Understanding American godliness

The current association (in America) between religiosity and conservative values and politics is an ahistorical one, said Robert Putnam at a lecture he gave Friday, 25 February 2011. Looking through American history, the religious have been more often associated with progressive causes such as American independence and its enshrinement of civil liberties, and the push to abolish slavery. The question then is how did religion today become so identified with conservatism?

Robert Putnam (above) is currently the Li Ka-shing visiting professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, and author (with David E Campbell) of a new book American Grace.

The United States is almost unique among developed nations in the high degree of religious devotion among its population. Putnam further highlights, based on the research (a survey of 3,000) behind the book,  three interesting findings:

1. a high degree of religious diversity;

2. a hollowing out of the religious middle in the last quarter to half century;

3. a high degree of religious tolerance; and

4. religious people are nicer people.

How convincing his case is is uneven. Some of his assertions seem to be true only when viewed through an American lens.

Take the first assertion — religious diversity. This is only true if, as in his research, one considers Catholicism, evangelical Christianity, black Christianity, etc, to be different religions. If one considers them essentially the same religion, then the answer is that the US is still solidly Christian. How the question is framed determines the answer. Any outsider looking at the US will note how alien Islam, Hindusim, Buddhism and Taoism — each a major religion globally with as many adherents as Christianity — is to American culture and social convention.

I shall come back to this later in the discussion below about religious tolerance.

Putnam’s recounting of how the hollowing out of the middle happened, leading to today’s religiously-framed culture wars was much more interesting. He likened the sequence of events to an earthquake and aftershocks.

Up till the 1950s, America was a predominantly religious (i.e. Christian) country with mainline Protestantism chief among the different forms. Bible sales were at a record high. But in the 1960s, the social earthquake occurred. The baby boom generation, then coming of age, rejected the sexual mores of past generations. The new generation believed, for example, that pre-marital sex was acceptable by an 80:20 margin, almost a reversal of the views of the generation before.

The first aftershock began in the late 1960s and 1970s. Those who were uncomfortable with the new morality hardened their own positions. Evangelical churches sprang up during this period and attracted many from the mainline churches. The drift to the extremes began. On the one side, younger Americans continued to move towards liberalism, e.g. on issues of abortion and gay rights, while on the other side, the more strident churches took congregations away from the more moderate ones.

Noticing this trend, Republican politicians began to court voters on the Right, sharpening their conservative rhetoric. They were rewarded by support from those who considered themselves religious. But this gradual identification of religion with politics in turn created the second aftershock, commencing in the mid 1990s. More and more people were so put off by the politicisation of religion, they began to think of themselves as “Nones” — a survey category wherein someone says he does not belong to any organised religion. Putnam explained that these people may still believe in God and salvation but they do not want to be associated with any church.

The growth of Nones is so strong, increasing by 10 percentage points in the last 15 years, that most religions have seen a decline in the number of adherents. Even Evangelicals have seen their numbers drop. The highpoint of Evangelism has passed, said Putnam.

Nevertheless the earthquake and its aftershocks have left their effects: a hollowing out of the middle. Americans now mostly identify with one of the two extremes. Moderate or progressive religion has few adherents.

Yet, religious tolerance is remarkably high, he argued. His survey found that whatever religion Americans belonged to, a large majority of each group considered it totally possible for people of other faiths to be good persons; more specifically, a large majority (something like 60 – 80 percent)  thought it possible for someone of a different faith to “go to heaven”.

“That’s actually the wrong answer!” he pointed out. Most religions teach that unless one subscribed to its teachings, one cannot go to heaven.

(At this point, I was once again underwhelmed. If indeed there was such a question in his survey, I think it is flawed. Some religions do not envisage a heaven; and I suppose many atheists do not subscribe to such an idea either. It’s like asking people whether they think pork is tastier than beef without considering that some people do not eat one or both. One gets the feeling that the research is Abrahamic-biased.)

A related question asked people if they saw those not of their faith positively. From my memory, he presented a graph something like this:

The point of the above, Putnam said, was that the majority of Americans saw those not of their own faith in positive light. What about how Mormons, Buddhists and Muslims are viewed?  It wasn’t that bad, he argued — they still stand in the forties. The chief reason why they were at the bottom was that there were so few of them.

This led to his next point: that religious tolerance is linked to diversity. The typical American has in his circle of friends and family people of different faiths. Knowing these persons and regarding them well changes his view of those other faiths.

One indicator of these connections can be seen in data about marriages. Some 50 percent of recent marriages (i.e. in the last ten years) are between persons of different religious identities. And in about 60 percent of these, the spouses remain separate in their religious affiliation; only in a minority of them does one spouse convert to the religion of the other.

Personally, I think there is more to it than that. The low placement of Mormons, Buddhists and Muslims (I can’t remember if Hindus were included in his graph) and the high placement of Catholics and Jews is probably the result of a complex of factors. The importance of cultural attitudes of sacredness and otherness cannot be so easily dismissed.

It strikes me for example, that the more alien or innovative the religious belief and practice, the harder it is for others to see it positively.  Judaism and Roman Catholicism qualify as traditional or foundational (to the Abrahamics) and it is therefore hard to dismiss people from this group as “bad”. By contrast, Mormonism and Evangelical Christianity are innovative variants; Buddhism and Islam are alien. They are therefore culturally more distant from the core American perception of “goodness”.

It’s very similar to the way mainstream Muslims may accept the relative validity of the Sunni and Shi’a branches, but have a harder time accepting Sufiism and the Ahmadiyah, let alone the validity of non-Islam.

One wonders to what extent the research has been weakened by an absence of a cross-cultural and comparative dimension. It is looking at religion and attitudes with a lens that is blurry at its edges, basically looking at the scene through a Christian perspective unaware of the biases inherent in such a perspective.

For example, midway through the lecture, Putnam asked the audience by a show of hands to indicate how many say grace before a meal. He said that in the US, such a question would be a good surrogate indicator of the Republican/Democrat political split in whichever audience he happened to be speaking to. While he didn’t say that the Singaporean audience could be likewise classified into Republicans and Democrats, nonetheless it was a little shocking that he seemed to be using the same question in Singapore as a measure of religiosity. This was especially when he said something about all religions having a custom of saying grace and how it was a usefully universal practice to base a casual survey upon.

Excuse me? All religions have a custom of saying grace? And this coming from a academic who studies the sociology of religion?

The American bias is simply this: That Christian religious beliefs and customs can be assumed to approximate universal religious beliefs and customs.

* * * * *

There was little time for questions after the lecture. Kishore Mahbubani, who chaired the session, asked the first one which was something to this effect: How does the religious landscape of America impact on American policy towards this part of the world? I thought it was a reasonably good question, pertinent to the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP), of which Robert Putnam was a visiting professor, and certainly pertinent to the audience here.

Putnam’s answer that he was not authority on this, and effectively, he had nothing to say.

It kind of confirmed my disappointment. But this leads to my last point: It is well and fine that Singaporeans should be exposed to knowledge about the wider world, but for the LKYSPP to spend money appointing visiting professors and bringing them in, I think we should give more weight to academics who are able to contribute cross-cultural perspectives, and who are able to analyse and discuss their subject matter in relation to Asia. LKYSPP’s unique proposition must be as a centre of learning about Asian affairs; it does not add a lot of value to be paying for academics who are entirely US-centric.

5 Responses to “Understanding American godliness”

  1. 1 Credible? 27 February 2011 at 13:15

    “This was especially when he said something about all religions having a custom of saying grace and how it was a usefully universal practice to base a casual survey upon.”

    Haha, oops, there goes the professor’s credibility for cross-cultural matters.

  2. 2 missbossy 27 February 2011 at 22:58

    The bias was a Christian one – not an American one. There are plenty of American academics who would not approach this subject through a Christian lens.

  3. 3 Criticalist 1 March 2011 at 00:08

    Putnam’s probably brought in and required to give (a series of) talks, and his visiting professorship is largley because of his ‘academic star celebrity’ status more than any comparative knowledge of the Asia Pacific region. Every discipline has its ‘star celebrities’, and these often come to SG to add credence to the universities here (and of course exposing students to these stars that many have probably read). Unfortunately, I DOUBT there are a lot of comparative researchers who are familiar with Asia and yet can command star status, and this has more to do with academic imperialism – the academic concentrations are largely in the West (think top tiered journals and most cited research) – than their ability to do good research.

    In other words, Putnam is perfectly correct to say that he does not know enough about Asia to compare, because doing so would be conjecture on his part. But it is also a sad sign of academia that a number of top Western academics know very little about the East to make any educated comments.

  4. 4 tk 1 March 2011 at 18:05

    I think the first thing you need to ascertain when critiquing the lecture / book is where were the 3000 people drawn from? New York City alone? A combo of NYC and San Francisco? The flyover states only? A combination of these? Certainly denizens of the coastal cities will have a more religiously diverse (as in different faiths entirely, not just sects of the same faith) circle of acquaintances than people in middle America.

    But statistical quibbles aside, I find his assumptions very strange. Why would he turn a bunch of “Nones” into religious people? Why not call them what they most likely are – Agnostics/Athiests?

    He is right that religious (Christian) people are wrong when they say people (and pets!) of other religions can “go to heaven”. Religious peole often don’t know a lot about their own religions – the recent Pew forum on religion and public life showed that in fact, Athiests know more about the central tenets of most faiths than their own adherents. And this makes sense – the more you enquire into the actual beliefs of a religion, the more ridiculous they seem and the more likely you are to walk away. The less you know about the ridiculousness of what you’re “supposed” to believe, the easier it is to hold those beliefs with no “what the?” cognitive dissonance.

    Dan Dennett has a great article on the Pew Survey here:

    So I think Putnam’s assertion of a hollowing out of the middle of America’s religious populations is true, except at the sensible end people are ending up with no faith, not just a lack of organised religion. The interesting thing to observe is going to be whether the secular moderates influence the future direction of America, or the Evangelical Ken Ham’s of Kentucky get to build more Arc Parks instead.

    • 5 Magi 3 March 2011 at 17:10


      I love your statement on this:

      “Religious peole often don’t know a lot about their own religions – the recent Pew forum on religion and public life showed that in fact, Athiests know more about the central tenets of most faiths than their own adherents. And this makes sense – the more you enquire into the actual beliefs of a religion, the more ridiculous they seem and the more likely you are to walk away. The less you know about the ridiculousness of what you’re “supposed” to believe, the easier it is to hold those beliefs with no “what the?” cognitive dissonance.”

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