Dr. Robert Putnam talks about religion in America

12/06/10 Zack Baddorf
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The United States is religiously devout yet also religiously tolerant. That's according to Professor Robert Putnam. He wrote a book on how religion units and divides Americans and he spoke last Thursday about the topic at Forum Truth in Sarasota.

Putnam told about 200 Bay Area residents about the results of research he conducted for his new book, “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.” After surveying 3,000 Americans in 2006 and 2007, he found that since the 1950s, Americans have become much more religiously polarized with more now very religious and more not religious at all.

But he says most Americans are also more tolerant. “And the reason for that is that over these same years when in public we fight more about religious issues, in private we built more and more personal ties that cross our religious boundaries," Putnam said. "So intermarriage for example is way up.”

Putnam, who is the Malcolm Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University, said part of the reason for this is Americans live in less segregated communities than they used to.

“We used to live in a Catholic part of town or a Protestant part of town or in a Catholic region or a Protestant region. We didn’t have friends across faith lines. And we really didn’t know people of other religions. But that’s been transformed as people went to school and get to know and then become attracted in romantic terms and now right now in the year 2010, most marriages are interfaith marriages,” he said.

He said there's much less discrimination among people of different religions.

"We asked people to rank how they felt about all the religions in the country and astonishingly the two most popular religions, not among their own members but among other people, the two most popular religions in America now are Jews and Catholics, which certainly 50 years ago or 100 years ago would not have been the case,” Putnam explained.

The religion with the least support in America is Islam.

Putnam said the average American is “hostile” toward Muslims… but also toward Buddhists. So Putnam believes the hostility toward Islam is not a result of terrorism by Islamist extremists. He says it’s just “strangeness” – a lack of information and familiarity.

“It has to do with the fact that we just don’t know people and the average American is a little standoffish and therefore there are these anti-Muslim incidents for example that are regrettable. They are regrettable and I’m not defending them at all. But I would think in fact that’s a kind of stage that we’re going through with respect to new Islamic Americans hat we used to go through with respected to Jewish Americans or Catholic Americans,” Putnam added.

Putnam said it’s hard to predict what will happen but he’s optimistic that Americans will follow the “adapting and welcoming path” followed in the past.

Donna Palmer attended Putnam’s presentation in Sarasota and said she found his research “fascinating.” The Buffalo, New York, native said religion is unique to each person in America.

“I think it would be a shame if we lost that. Because we aren’t just material, we’re spiritual. And if our spirituality isn’t authentic, it’s really of no use,” she said.

Norman Plotnick from Longboat Key was also at the event. He says Putnam was “right on the money.” Plotnick said Americans should strive to learn more about other people and their religions. He says there are actually little differences between us.

“We are all the same," Plotnick said. "We believe the same. We want the same. We wish the same for our children and our grandchildren. To have a good life, to be able to practice religion in the way that you wish. And if you don’t wish to practice religion, that’s all the more better, if it suits you.”

Putnam echoes this message, saying he’s optimistic about religious tolerance in America.

“Don’t believe the kind of fun house mirror that we get from the media, especially the more sensationalist media, which says No we’re divided into these two shouting groups, shouting at each other. In fact we are all of us a pretty tolerant people. We have different views of course but we’ve learned over the decades to get along so cool it," said Putnam.

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