The future of religion in America
Americans have become more polarized religiously over the past 50 years, but that may not continue into the future.
This story was originally covered by PRI's The Takeaway. For more, listen to the audio above.
The United States of America is a very religious country. The average American, in fact, is more religious than the average Iranian, according to political scientist Robert Putnam. In his latest book, "American Grace: How Religion United and Divides Us," Putnam explored, "how we are able to get some of the benefits that religion brings to democracy without the violent downsides."
Over the past 50 years, Americans have become more polarized both religiously and politically, according to Putnam's research. "It used to be that there was no connection between how often you went to church or other religious services, and your political vote." That's no longer true. He says, "There's become a tighter and tighter bond between how religious we are... and our politics."
"America's religious communities contribute in important ways to our democracy," Putnam stresses. At the same time, "taken in high doses, religion can be toxic for civic life," Putnam says.
The United States is a unique position among many countries of being religiously devout, diverse and surprisingly religiously tolerant. According to Putnam's research, there has been a quiet undercurrent over the past 50 years where important interactions with people across religious boundaries have increased.
"Intermarriage across religious lines is much more common than it was 50 years ago," according to Putnam's research. Fully half of all marriages in America today cross traditional religious boundaries. People are also far more likely to change religions today than they were 50 years ago.
Many people cheered as religion became more public an divisive over the last half century. "People on the religious right are delighted that at last they're able to bring their personal faith into the public sphere," Putnam points out. "But lots of people, especially lots of young people, were really turned off by the development in the 70s and 80s of this merger between religion and politics."
At this point, many of those young people are turning away from organized religions. Historically, about 5 percent of people identified as having no religion at all. "Among young people, that figure is now 30 percent," according to Putnam's research. "It's a huge increase."
Many of those young people say they believe in god, they simply don't belong to an organized religion. And, since the "habits you form early tend to stick with you," Putnam says, "That rapid increase in the number of young Americans who are dissatisfied with religion portends a drop in American religiosity over the years ahead."
According to Putnam, a growing number of young people today are saying, "Look, if religion is just about conservative politics and homophobia and so on, I'm out of here. That's not for me."
"The Takeaway" is a national morning news program, delivering the news and analysis you need to catch up, start your day, and prepare for what's ahead. The show is a co-production of WNYC and PRI, in editorial collaboration with the BBC, The New York Times Radio, and WGBH. More at thetakeaway.org