Religious Persuasion

At first glance, the authors of “American Grace” would seem to suffer from very bad timing. Between the completion of their manuscript and its publication, the dispute over the Islamic center in Lower Manhattan erupted, followed by the ­Koran-burning controversy, and somewhere along the way a New York cabdriver was stabbed, apparently for being a Muslim. All this gives a quaint air to their declaration, in the book’s first chapter, that “America peacefully combines a high degree of religious devotion with tremendous religious diversity.” And it seems to render moot one of their main goals: to illuminate the source of this inter­faith ­tolerance.

Actually, though, the story told in this book, by the social scientists Robert D. Putnam of Harvard and David E. Campbell of Notre Dame, is urgently relevant to the recent surge in interfaith tension.

True, America’s tradition of peaceful religious coexistence is largely about harmony among Christian denominations, and so doesn’t speak directly to the question of Islam’s place in America. But it’s also true that there was a time when many American Protestants viewed Roman Catholics no more charitably than a certain Pentecostal preacher in Florida views Muslims. In the 19th century, a Massachusetts convent was destroyed by anti-Catholic rioters, and civil unrest in Philadelphia — set off by rumors that Catholics wanted to rid the public schools of Bibles — led to some two dozen deaths and the destruction of two churches.

The question of how this changed, how Protestants came to stress their commonality with Catholics, is, generically speaking, the question of the day: How do mutual fear, hostility and suspicion give way to amity, or at least tolerance? How do supposedly deep doctrinal chasms recede from view? The answers offered by Putnam and Campbell deserve the attention of everyone concerned about America’s future cohesion.

This is a big, multifaceted work, with scores of graphs, as well as narrative ­vignettes that put flesh on the book’s analytical skeleton. (A tour through the Rev. Rick Warren’s Saddleback megachurch, for example, helps explain the power of state-of-the-art evangelism.) The topics covered range from the dynamics of conversion to the role in religion of gender, ethnicity and class to the question of how civically engaged believers are. (Putnam gained fame for his lament, in “Bowling Alone,” about the seeming decline of civic engagement.) But the dominant theme is, as the subtitle puts it, “How Religion Divides and Unites Us.”

Putnam and Campbell pay particular attention to the past half-century, which has shown how fluid fault lines can be. In 1960, the marriage of a Protestant to a Catholic was often unwelcome on both sides of the aisle, and the presidential candidate John F. Kennedy faced intense Protestant skepticism. Today churchgoing Catholics and Protestants often feel as if they’re on the same team.

They tend toward conservatism on social issues, opposing a liberal coalition that includes lapsed Catholics, mainline Protestants of often modest devoutness and growing legions of the avowedly nonreligious. Putnam and Campbell write, “By the 2000s, how religious a person is had become more important as a political dividing line than which denomination he or she belonged to.”

This leads to a puzzle. If the devoutly religious increasingly constitute one big family, why aren’t Muslims a part of it? Why was the would-be 9/11 Koran burner not an atheist but a minister from an evangelical church (if, in fairness to mainstream evangelicals, an eccentric evangelical church)? Why are Newt Gingrich and other politicians who aim to harness fear of Muslims directing their message toward evangelicals with, apparently, some success?

The answer may lie in the final chapter. Here the authors explain the observation they started the book with: America’s religious diversity hasn’t generally involved much intolerance. Indeed, believers seem willing to bend basic doctrines in the name of interfaith amity. Most Christians, even most evangelical Christians, ­believe that non-Christians can go to heaven, notwithstanding the New Testament’s repeated assertions that Christ is the only path to the Kingdom of God.

The authors’ explanation for this bigheartedness is common-sensical: “Most Americans are intimately acquainted with people of other faiths.” Americans have, on average, at least two friends who don’t share their faith, and at least one ­extended-family member who fits that description. And who wants to tell friends or relatives that they’re going to hell — or even believe that a friend or relative is going to hell? More broadly: getting to know an adherent of an otherwise alien faith tends to humanize the aliens.

Obviously, there’s a chicken-and-egg ­issue here. Are we tolerant because of our diverse social networks, or do we have diverse social networks because we’re tolerant? Putnam and Campbell, aware of the problem, wield an analytical tool that, though not dispositive, is unusually subtle. They conducted surveys with the same large pool of people in consecutive years and tracked changes in both social milieus and attitudes. They conclude, for instance, that gaining an evangelical friend leads to a warmer assessment of evangelicals — by seven degrees on a “feeling thermometer,” to be exact — and gaining a non­religious friend brings four degrees of added warmth toward the nonreligious.

In this view, a recipe for being viewed coolly is to be a religious group that is both small and geographically concentrated; that way, most Americans don’t have a chance to meet anyone from your group. This is the authors’ posited explanation for why Buddhists, Mormons and Muslims get particularly low feeling-­thermometer readings.

Of course, Muslims suffer from an additional problem. If most Americans don’t personally know any Muslims, they’ve seen some on TV — Osama bin Laden, for starters. That may help explain why, though 54 percent of evangelicals say non-Christians can go to heaven, only 35 percent say Muslims can.

Even so, the authors’ 2007 survey found that evangelicals, like mainline Protestants, viewed Muslims no more coolly than they viewed Buddhists. But black Protestants viewed Muslims more positively than they did Buddhists, perhaps, the authors point out, because many black Christians are acquainted with black Muslims.

The claim here isn’t that mere social contact is Miracle Glue. Drawing on longstanding social theory, the authors suggest that certain ingredients — sharing a goal, for example — make acquaintance more likely to bring affinity. Still, given that many Muslims are aligned with evangelicals and churchgoing Catholics on various social issues, that particular ingredient would seem to be in place; maybe the contact itself is what’s mainly lacking.

There are two basic schools of thought on religious strife. Essentialists believe that religions have a firm character, grounded in Scripture and theology and doctrine, and that religious conflicts are thus deep-seated and enduring. The more optimistic view is that clashing beliefs aren’t the big problem; underlying the conflict, and driving it, are less ethereal and in some cases more pliable issues: economic grievances or insecurities, resentment of perceived arrogance, fears of domination (like the perceived threat of Western cultural or political hegemony, or of worldwide Shariah).

Putnam and Campbell are closer to the second camp. Repeatedly, they show how fluid religious doctrine and practice are, how responsive to social and political context. In that sense, their subtitle is subtly misleading; this intellectually powerful book suggests that religion per se is often not the thing that actually divides us. This view, though common in academia, is hardly gospel among the public at large. But it may turn out to be gospel in the literal sense of the term: good news.

Robert Wright, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author, most recently, of “The Evolution of God” and the editor in chief of Bloggingheads.tv.

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/10/books/review/Wright-t.html