A preacher, a rabbi, and a bishop walk into a bar…

By Joshua Rothman

Religion is right at the center of American life — in fact, it’s such a huge force that it’s hard to track and analyze. Political scientists Robert Putnam (of Harvard) and David Campbell (of Notre Dame) have done just that, though, in their new book, “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.” In an interview with Richard Madsen, a sociologist, published in The Hedgehog Review, Putnam and Campbell explain what they’ve found: Religious life in America today is more fluid and open than it’s been in decades.

Professor Jeffrey Nunokawa (Ricardo Barros) Professor Jeffrey Nunokawa

In the 1950s, Putnam explains, America was a country with “three mutually tolerant but not connected faiths — Protestant, Catholic, and Jew.” Those faiths were closely tied to ethnicity; boundaries were very strong not only between the faiths, but between their denominations. Americans were likely to inherit their religions, and to pass them on to their children. Today, Putnam and Campbell argue, those differences don’t matter as much. Between one-third and one-half of all marriages are interfaith marriages. More than one-third of Americans switch denominations or even religions, often several times. Many people have diverse social networks, make friends across religious lines, and regard all religions as containing “basic truths.” American religion is less about “hermetically sealed and inherited religious faiths” and more about tolerant choice.

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