Thursday, December 1, 2011

Religion: The Ties that Bind?

The argument that David Campbell and his co-author Robert Putnam make in American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us seems contradictory.  On the one hand, they tell us, we see a sharp split between those for whom religion is a central and often politicized issue and those who have abandoned organized religion entirely, largely because they see it as too closely tied to conservative politics.  That part of the argument fits what seems to be a broader pattern of strong and in many ways uncrossable divides in American culture today.  We see a similar attitude toward politics, I think, as many younger people reject electoral politics because they see it as dysfunctional. On the other hand, they argue that religion unites us -- not because we agree about it.  Rather, they say, even those who remain committed to organized religion interact regularly, often intimately, with people from other religious backgrounds. 

In this sense, religion may parallel what has happened with race.  Racial divisions remain strong, and racism remains deeply embedded in American law and other social institutions (for more on that, come hear Michelle Alexander speak about "the new Jim Crow" on Tuesday evening).  Yet interracial marriage has become widely accepted, increasing numbers of Americans define themselves as mixed race, and many of us live and work in racially integrated communities.  As with race, the continuing significance and diversity of religion has become -- some would say it has always been -- a defining element of American culture. 

I'm not as optimistic as they are about what our interpersonal relationships will mean for religious tolerance in America.  For too many, the certainty that their beliefs are the only right and true way -- and that their views should determine American law and public policy -- remains far too powerful.

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