How religion impacts the U.S.

Author: Gene Stowe

October 5, 2010

The positive and negative effects religion has had on American society is the focus of a new book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, by Notre Dame political scientist David Campbell and Robert Putnam of Harvard University. Putnam, who was Campbell’s doctoral adviser at Harvard, also is the author of the widely acclaimed 2000 book Bowling Alone, about the collapse and revival of community in America.

“The new book, not a sequel, examines the link between religion and partisan politics and also covers a host of other themes, some of which run counter to the political division brought about by religion,” says Campbell, the John Cardinal O’Hara, CSC, associate professor of political science.

Since the 9/11 attacks revealed the motivating power of religion, calling for examination of such questions as fervor and tolerance, interest in the societal effects of religion has intensified, not only in the United States but around the world.

Campbell and Putnam surveyed thousands of people nationally on their civic life and religious beliefs and behavior, repeating the survey with the same people a year later.

The United States is by far the most religious among developed countries. The nation maintains a level of tolerance for different religions, but that acceptance is sometimes masked by the so-called “culture war.”

Campbell and Putnam discovered, for example, that one-third to one-half of U.S. marriages are interfaith, one-third of Americans have switched religious traditions during their life, and even fervent evangelicals believe that people of other religions can go to heaven.

“All of that produces a lot of interpersonal connections,” Campbell says. “Knowing people well in a different religion, it’s difficult to believe somebody who believes differently than you is a bad person if it’s a cousin or spouse or child or best friend.

“As you as a person become acquainted with people of different religions, you become warmer toward not just people of those religions but also you become warmer toward people of other religions. This is not to say, however, that religious tensions are a thing of the past,” Campbell adds.

“For example, Mitt Romney faced opposition to his Mormonism when running for the presidency, and the recent controversy over the mosque near the site of the Twin Towers reminds us that Muslims are an especially unpopular religious group in the United States. But our research suggests that without America’s religious mixing-and-matching, these tensions would be even greater.”

The research gives evidence for the “contact hypothesis” intuition, he says, adding that the researchers hope to return to participants for a third interview to see how further life experiences have affected their views.

The book also identifies a shift in religion’s role on political identification. In the past, voters tended to identify denominationally — consider the across-the-board Catholic support for John Kennedy in 1960. Today, the more devout of different faiths tend to vote with each other and differently from the less devout of their own religion — as John Kerry discovered in 2004.

“It’s no longer denominations that define the character of our politics. It’s the level of devotion,” says Campbell, pointing out that Catholic Pat Buchanan rallied evangelical Republicans to the culture war in 1992.

But trends on the only two central social issues that consistently link faith-motivated voters — abortion and gay rights, especially gay marriage — are moving in opposite directions, which suggests a coming shift in the political-religious landscape.

Younger people are far more open to gay rights than previous generations. However, even though they are more secular, they are more likely than their parents to oppose abortion. The divergence could loosen their ties to the Republican Party, which previously gained adherents as a result of its stand on such social issues.

Campbell, who is the founding director of ND’s Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy, says that in previous generations religion’s impact on society was largely from the left, inspiring the abolition of slavery, Progressive Era reforms and the Civil Rights Movement, among other things.