Religion may take different scenarios as church looks at gays

By Ronald E. Keener

Taking the conservative position may not lose members to the church, but recruiting younger members could be harder.

Sociologist Robert Putnam is well known for the defining work a few years back called Bowling Alone and later, Better Together. Now he and David Campbell have produced a study on religion in America, producing statistics and trends that may not entirely please the evangelical community. In American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (Simon & Schuster, 2011), Putnam and Campbell point to a strength in the American character — it’s the word grace in the book’s title. “The web of interlocking personal relationships among Americans of many different religions,” Putnam says in response to questions on the book from Church Executive.

Because the book is 600 pages long and expansive in its purview of American faith, we asked him to focus on what is becoming a pressing concern that divides — rather than unites — American religious bodies, and that’s the concern for same-sex marriage and gay pastors.

Putnam is the Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University and is currently undertaking research on the challenges of building community in an increasingly diverse society. Campbell is the John Cardinal O’Hara, C.S.C. Associate Professor of Political Science at Harvard.

Here are Putnam’s responses to our questions

You have said that “sex and family issues of abortion and gay marriage are the glue that holds the coalition of the religious together.” In what way is this true?

These are the two issues on which more-religious and less-religious Americans have the greatest disagreement. On most other issues — including foreign policy, the role of government in the economy, and terrorism — more- and less-religious voters have only minor differences of opinion. And our data show that on the death penalty and immigration, more- and less-religious voters do not differ at all.

“These two sex and family issues may be on their way to losing their political potency,” you write. Other than the recent court decision on Prop 8, what is the evidence this is happening?

Over the last 20 years, polling consistently shows that Americans have become increasingly accepting of homosexuals, and of gay marriage in particular. The approval of gay marriage is especially pronounced among young people. And while religious young people are more likely to oppose gay marriage than their secular counterparts, those same religious young people express more approval of it than equally religious members of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. To quote American Grace: “[T]he most religious post-boomer is as likely to support gay marriage as the least religious pre-boomer.” (“Post-boomer refers to people born between 1966 and 1990, and “pre-boomer” means those born before 1946.)

This is not to say that gay marriage is wildly popular. It is not, as shown by the repeated victories at the polls for initiatives to ban it, and also by the fact that people who oppose gay marriage feel the issue is more important than those who favor it. But the intergenerational trend is toward greater acceptance of homosexuality and gay marriage.

So what is the impact of society on churches which maintain a more traditional view of homosexual nuptials? Are they being pushed to the margins of religious acceptance as time goes on?

There are two scenarios, either of which could play out. One possibility is that attitudes on homosexuality will resemble those on women’s rights. After the battle over the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, opposition to which often had religious roots, both more- and less-religious Americans became accepting of non-traditional roles for women, such as working outside the home. Within most churches today, this is rarely an issue.

Another possibility, however, is that there will be further divergence between those churches which maintain a traditional perspective on homosexuality, and those that endorse gay rights. Obviously, this has already begun. However, it is important to stress that more- and less-religious people differ on issues related to homosexuality. So while the trend is toward greater acceptance of homosexuality among everyone (including but not limited to gay marriage), there is still a division between the most- and least-religious. Accordingly, in the short-to-medium term we would not expect religious institutions that take a conservative position on homosexuality to suffer an exodus of members, though they may find it harder to recruit younger members.

Churches teach about not “going the way of the world,” but is there a price to be paid in the courts, in society, in culture for holding firm to the traditional view of marriage?

We suggest that one reason conservative religion (particularly evangelicalism) grew in the 1970s and 1980s was in reaction to what we call the “shock” of the Sixties. Many Americans were unsettled by the changing mores that came in the Sixties and were attracted to the “certain trumpet” found within theologically-conservative churches. So that was a case for religion benefitting from holding firm to a traditional perspective (in this case, less on homosexuality specifically and more on sexuality more generally).

The caution, however, is that many Americans, especially young Americans, are put off by what they perceive as the intertwining of religion and politics. To the extent that religion is associated with a partisan agenda, young people are likely to stay away from religion.

As an observer of the American cultural scene over the years, what has been the role of religion in holding society together, and what is the danger to the American society from culture in coming decades? Should we be fearful or understanding?

While many of the above questions have focused on homosexuality, an issue that divides Americans along religious lines, we would emphasize that the subtitle of our book is “how religion divides and unites us.” We deliberately put “unites” second in order to emphasize that, far from being exclusively divisive, religion also serves to bring Americans together. That is true in terms of Americans’ “civil religion” — at times of national ceremony, invocations of God are common (from both sides of the political spectrum). But it is also true among individual Americans. Most Americans are very comfortable with people of other religions.

The reason, we posit, is that Americans have personal friendship networks that are chock-full of people who worship differently than they do — or do not have a religion at all. That is the “American grace” of our title — the web of interlocking personal relationships among Americans of many different religions.

You note that “abortion is inextricably bound up with moral traditionalism across the board, and has become a potent symbol for a morally traditionalist worldview.” Twenty or more years from now, how do you see this issue working out in society and worldviews?

One trend we highlight in the book is a shift in attitudes on abortion, especially among young people. Unlike gay marriage, where young people are markedly more liberal than their parents’ generations, the “Millennials” are actually more reluctant to endorse abortion rights than their parents. It would be an overstatement to say that young people are fervently pro-life, as they are (in general) willing to accept abortion in cases such as rape, incest, or when the mother’s life is endangered, but they are less willing than their parents’ generation to endorse abortion in other cases (for what are sometimes called social or economic reasons).

This is a fascinating development, because we would actually expect young people to be staunchly pro-choice on abortion, given that they are the most secular group in the population. In other words, their ambivalence toward abortion is not because they are more religious than their parents.

Any other views or outcomes you think the data and experience shows for the strengthening or the weakening of American society?

We also stress that even though the news media trumpet examples of inter-religious controversy in the U.S., for the most part Americans are accepting of people of other faiths. There are certainly tensions — Muslims, Buddhists, and Mormons are three groups that are viewed negatively — but these are also groups with which most Americans have little personal experience. However, our data suggest that as the U.S. becomes more religiously diverse, we can actually expect less, not more, religious tension.

Friendships and even marriages increasingly cross religious boundaries. More than half of all Americans are now, like Chelsea Clinton and her new husband, married to someone from a different faith tradition,  including no religion at all.  As our personal networks become more religiously diverse, we become more accepting of all religions, not just the faiths of our friends.  That is why, almost uniquely in the world, America has managed to combine religious fervor, religious diversity, and religious tolerance.


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