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Robert Putnam thinks religion could play a role in healing divisions

The renowned political scientist and his co-author say the reforms enacted in response to the Social Gospel movement of the Progressive Era might provide a lesson.

(RNS) — The results of the 2020 election are just the latest sign: America is divided. Democrats and Republicans disagree on everything — the economy, coronavirus safety, law enforcement, science, even who won the presidency.

A growing gulf separates the rich and the poor. Racial tensions are high. Democracy itself appears to be endangered.

But this is not the first time that’s happened.

In their new book, “The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again,” political scientist Robert Putnam and writer and social entrepreneur Shaylyn Romney Garrett argue that in the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, America was strikingly similar: polarized, unequal and corrupt. 

Then it all changed. A more egalitarian, cooperative and altruistic nation emerged in the so-called Progressive Era — beginning around 1900. That pivot, from unbridled individualism to concern for the broader community, was led by moral crusaders. They were religious people such as Walter Rauschenbusch who ushered in the so-called Social Gospel movement that led to waves of legislative reforms: a minimum wage, improved child labor laws, women’s right to vote and many more.

If the country is ever to move beyond its current morass, Putnam and Garrett believe religious narratives or themes may once again play an important role. Putnam, who is best known as the author of “Bowling Alone,” which warned 20 years ago of the decline in social capital and rise of isolation, knows something about civic and religious engagement. His book “American Grace” (co-written with David Campbell) assessed how religion has changed in America over the past 50 years.

Religion News Service talked to Putnam and Garrett about the role religious and civic leaders might play in uniting the nation. The interview was edited for length and clarity.

You write this isn’t the first time America has descended into mistrust, polarization, inequality and cultural narcissism. It happened in the late 19th century during the Gilded Age. What’s the congruence?

Putnam: America today is very polarized, unequal, socially isolated and narcissistic or self-referential. Our book asks, “How did we get here?” and that leads to a second question, “How do we get out of this mess?”

Robert Putnam. Photo by Martha Stewart

The data clearly show there was a turning point around 1900, when the country moved out of the Gilded Age and into the Progressive Era. America moved from a situation like ours to nearly 70 years of improvement on all the measures I mentioned.

In “The Upswing,” we look back to that period to see what they did then that would be relevant to us now. We try to avoid the word “causation.” But what were the crucial preconditions for making the pivot from an “I” society to a “we” society? Religion turns out to be a crucial part of the story.

Given the huge decline in churchgoing beginning in the 1960s, can religion play a role in turning things around like it did at the beginning of the 20th century?

Garrett: I definitely think there’s a role for religion to play. But religion will have to be innovative in meeting the moment. We have seen some religious innovation aimed at combating the decline in churchgoing — in such things as megachurches, for example. But some of those megachurches are characterized by a theology that is highly individualistic — the prosperity gospel — the idea that God blesses the righteous with riches for themselves. That’s been used to draw people back into religion, but it’s reflective of the destructive, highly individualistic drift over the past half-century, which we chronicle in the book.

Shaylyn Romney Garrett. Photo by Janica LaRae

For religion to play a role in another upswing, it’s going to have to find a way to speak to a changed social landscape and to remind us our religious traditions speak directly to the situation we find ourselves in today — a situation where we need to take better care of our most vulnerable. We need to think about how we organize a society more fairly. There are great templates in every great religion for how to do this but we have to choose that religious narrative. There’s a moment here where our religious leaders have the ability to shape a religious narrative in order to inform our social problems. We’re seeing some early signs of that happening. For example, the Rev. William Barber, who is organizing “moral marches on Washington” and taking up the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign.

Putnam: King moved America from the bottom up as well as the top down. He did it above all by using the Exodus narrative. He knew it appealed well beyond the Black church he was in himself. The point is religious narratives and religious symbols have a huge power to move lots of people.

Garrett: Bringing people into relationship with one another doesn’t have to have a religious motive. There are lots of secular civic innovators trying to fill the void left by America’s empty pews. One example we like to highlight is Eric Liu, who runs an organization called Citizen University. He’s created something called Civic Saturdays, which he calls “a secular analog to church.” The idea is to bring people together to engage in mutual aid but also to hear “civic sermons,” a way to help people engage with a narrative that is secular but is still orienting people toward a morality of “we.” So I definitely think there’s a role for religious institutions to play, but there’s also a role for secular innovators to come into this space and say, “How do we engage those folks who say religion isn’t for them but still are hungry for moral narratives?”

Is the notion of a common civil religion ever coming back?

Garrett: One of the things you see in this moral awakening that characterizes the Progressive Era is a real emphasis on agency. Our choices matter. We have a choice as a society about what we’re going to call upon as organizing values. So, if the question is “Can religion play a role in defining a new set of societal values?,” we think the answer is yes. The historical record shows our “civic religion” — our shared notion of what this nation is all about — was terribly fragmented once before. And a group of moral crusaders came along and helped shape a new civic religion. Can that happen again? We definitely believe it can. Whether or not it will depends on our choices as citizens and religious people.

“The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again,” by Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett. Courtesy image

Putnam: I think we would say if there’s a single lesson we want to get across, it’s agency. We’re not condemned by history. History sets the problems we have to face, but history doesn’t set the solutions. We want to say to America’s young people today who are very cynical, “Look, you can make a difference and people just like you have made a difference in the past.”

Garrett: One of the reasons for the rise of “spiritual but not religious” young people is they don’t like the way religion has been politicized. We would hope young people, instead of abandoning religion altogether, could more actively shape the narrative of how religion speaks to politics. Though we are reluctant to call it a “cause” of the last upswing, we do see that moral and cultural narratives may well have been the first thing to turn. So, there’s hope that in the moral, cultural and religious sense, we might have the most power to spark change in other arenas such as economic inequality, political polarization and social fragmentation.

Putnam: It’s important to note we have so far been discussing this “moral awakening” largely in terms of white evangelicalism. But of course, this shift goes far beyond that form of religiosity — it did then, and it will today. I don’t want to get too personal about this, but I would point out that neither of us comes from an evangelical Protestant tradition. I was raised as a Methodist and converted to Judaism some 60 years ago. Shaylyn is a Mormon. To look at what’s happening only in evangelical Protestant religion is to miss one of the most important religious developments of our era, which is Pope Francis. He’s raising the role of the Catholic Church from being a voice of inequality and corruption to being a voice for the oppressed, for greater equality, for greater tolerance of immigrants and greater attention to the environment. The same kind of developments occurred back in the Progressive Era in other religions and is again occurring right now. I have seven grandchildren, all of whom were bar-mitzvahed or about to be bar-mitzvahed. They share this sense of young people that there are big important issues outside the narrow confines of religion that need to be addressed. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (who died this month) also spoke about big moral issues today.

Garrett: I see some of these trends in Mormonism as well. I’m part of a group called Mormon Women for Ethical Government, which is calling upon a very right-wing Republican community that has embraced a pretty individualistic politics to say, “Wait a second. There is a whole other narrative within our theology that has a broader base of morality and has a lot to say about government and how we organize society.” There are little glimmers of this in lots of different religious spaces. People are waking up to the idea we’ve missed something in our religious narratives that needs to be revived.

Is it useful to use terms like the religious left or the religious right?

Garrett: People are realizing their religious values have splintered fairly awkwardly across the right-left spectrum. They are in this weird position of having to choose between being pro-life or being pro-immigrant. How is that a choice that makes any sense? My hope is we would have a new moral consensus that would give us some innovation around issues and policy proposals that transcend this gridlocked right-left framework. I watched this play out in the election in Mormon circles. People felt it was immoral to vote for Trump, but they also felt an imperative to vote against abortion and they just couldn’t square that. The Progressive Era was this movement to say maybe there’s a third way here. When I think of the future, that’s what I think about. That would be my hope. It’s something we’ve done before.

Putnam: One thing you could see very clearly in the Progressive Era is it cut across left-right lines. In 1912, all three presidential candidates claimed to be Progressives. The “capital P” Progressive attitude was orthogonal to conventional left-right lines. We do think left-right is a misleading framework for thinking about the possibilities of change either in religion or in American society today.