Overhyping American Religious Diversity

Our friend Lexington is pleased and puzzled by a new book on American religiosity which argues that despite great diversity, religion is a unifying force in America:

[I]t is pleasing to report that two social scientists, Robert Putnam of Harvard University and David Campbell of the University of Notre Dame, have just written a book that examines a powerful source of American unity. Perhaps unexpectedly, the unifying force they focus on is religion.

America’s religiosity has been extensively documented and should surprise no one. More than eight out of ten Americans say they belong to a religion.

What is a surprise—or should be, when you think about it in the way Messrs Putnam and Campbell have—is that religion in America is not more divisive. They argue in “American Grace” (Simon & Schuster) that religion gives Americans a sort of “civic glue, uniting rather than dividing”.

The unifying impact of religion would not be so puzzling in a country where people were pious but where there was only one dominant religion—Catholic Poland, say. Americans, by contrast, hold intense religious beliefs but belong to many different faiths and denominations. That should in theory produce an explosive combination. So why doesn’t it?

The easy and right answer is this: there is not much religious diversity in the United States.  The vast majority of religious Americans profess a form of Christian faith.  Different denominational preferences within a single faith tradition do not amount to different “religions,” however one defines the term.

Christianity and its closely related cousin, nationalism, are indeed powerful unifying forces in America.  There is no need to posit an “Aunt Susan effect” as an explanation for something (i.e., “American religious diversity”) that does not exist.

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