they’re not hostile to what you might call religious sentiment, but they certainly are hostile to organized religion.

Q: So they’ve rejected not religion but religious institutions.

Yes. I would say that they’ve rejected the existing array of religious institutions.

Some will actually come back to religion, because in general as people get married and have kids and settle down, there’s a modest increase in their religious affiliations. That’s always been true, and I’m sure it will be true for these people.

But these people are beginning at a level of disdain for and rejection of organized religion that is way higher than in any previous generation. So even if some of them move back toward religion, it won’t begin to change the trajectory away from religion, because it just can’t. The life-cycle effects as people get settled down and so on aren’t nearly as great as this huge increase from about 5 to 7 percent up to about 30 percent now, 25 to 30 percent.

Still, unlike the trends in Europe, we don’t think that it’s at all inevitable that this youthful rejection of religion will continue. Actually, [co-author] David Campbell and I are very impressed with the degree to which American religion has been adaptable and innovative over the centuries. That’s what is almost unique about American religion compared to religion in other parts of the world where there’s a lot of continuity.

Historically, we’ve invented a lot of new religions, and we’ve certainly invented new ways of doing religion, and I personally think that’s pretty likely to happen here. I think it’s likely that as religious leaders see the consequence of having gotten so close to politics, they’ll change. And for the religions that don’t change, the ones that stay really involved in politics, I think the handwriting is on the wall, frankly.

I would bet that 20 years from now, this period of a close entanglement between conservative politics and religion will be seen as a kind of a passing phase of American religion, and one which was in the long run quite harmful to religion.

I can’t say that I know what’s going to happen, and I do not know exactly which brand of religion -- that is, which denomination or whatever -- will take this lead, but what I’m mainly saying is I’m disassociating myself from any view that this rise of secularism among young people is an ineluctable, inevitable long-term trend.

Q: What do you think of the likelihood of attracting those nones back to the mainline church?

That’s a very good question. I understand the importance of the question, of course, and also, of course, I am not a church-growth adviser.

Remember, we’re talking about a third of all young Americans who are basically unaffiliated with any religion at all, and, as I say, somebody is going to reach that group.

I do think that avoiding conservative politics is crucial for that audience. I don’t think that you necessarily have to be a flaming liberal as a denomination to reach this group, but I think probably you have to make clear that you’re in the religion business and not in the politics business, because that’s why they were turned off -- by the confusion of religion and politics.

I want to be careful about using marketing metaphors here, because I know we’re about things that are fundamentally deeper than marketing. But there is maybe an analogy here that is relevant from marketing, and that is brand identification.

Most of the existing mainline or liberal Protestant churches’ brands were forged in the Reformation, roughly speaking. No matter how able and how farsighted and creative and so on Sears is, if you’re the Sears executive, it’s hard to become Wal-Mart overnight, because people associate Sears with other things than they do Wal-Mart.

I don’t want to say it’s impossible, but I do want to say it’s a complicated task to reposition a denomination or a religion that’s been around for a long time.

Q: To what degree is it the organization or the institution that is the carrier of the social capital? I was intrigued by the notion that the religious are better citizens but it’s not the theology but the network that makes them that way.

We were shocked to discover that. Specifically, we find that people who are active in religious communities are systematically more generous, better neighbors. They’re more likely to work on community projects. They’re more likely to give to secular causes as well as religious causes. They’re much more likely to volunteer for secular causes as well as religious causes. They’re more likely to give blood. They’re more likely to let a stranger cut in front of them in line.

They’re better neighbors and they’re better citizens. But it turns out that -- and we were shocked at what I’m about to say -- that virtually none of that seems to have anything to do with the context of people’s theology.

That is, it isn’t how strongly people believe in God. How strongly you say you assert your belief in God actually isn’t that related to these good deeds, and it doesn’t depend on whether you believe in justification by faith or justification by deeds. That’s irrelevant to this finding. It doesn’t even depend upon whether you say that you’re a religious person.

What it does depend on is how many friends you have in church and how closely integrated you are in your community of faith -- that is, in your congregation. It has nothing to do with denomination. If you’re connected with your faith community, if you go to church suppers, it doesn’t matter what church that is. It doesn’t even matter that it be Christian. I mean, Jews or anybody else, the Mormons or whatever, that are deep and have a lot of social ties, community ties to their congregation are just as likely to be good neighbors.

In fact, even if you don’t believe in God at all, and you’re not all that religious, but you go to a lot of church suppers, say, because your spouse is religious, you’re just as good a neighbor as somebody who is deeply religious and goes to church.

Conversely, if you are unbelievably deeply religious, you pray every day, five times a day, and you say that religion is the most important thing in your life, but you sit alone in the pews and pray alone and don’t have friends in church, then you’re, statistically speaking, not any better a neighbor than a secular person is.

So it’s a pretty strong relationship. It’s not so much faith as communities of faith that seem to make people nicer.

It’s the church friends somehow. When I say “church,” I don’t just mean Christian churches, but the friends in your congregation. They seem to be like supercharged friends. The more friends you have like that in your religious congregation, the more generous you are, the more likely you are to volunteer, the more likely you are to help old ladies across the street and so on, and we actually can see in our data -- because we interviewed people twice -- we can see that when somebody gets a new friend in church, they become nicer. Conversely, if they stop being so involved in their community of faith, they stop being so nice.

Q: I wonder if a theologian might say that community is part of the Christian theology, so maybe they wouldn’t make a distinction in that way, the way a social scientist would.

Well, it’s clearly true that there’s something about religious friends, as I said, that is supercharged. They’re different from other kinds of friends. The friends that you have in your bowling league or the friends that you have at work are nice and they’re helpful to you and make you a little bit nicer, but they don’t have the same oomph that religious friends do.

So in that sense, yes, at some level it must have something to do with religion, but it doesn’t have to do with the individual theological beliefs of individual people. It doesn’t matter whether you believe in an angry God or a loving God. It doesn’t much matter how strongly you believe in God at all. It doesn’t matter whether you feel God’s presence every day or you don’t feel God’s presence every day. So in that sense, these subjective, attitudinal or ideational measures of religion don’t seem to explain the good citizenship finding.

Q: That’s fascinating.

We’re trying to figure out what it is about religious groups that make them so special, and there are many different hypotheses.

Maybe it’s because the people in your religious community are people you share very emotional moments with. You share birth and death and marriage and confirmation or bar mitzvah or something, so maybe it’s the emotional connections you have with people in your congregation.

Or maybe it’s because the people in your congregation are people that you find it hard to say no to. If somebody you know from the gym says, “Bob, would you like to contribute to a charity?” it may be just easier to do that.

Maybe it’s because you get prestige in any given group you’re in depending on what the content of the group is. So if you’re a bowler, the most prestigious person in the bowling league is the one who bowls the highest score, but maybe the person who gets prestige in a religious group, in a prayer group or whatever, is the nicest person, the one who is the most notably generous and outgoing and so on. So maybe it’s a kind of a competitive emulation in a way. I don’t mean this is in anybody’s mind, but maybe implicitly that’s what’s going on.

The short answer is, I do not know what it is about religious groups that make the difference. Something does, and it seems that that something is probably not embodied in the beliefs of the individual worshippers.

Q: I suppose a social scientist doesn’t have any way to test or measure what the religious person might say, which is that it’s the work of God.

That’s exactly right. It could very well be the work of God. I’m not a theologian, and it’s not my task to figure out whether it is or is not the work of God. I’m just trying to figure out, how is it done?

Q: What the mechanism is.


Q: I didn’t want to end without asking you about “Aunt Susan.”

The first thing is that Americans are remarkably tolerant across religious lines. Even the most religious Americans say that a person without religious faith can nevertheless be a good American, and conversely, even the most secular Americans mostly say that the effect of religion on American life is positive and not negative.

If you listen to talk radio or you watch cable news, you’d think that all Americans either believe that religion is hogwash or believe that it’s only my religion -- my way or the highway.

There are some Americans like that. About 7 percent of Americans say that there’s very little truth in any religion, and about 11 percent of Americans say that there’s one true religion. But more than 80 percent of Americans say there is basic truth in many religions. If you ask people, “Can a good person not of your faith go to heaven or be saved?” the overwhelming majority of Americans -- even the most religious Americans -- say yes.

When we first got that answer, we thought maybe it was, for example, Baptists who were saying, “Well, occasionally a Methodist can sneak in.” So we asked everybody who said that a good person not of their faith can go to heaven, “Are you sure? Do you mean that non-Christians can go to heaven?” Again, the majority, an overwhelming majority of all Christians, say yes. Even a majority of evangelical Protestants say a good non-Christian can go to heaven.

Now, in some sense, that’s the wrong answer. I mean, Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” [But we found that] most evangelicals and mainliners and Catholics and so on disagree with that -- or at least they say, when we ask them, that a good person who is not of their faith, even a non-Christian, can get to heaven.

So the question is, how did that happen? We think that a large part of the explanation is that over the last half-century there has been a huge increase in personal ties across religious lines.

Most new marriages now cross religious lines. The wedding between Chelsea Clinton and her new Jewish husband is now completely normal. I assure you that a half-century ago, it was anything but normal.

But now, about a third of us are in a different religion from our own parents, from the religion we were raised in, and that doesn’t count, say, a Methodist becoming a Lutheran. If you count those kinds of changes, then it’s about 45 percent of all Americans have changed their religious affiliation. So about a third of us are in a different religion from our own parents or from our own kids.

When you ask the average American -- we asked people about their five closest, most intimate friends, their go-to friends, the ones that they would go to if they discovered they had cancer or their marriage was falling apart or whatever -- for the average American, half of their most intimate, personal friends are in a different faith tradition.

So you add that all up, and it means that almost all of us love somebody in a different faith tradition. “Aunt Susan” was the name we used for this: “Aunt Susan is a great person. I really like her. Unfortunately, she’s Jewish and I’m Catholic or she’s Catholic and I’m Baptist or she’s Baptist and I’m Mormon or whatever, and I know that my faith says, ‘Poor Aunt Susan. She’s a nice person, but she’s not going to make it to heaven, because she prays at the wrong altar.’

“But on the other hand, I know Aunt Susan. I mean, Aunt Susan is just made for heaven. If anyone is going to get to heaven, it’s Aunt Susan. She’s a wonderful, saintly human being.”

So all of us are caught in our daily lives between what we say on Sunday and Aunt Susan. Aunt Susan almost always wins those contests.

The places in America where there is some residual religious intolerance, such as with respect to Mormons or Muslims or Buddhists, it’s mostly that very few of us have a Muslim Aunt Susan or a Buddhist Aunt Susan or a Mormon Aunt Susan.

The proof of that is that there is actually one group in America, one group of very deeply devout evangelical Protestants, very Bible-believing Protestants, who nevertheless have a pretty tolerant attitude towards Muslims, and that happens to be African-Americans.

Black Christians are pretty tolerant towards Muslims. Way more than white Christians. Why is that? Because of black Muslims in America. Lots of black people have a Muslim Aunt Susan.

Nowadays our personal ties are so interfaith that it’s hard to be intolerant. That’s what we call “America’s grace.” America’s grace is that we’re able to be both deeply devout and deeply divided in religious terms and nevertheless tolerant.