Putnam quoted in USA Today: Aunt Susan Trumps Theology

September 28, 2010
By tomsander

Flickr photo by Nick Garrod

The Sunday USA Today Faith & Reason column by Cathy Lynn Grossman highlighted three of the American Grace findings that they found most interesting (from Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s talk to the Religious Newswriters of America), among them:

  • “Aunt Susan trumps theology…She doesn’t win against the Bible for everyone but she’s pretty powerful. Americans may know well the Christian truth claim that Christ is the only way to salvation, but they just can’t picture the next life without people they cared about in this life…””

By this, Putnam and Campbell mean that while worldwide, greater religiosity is typically associated with higher intolerance, the US is distinctive in having high religiosity (according to our surveys, probably as religious as the average Iranian in the Islamic Republic of Iran. But we also have relatively high religious tolerance.  The magical juxtaposition of high religiosity and high tolerance is America’s Grace.  But how do we do it?  America has a much wider array of vibrant religious traditions than most countries.  We are a country of immigrants who typically become more religious upon their landing; the competition among religions for adherents makes all religions hone their game.  But religion used to be far more inherited than it is today; what we believed, what religion we belonged to, and even what congregation we attended was typically the same as our parents.  Over the last half century this has dramatically broken down.  We church shop and congregation shop and we change religions far more often now: about 1/3 of all Americans are in a different religion than they grew up in (if one counts a different religion as the change from Catholic to Judaism for example) and about 1/2 of all Americans are in a different religion than they grew up in (if one also includes religious changes like from Methodist to Presbyterian).  Through this switching, increased intermarriage, and the fact that we are far less likely to cluster in religiously homogeneous neighborhoods, we typically live, work and socialize among Americans of different religions.  And through these channels, we come to have at least one “Aunt Susan” or “pal Al” who we love who is of a different religion (in our jargon, a “bridging” religious tie).  In our Faith Matters data we track Americans over a year’s time and see that Americans who develop such a bridging religious tie actually become more tolerant.  These close ties thus constrain any orthodoxy we hear from the pulpit.  My pastor may tell me, for example, that only people of my faith can attain salvation, but I know “Aunt Susan” and if there is anyone who is going to join me in heaven, it is she.

The fact that Americans believe this has been vexing to religious leaders who feel that Americans just don’t get their sermons.  They react like a geology teacher would if students believed the world was flat.  For example, here are some comments from the Parson’s Ponderings:

It is particularly frustrating that Christians don’t get the fact that God will not “grade on the curve” for their loved one or friend. Just because we love them and see lovable qualities in them doesn’t mean the Father will give them a mulligan on the Gospel at the judgment. They will be judged based on their righteousness, or on the imputed righteousness of Christ. If they don’t have Christ, they will not gain eternal life. That is why it is critical for every Christian to share the Gospel with those he loves. No Gospel, no Heaven….The way this church or any individual Christian can best show love is by showing people the way to Christ. Anything less is simply kind-hearted wishful thinking.

That said, most American Christians respectfully disagree.  Read all about Americans faith in the Aunt Susans of the world in American Grace.

See the full article, “Family, Friends and Politics, Not Theology“.

In other recent news, American Grace was cited as one of the recommended books for the fall by the L.A. Times.


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