Robert Putnam Assays Religious Tolerance From a Unique Angle

By Jane Eisner

Published November 10, 2010, issue of November 19, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Robert D. Putnam is one of those Harvard University professors respected for his scholarly research and celebrated for the masterful way he connects it to the narrative of modern life. When he wrote that Americans were “bowling alone” — and therefore no longer building up “social capital,” the trust, informal networks and energetic communities necessary for a healthy, engaged democracy — his indictment of civic life in a book with that catchy title drew the attention of White House policymakers and influenced a generation of political scientists.

A Dual Perspective: Putnam’s background as a Jewish convert affected his outlook as he wrote his new book.
A Dual Perspective: Putnam’s background as a Jewish convert affected his outlook as he wrote his new book.

So the October publication of his latest book, “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us,” was greeted with much anticipation, and it does not disappoint. Crunching decades of data, Putnam and co-author David E. Campbell went searching for the roots of interfaith tolerance and found that even though religious practice in America trends toward polarization, it is tempered by an acceptance based on familiarity. Knowing someone of another faith — and increasingly, Americans do — makes us more tolerant of those who hold that faith.

To emphasize the point, the authors offer their own polyglot stories in the book’s introduction. Campbell is a Mormon, the child of a Mormon mother (who was born a Catholic) and a Protestant father, who eventually converted to Mormonism. Putnam was raised as an observant Methodist, but upon marrying his wife nearly 50 years ago he became a Jew.

A Jew? Robert Putnam, who looks like he could have stepped off the Mayflower, who can trace his ancestors back to the witch trials in Old Salem, who has always seemed the epitome of the Harvard academic WASP, is Jewish?

“Yes, and I am personally responsible for a minyan!” he said with a flourish, during a rare, free moment from the incessant touring and interviewing that comes with publishing a book these days. It seems that though he and his wife raised their two children as Jews, both children married non-Jews, but one of those spouses converted, and all six grandchildren are being raised as Jews, even though their grandfather resembles a Pilgrim.

“I didn’t set out to write this book because I’m a converted Jew,” Putnam hastened to add during a telephone interview with the Forward. (Although Jews do emerge on top of the religious popularity contest. More on that later.)

“I want the book to stand as a piece of scholarship, and for people to react to what it says, not who wrote it,” he said. “But I have thought a lot about how the book speaks to Jews, and my own conversion made me more aware of the trends.”

The Chosen: Authors Robert Putnam and David Campbell conclude that Jews are the most popular religious group.
The Chosen: Authors Robert Putnam and David Campbell conclude that Jews are the most popular religious group.

These trends include fluidity, as roughly one-third of Americans have switched religions at some point in their lives; intermarriage, as up to half of all American marriages are between people of different faiths; polarization, as Americans are concentrating on either end of the religious spectrum — highly devout or avowedly secular — and the moderate religious middle is shrinking. And yet, almost paradoxically, Putnam and Campbell found in their research a high degree of tolerance for people of another faith, and for those who have no faith at all.

Why? The authors argue that the answer is what they call the Aunt Susan Principle: “We all have an Aunt Susan in our lives, the sort of person who epitomizes what it means to be a saint, but whose religious background is different from our own…. [Y]ou know that Aunt Susan is destined for heaven. And if she is going to heaven, what does that say about other people who share her religion or lack of religion? Maybe they can go to heaven too.”

There are limits to this tolerance. Putnam and Campbell found that three religious groups were noted for their unpopularity: Mormons, Buddhists and Muslims. The antipathy toward Mormons and, especially, Muslims may be due to their negative public images, but it’s hard to say the same for Buddhists. Instead, this unpopularity may be traced to the fact that these three groups stand outside the Judeo-Christian framework as unknown, alien, and therefore not subject to the Aunt Susan Principle and the benefits of familiarity.

Using the same measurement tools, Putnam and Campbell conclude that Jews are the most popular religious group, a finding that, no doubt, will be greeted by some Jews with surprise and skepticism. In fact, that was the reaction Putnam received when he spoke about this at his Reform synagogue, Temple Isaiah in Lexington, Mass.: “People said: ‘You’re wrong! They do hate us!’ and I said, ‘Best I can tell, they don’t!’”

This finding is confirmed by other research — including a 2009 study by the Anti-Defamation League that found anti-Semitism in America to be at a historic low. Putnam said this finding also resonated with his own experience. Because his first 20 years were lived as a Methodist, because he doesn’t, well, look Jewish, “it’s more likely to have people say anti-Semitic things in my presence than in yours,” he said.

He certainly heard casual, socially accepted anti-Semitism from people of his parents’ generation, but he also witnessed firsthand the national trend of its diminishment after World War II. “The generations that came of age after 1946 were less exposed to this,” he said. “Political correctness actually worked. This change is a real change.”

Besides challenging a certain aspect of “Jewish identity as victim,” this finding may prompt another way to look at intermarriage. Putnam acknowledged that his family is hardly typical — starting out with one Jew (his wife) and ending up with 10. But, he added, “some say Jews always lose when there is intermarriage. Maybe that is a function of outdated data. If Jews are seen as quite an attractive group, that may lessen the case that Jews will lose.”

Contact Jane Eisner at

Find us on Facebook!
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.