Robert Putnam: How the religious/secular divide polarizes America

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In the mostly peaceful decade of the consumerist 1950s, 60 percent of Americans attended religious services weekly. But in 1966, a Time magazine cover story asked, "Is God Dead?"

By then, a religious and political earthquake had split the nation in half. Americans questioned their government's authority by repeatedly protesting the Vietnam War and sexual norms changed rapidly, said Robert D. Putnam, co-author of "American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us."

The aftershocks reverberate today, the Harvard University public policy professor told an audience of nearly 250 people during a speech Saturday night at Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill.

"America has become more polarized because some people are quite religious and others are quite secular. [President Barack] Obama got the secular vote. [Mitt] Romney got the religious vote," Mr. Putnam said.

This cultural schism is rooted in the volatile 1960s, when "church attendance fell about 10 percent" and 90 percent of baby boomers believed premarital sex was OK while "90 percent of their parents did not," said the 71-year-old author, who has published a dozen books.

As a student at Swarthmore College in Eastern Pennsylvania, he saw firsthand the rapid change in sexual mores. Initially, men could visit women on Sundays from 2 to 3 p.m. in dormitories as long as the room door remained open and three feet stayed on the floor. Two years later, all those rules disappeared, leaving an entire generation of American men wishing they had been born a few years later, Mr. Putnam joked.

Young Americans who felt liberated by the sexual revolution moved away from organized religion and became more secular. Another segment of people viewed these changes as "the collapse of fundamental norms of American society. They were appalled by the 1960s," Mr. Putnam said.

Gradually, the latter group espoused family values and became evangelical Christians, fueling the rise of the religious right. His findings are based on a survey that covered the beliefs and religious practices of 3,000 Americans in 2006. The same group was surveyed again in 2007 and 2011.

A major finding is that, "We've become more diverse and divided," he said.

Americans are weary of politicians injecting religion into public discourse and clergy who discuss politics in the pulpit. During the 1970s and 1980s, when politicians began appealing to evangelicals, particularly Republicans, 18- to 29-year-old Americans who had no religious preference at all tuned them out.

Between 1973 and 2008, there was an "ominous rise in the number of young people who became alienated from organized religion." Mr. Putnam calls this group "nones" because when they were asked to identify with a religion, they said they are "nothing in particular." About 20 percent of Americans fall into this category.

To young "nones," Mr. Putnam said, "being religious meant being homophobic and Republican. They said, 'That's not me. I'm out of here.' "

That backlash will have aftershocks because now, 35 percent of young Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 have no religious affiliation.

He had good news, too.

Despite the polarized political arena, Americans' tolerance of other religions has increased.

"In our private lives we made connections across religious lines. Intermarriage and mixing has created tolerance. Most evangelical Protestants love someone who is not an evangelical Protestant," said Mr. Putnam.

He was brought up as an observant Methodist but converted to Judaism after marrying his wife, Rosemary. He knows more Mormons because his co-author, David E. Campbell from Notre Dame University, is from that faith.

Jews, he added, "have benefited a lot from this mingling and mixing" because they are now seen as "smart, rich and funny. So what's not to like?"

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Marylynne Pitz: or 412-263-1648.


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