Temple Sinai speaker describes religious evolution in U.S.

Temple Sinai speaker describes religious evolution in U.S.

Robert D. Putnam
Robert D. Putnam

A culture change in American society occurred in the 1960s as the decade ushered in an era of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.

Yet perhaps unbeknownst to many who lived through that time, a significant change in the American religious landscape also began, according to Robert D. Putnam.

Putnam, a public policy professor at Harvard University, spoke for more than an hour Saturday, Dec. 1, at Temple Sinai on the question, “How Does Religion Divide and Unite Us?”

Putnam appeared courtesy of the Pamela K. Wiles Fund for Interfaith Understanding at Temple Sinai.

The 71-year-old scholar has authored books on community and civic participation similar to Saturday night’s lecture, including “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community” and “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us,” which he co-authored with David E. Campbell.

According to Putnam, the 1950s was probably the most religious decade in American history because of attendance at religious services and construction of religious sanctuaries, which reached an all-time high during that decade.

But the ’50s gave way to the ’60s, and things began to change — rapidly.

“Attendance at religious services fell remarkably quickly during the decade of the 1960s,” Putnam said.  “It had been about 60 percent in the late 1950s and by the end of the 1960s, just about 10 years later, it had fallen by about 10 percentage points, which may sound like not a lot, but it’s huge.  Nothing like that had occurred in American history.”

While many Americans may have experienced the ’60s as a time of liberation, Putnam said others saw the decade as the collapse of fundamental norms of American society.

“[They] were appalled by the 1960s,” Putnam said.  “And during the 1970s more and more of those people went looking for the part of the religious spectrum that would most articulate their moral values.  Many of them ended up in evangelical churches. Some of them —  but it was a little later — ended up in more Orthodox forms of Judaism.”

This movement is where the evangelical right came from, Putnam said.

“It didn’t begin as a political movement,” he explained.  “It began as a religious and moral movement, but during the course of the 1980s more and more politicians, especially Republican politicians, began to appeal to this group.”

By the ’90s, another group emerged in opposition to the evangelicals. This group, known as the “nones,” rose during the decade.

“Nones” refers to the people who do not associate with any specific religion, but they are not atheists.  “Nones” say they believe in God, will pray and may even attend religious services, but they feel detached from organized religion.

For decades the number of “nones” remained between 5 and 7 percent in America. Today they are approaching 20 percent.  This number is largely concentrated among young people.

Putnam cited two reasons for the rise of the “nones.”  First, they are less committed to joining organizations, including religious congregations and political parties.  Second, they are turned off by certain religions’ political positions and beliefs.

“It looked to young people that being religious meant being homophobic [and] politically conservative,” Putnam said.  “That inundated a [large number] of kids.  Even young evangelicals left church because they were so inundated from the politicization of church as they’ve seen it nationwide.”

Affiliation with one of these religious or nonreligious groups has strong correlation to how people will vote, according to Putnam.

“The strongest predictor a couple of weeks ago as to who voted Republican and who voted Democrat was how often they went to church or religious services,” Putnam said.  “Obama got the secular vote and Romney got the religious vote.  That’s been increasingly true over the last couple decades.”

Despite the rise of the “nones,” the United States remains as one of the most religious countries in the world in terms of regular attendance at religious services.

Yet While Americans may argue over politics, Putnam noted, they are becoming more accepting of different religions.

“Compared to other places in the world America is an extremely religious place and we’re exceptionally religiously diverse,” he said.  “Yet we’re religiously tolerant — remarkably religiously tolerant.”

(Andrew Goldstein can be reached at anbg3120@gmail.com.)