Religion in American Politics

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country we bring you the unmissable quotes from political conversations on WNYC. On today's Brian Lehrer Show, Robert Putnam and David Campbell co-authors of American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, talked about the high level of religiosity in American society.

They say new surveys commissioned for the book found the United States is both unusually religious and unusually religiously tolerant — with some exceptions. (The conversation touched on some themes we discussed in a conversation Friday about Religion and the Right.)

Putnam is a professor of public policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Campbell is an associate professor of political science and a research fellow with the Institute for Educational Initiatives at the University of Notre Dame.

Looking at religion in the past 50 years, Putnam says the book's survey found two major trends.

America's become much more polarized in religious terms. That is, more of us are either very relgious or not religious at all...not only are we more at extremes in terms of religion, but our politics are more connected with religion than they used to be. It used to be there was no correlation whether you went to church or services and what your views were. There used to be lots of progressive Democrats in the pews on Sunday and lots of unchurched conservatives and now both of those categories have more or less disappeared. 

That would have been a recipe for intense division, Putnam says, but a third trend has brought the country closer together.

Over the same period we've developed more intense personal ties across these various religious boundaries. Intermarriage has gone up a lot over these 50 years. More than half of all the marriages in America today cross faith lines....About a third of all Americans are no longer in the relgion that their parents were, that they started in, and that means a large chunk of Americans are in a different faith tradition from their parents or from their own kids. There's a lot of mixing and matching. And over half of our closest, most intimate personal friends are from some other relgion, so it's hard to demonize. It's become ever harder to demonize people in another faith because we know them. We know examples of them personally.

The interplay between religion and politics is a two way street, Campbell says.

You might think that people would shift their politics to match their religion. That's what we thought when we went into this project. But it turns out that it often goes the other way. People will often shift their religion as a function of their poliitcs. And so what they means is we have a lot of people who are themselves quite liberal or maybe even only moderate politically, but when they look out at the religious landscape and see religion is tied up with conservative politics, they say whoa, if that's what religion is, that's not for me.

While Jews and Catholics are — by and large — no longer the subjects of religious bigotry, Muslims and Buddhists are deeply distrusted by many Americans, Campbell says. That simply shows that the notion of "other" has shifted, he says. 

Putnam and Campbell say the most striking finding in their research is that far from being divided, secular Americans and their religious counterparts have plenty in common — and are not as hostile to each other as is often portrayed.  

Listen to the entire conversation on The Brian Lehrer Show.