Last week I had the opportunity to attend a lecture by legendary political scientist Robert Putnam of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government on his new book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.

If you’re not familiar with Dr. Putnam, he’s probably best known for Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital in which he observed – metaphorically – the rise in the number of bowlers but the drop in the number of bowling leagues as an indicator of a sociological trend in American public life. Our modern life has been marked by a steep decline in social, civic and fraternal organizations that have been foundational for the functioning of our democracy. He distinguishes between bonding capital (with groups that are like-minded) and bridging capital (with diverse groups across divides… like The Village Square).

In American Grace, Putnam turns his attention to how America feels about faith. His thesis is that on the topic of faith, America is:

1. Very devoted,
2. Extremely diverse and
3. Uniquely tolerant.

This combination of devotion, diversity and tolerance is a unique America brew, as in other countries rather than breeding tolerance, faith in high doses can be toxic to public life (Putnam suggests we should think Belfast, Beirut.)

He described a set of earthquakes that have occurred in the last half century: The first was in the 1960’s with the sexual revolution and the dramatic accompanying changes, experienced by some as transforming freedom. But others watched in horror at what they essentially saw as a collapse of the moral and ethical principles that had been at the heart of Western Civilization for two centuries. The aftershock of the freedoms of the 60’s became the rise of politically engaged evangelical Christianity. Finally, we are now in the midst of a second aftershock, one in which the number of what Putnam calls “nones” – people not identifying with any particular religion – has risen exponentially, likely as a reaction against the rise of political Christianity. The number of “nones”, even through the sexual revolution, had remained remarkably constant between 5% and 7% of the American population. Now it’s 17% of us, and that number is heavily dominated by young people (about 30% of them are “nones”), thus indicating a major trend for the future.

Putnam’s research validated a foundational Village Square principle: We continue to define our political opponents by the extreme among our opponents when really the vast majority of us agree on a lot.

Amid all this seismic activity, it turns out that even today, we have a very tolerant attitude toward those who don’t share our religious faith. And regardless of our faith, we as a country value religious diversity. Finally, amazingly enough, people of different religious perspectives (even the most conservative ones, and against the theology they are taught) overwhelmingly even believe that good people of other faiths can go to heaven.

Putnam was able to locate an explanation for these surprising results. Here’s a hint: It has something to do with Aunt Susan.

You’ll meet Aunt Susan Monday…