For many voters, religion and politics are deeply intertwined. John Green of the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life and Robert Putnam, author of American Grace, talk about how politics may be changing religion, and which issues voters decide on based on faith.
…Prof. PUTNAM: No but the rise of the people who say, when you ask them what religion they have, they say I don't have any religion, I'm just not religious at all.
Historically, that figure in America was roughly five percent of Americans said they had no religion, and 95 percent said they had some religion. But among young people, since 1990, among the people who were basically 20-somethings across the country, that figure has now skyrocketed from about five percent to about 25 or 30 percent, a huge increase in detachment from organized religion among America's young people.
And that has a number of causes, but we think that we have evidence that the most important factor is that for those young people, people who are coming of age in the 1980s and 1990s, for them, looking around, religion seemed to be mostly about sexuality morality and, as they would have seen it, intolerance and homophobia and so on, and they had a very much more tolerant view, especially about homosexuality. And so many of them said, well, if religion is just about being a conservative Republican, that's not for me, and they stopped thinking of themselves as religious at all.
…CONAN: They may not have been around in church to hear those other messages about charity and immigration. But John Green, I wonder how you would that comport with some of the things that you're finding, not necessarily in this survey but in others?
Prof. GREEN: Oh, I think so...
Religion influences politics, but politics can also influence religion. And over time, we may see people sorting themselves into environments where they hear the kinds of messages they find congenial, and they may be absencing themselves entirely.
And Neal, your point, which is a useful one, if young people were leaving traditional churches because they were hearing what they regarded as messages of intolerance, they might not be around to hear the messages about charity and being good stewards of the environment. And so in some sense, they are out of the mix, and that may help explain some of our finding.
BOB: Yeah, I had a I went through kind of an epiphany. I used to be a, you know, a conservative voter, a Republican, and then I started to realize like issues on abortion, you know, we put Republicans in office like, you know, Ronald Reagan and then the first George Bush, expecting them to appoint justices that would, you know, be against abortion, as much as - but then I began to realize and I began to look at a lot of issues that the Republicans just kind of use these, play religious voters. I mean, if we if Reagan and Bush and the Republican Party had really wanted to end abortion, they could have done it by now with the chance for appointments they have.
I've never seen a justice that a Democrat appoints, you know, change their opinion, you know, like if and vote against abortion.
CONAN: So you feel manipulated. And so - is that an accurate...
BOB: Yeah, I felt manipulated, but I also felt they were you know, they were kind of bending Christian values. Like, you know, you have conservatives referring to homeless as human debris, and that always bothered me as a Christian.
But I never heard anybody in the Republican say hey Party say to these, you know, these very powerful, let's say, political commentators that used words like that, they would never say to them: That's not very Christian.
...Republicans only seem to talk Christian values. You know, it's just talk. It doesn't really mean anything.
Mr. PUTNAM: … But America, despite what we've been saying about the polarization - and that's, of course, true over the last generation - Americans actually, including religion - religious people of all sorts, are surprisingly tolerant of other people. And so - and certainly way more tolerant than you'd expect given the fact that we're very religious and diverse in our religiosity.
So part of the puzzle and part of what's happened over the last 50 years, as we describe in - as David Campbell and I described in our book, "American Grace," is not just that America is becoming more polarized in religious and political terms - that's true - but also that we've become, in some sense, at the grassroots, much more connected with one another across religious barriers.
CONAN: Why do you say that?
Mr. PUTNAM: Well, for example, the rate of intermarriage across religious lines has risen sharply and steadily over the last half century, so that now more than half of all the marriages in America today are - just like Chelsea Clinton's marriage - across religious lines. A generation or two ago, the idea of a Methodist marrying a Jew would've been really, really astonishing, but now it's completely normal, and nobody thinks anything about it.
About a third of all Americans are no longer in the same religion they were raised in. So that means that they're worshipping in some faith other than their parents' faith, or other than their kids' faith. Half of all of our most intimate, personal friends are people from other faith traditions. So we're - we, the average American - in fact, almost all Americans know someone personally, really well, love someone who is in a different religious faith than they are.
And it's hard to demonize people who are - you know, nominally, you'd say, well, of course, you know, poor Aunt Sally. She's not going to make it heaven because she prays to the wrong God. But, I mean, come on. Aunt Sally is Aunt Sally. She, for sure, is going to heaven. So all of us have an Aunt Sally in our family or in our circle of friends. And for that reason, it's become increasingly hard for Americans in their own personal lives to demonize people of other faiths. And, in fact, we find in John Green's research at Pew also finds that there's a surprisingly high level of personal tolerance across these divides.