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Sunday Reflections

Some thoughts on how religion unites and divides us.

By Rev. Dai Morgan

At this time last year, I attended a lecture and panel discussion hosted by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette at the Heinz History Center. It was advertised as a Town Meeting on Religion in the Public Square. The featured speaker was political scientist David E. Campbell, co-author with Robert Putnam of the book “American Grace: How Religion Unites and Divides Us.”

Dr. Campbell’s book was the focus of the town meeting. It is a sociological study exploring the changing American religious landscape. The subtitle of the book, “How Religion Unites and Divides Us,” provides a pretty direct summation of the content. Campbell, a University of Notre Dame professor, observed near the beginning of his talk, “Most people probably think of religion in America as more of a divider than a uniter.”

He continued, “But, there are some ways in which we are united by religion, or at the very least, united in spite of our religious differences …. The United States actually presents a very unusual environment for religion in that it simultaneously combines three things. First of all, Americans are religiously devout. We are also a country that is religiously diverse. Yet, in spite of those two things, we are also a country that is religiously tolerant. Now, the third of those three is the one that often causes audiences to sit back and say, ‘What? Americans are religiously tolerant?’”

To repeat, Campbell makes three claims: 1) Americans are religiously devout. 2) America is a country of religious diversity. 3) Americans are religiously tolerant.

During his talk Campbell defended his assertions using several charts, reflecting his research—the book itself consists of nearly 600 pages with over 100 charts. He observed, “Americans are accepting of those who are of other faiths, which is remarkable, given that so many Americans are themselves quite serious about their own religion.

Campbell supported the first point by observing that the United States scores at the top of the industrialized world in statistical measurements of religiosity. The second point, religious diversity, is self evident. His conclusion on the third point, religious tolerance, comes from survey data—mostly gathered from a research project called the Faith Matters Survey, conducted in 2006 and 2007, involving 3,000 Americans.

In explaining the last point, this high level of religious tolerance, Campbell used the term “the Aunt Susan Effect.” Aunt Susan is that relative of yours who is the sweetest, kindest, nicest person you know. However, Aunt Susan belongs to another religious tradition. Your religion teaches, theologically, that she’s not supposed to be able to go to heaven. But, you know that if there’s anybody destined for heaven, it’s Aunt Susan. Consequently, Campbell said, “When faced with the choice between Aunt Susan and their theology, most Americans choose Aunt Susan.”

Familiarity and personal contact lead to tolerance and, in a manner of speaking, unity. However, Campbell returned to the other side of his book’s subtitle, how religion can also divide. According to Campbell, though not all religious traditions are equally popular to Americans, the dividing does not result so much as disagreement among religious traditions, but rather, because of issues arising between religion and politics.

In regard to religion alone, Campbell explained, “When asked whether one religion is true and others are not, or whether there are basic truths in many religions, Americans are comfortable saying that there’s truth in other religions.”

It is the connection of political ideology with religion where the problem lies. In light of the intense political season in which we find ourselves, it is worth noting one of Campbell’s observations.

For decades only about 6 percent of the American population claimed to have no religion. Then, starting in the late 1980s, this number began to increase. At present, the figure is at about 17 percent. Campbell refers to those who say they have no religion as the “Nones.”

Campbell stated, “We have good reason to believe that the growth of the Nones is a direct reaction to the intermingling of religion and politics in the United States.” At the same time that the statistics on those who claimed no religion began to increase, there began a tendency in America to associate Christian faith with conservative politics, especially Republican politics.

Today, there are people who will claim that the conservative Republican platform represents the Christian viewpoint. For many American evangelical Protestants, being a Republican is an act of religious faith. This association began developing about 25 years ago. The problem is that this attempt to intermingle a specific political perspective with religion has also alienated much of the American population.

This alienation is especially prevalent among those presently in their 20s and 30s—a group which, generally, is not conservative and, according to polls, tends toward a liberal viewpoint on hot issues such as abortion and homosexuality. They form a large segment of the Nones. For their entire lifetimes, this age group has associated conservative politics with a given religious perspective. In eschewing religion, the Nones are, perhaps, rejecting a political point of view. 

“So, what does that all mean?” asked Campbell. “It means that we have, now, a polarized religious environment in the United States.” Which reflects our polarized political environment?

The subject of the book “American Grace: How Religion Unites and Divides Us” is intriguing. I was pleased to be able to see and hear David E. Campbell at the Post-Gazette’s town meeting, last year. However, for someone actively involved in the practice and conduct of a living faith tradition, the approach felt clinical, coming from outside. Nevertheless, I think that this study reveals what comes from mixing partisan politics with religion. It also implies that religion in America, on its own, is not a source of great contention.

The Rev. Dai Morgan is pastor of Living Spirit Ministry-Swissvale United Methodist Church.

Do you agree with Dr. Campbell's assertions? Let us know in the comment section.

Bob Dove September 16, 2012 at 11:58 PM
One of your points was recently brought home to me in a personal way. A friend from New Zealand, who I've known for over 10 years, told me that he always assumed I was a Republican because of my devout faith as a Christian. He assumed that most Christians were Republican. I told him that I felt that being Christian almost assured that I was a Democrat, because the Democrats were more concerned about the welfare of all citizens rather than that of a few (rather simplistic on my part, but you get my point). He learned something new about me that day, but I also learned something new about him; that as a non-religious person from another country, his view of Christianity was obviously skewed by the expressions of the religious right in this country.

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