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New Study: Americans Divided and Tolerant on Religion

A recently published study on religion in America found that the country is becoming increasingly divided between those who are fervently religious on the one hand, and those who are not so religious or even hostile to religion on the other. But at the same time, the study's authors say Americans have never been more tolerant of one another.

Harvard University Professor Robert Putnam is a highly influential academic. In 1995, he published an essay that transformed thinking about civic life in America.

Together with University of Notre Dame Professor David Campbell, Putnam has now published what he describes as an in-depth study of the role of religion in American life in the last half century.

Based on a random sampling of 3,000 people from all faiths and walks of life, they found that a "God gap" has formed. Very religious Americans tend to be Republican and conservative, while more secular people tend to be progressive or vote for the Democratic party.

Putnam says the divide is a very new one in American public life, but only part of the picture. "In our private lives, Americans have been busily building much deeper, closer, personal connections with people across religious lines, including across the line between religious and non-religious," he said.

Why has that happened? Putnam says belief has become fluid. According to the study, roughly one third of all Americans have switched religions, while more than a third of all marriages are between people of different faiths.

"Almost all Americans personally love somebody who is in a different faith tradition - their wife or husband or close friends - and it's hard to demonize religions if you actually know and love people who are in those traditions," he said.

Putnam says virtually all Americans have a relative like the one he hypothetically calls Aunt Susan.

"Your religion tells you that poor Aunt Susan is not going to heaven, because she doesn't pray at the right altar. But on the other hand you know Aunt Susan very well, she's a wonderful human being, she's the salt of the earth," he said. "If anyone in the world is going to go to heaven it's Aunt Susan. She's a marvelous woman!"

Putnam's own family is a good example. Raised as a practicing Methodist, he married a Jewish woman and converted to Judaism around 50 years ago. Meanwhile, his sister married a Catholic and converted, and her children are Evangelical Protestants.

The study found that 80 percent of Americans believe that "there are basic truths in many religions." And 89 percent believe members of faiths other than their own can go to heaven.

Putnam and Campbell consider this kind of tolerance a blessing. That is why the book they published about the study in October is called American Grace - grace being a Christian concept meaning an undeserved gift from God.

Rod Dreher is a conservative columnist who has also experienced changing faiths. After growing up in a Methodist family, he became a Catholic and is now a member of the Eastern Orthodox church.

He disagrees with the optimistic note struck by the authors of American Grace. "I think it's something of an American tragedy that we have become unmoored from religious tradition, where people in this country can choose whatever religious tradition they want, or no tradition at all, and it doesn't seem to matter, that it's all an expression of personal choice," he said.

Dreher points to American Grace's finding that thirty percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 say they have no religious affiliation. That is nearly triple what the same age group said in 1990.

Dreher says he fears the kind of religion now being practiced in America will not withstand what he calls "the currents of modernity."