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David Briggs

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Knowing Your Neighbor is a Powerful Force for Religious Civility

Posted: 02/28/11 10:00 PM ET

A prominent 19th century preacher knew how to spark the flame of violence against immigrants with different religious beliefs: Portray them as part of an international conspiracy against America's way of life.

Lyman Beecher's fiery tract in 1835, "A Plea for the West," ignited fears of a Catholic plot to empty out on America's shores "the sweeping of the streets" of Europe "to lay their inexperienced hand upon the helm of our power." Shortly after one of the Presbyterian minister's anti-Catholic sermons in Boston, a mob burned down an Ursuline sisters convent in Charlestown.

His voice was not an anomaly in American religious history. Similar rhetoric stripping individuals of their humanity and indiscriminately grouping them together as the cause of a nation's fears would contribute to generations of Jewish immigrants encountering virulent anti-Semitism.

We have long feared what we do not know. And we still do, new research suggests.

The good news: It doesn't have to be that way. Getting to know evangelicals, atheists, Muslims and Buddhists as individuals leads to greater acceptance of people of diverse beliefs, Robert Putnam of Harvard University and David Campbell of the Univeristy of Notre Dame indicate in their book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.

The proof: Catholics and Jews today are held in the same warm regard by other Americans as mainline Protestants, Beecher's tradition, according to the research.

"Jews are the best liked religious group in the country," Putnam and Campbell write.

Yet the nation still has a long way to go to embrace religious diversity.

Putnam and Campbell found that other groups such as evangelicals and nonreligious Americans were moderately unpopular relative to mainline Protestants, Catholics and Jews, and Muslims and Buddhists were among the least liked religious groups in the nation.

Familiarity Breeds Acceptance

In their Faith Matters Surveys, Putnam and Campbell asked participants to indicate how warm they feel toward different religious groups, with zero degrees being as cold as possible and 100 degrees as warm as possible. They took a random sample of 3,108 Americans in the summer of 2006 followed up in 2007 with a survey of 1,909 of the earlier respondents.

Jews, Catholics and mainline Protestants ranked at the top of this "feeling thermometer," above the mean score of 55 degrees for all groups.

Evangelical Protestants and nonreligious individuals fell below the average, but slightly above a neutral score of 50 degrees. Three groups that were among the least popular with scores below the neutral level were Mormons, Muslims and Buddhists.

Various factors contributed to the results, including a long-term decline in anti-Semitism related to increasing awareness of the Holocaust. What keeps emerging from the research, however, is the value of relationships in bridging religious differences.

Consider how Americans' ties to one another appear to be reflected in their attitudes toward religious groups other than their own:

• Twenty-one percent of respondents to the Panel Study of American Religion and Ethnicity said Islam was the religion they least respected; just 2 percent said it was the faith they respected most other than their own. In the same study, 71 percent of respondents said they never had a conversation in the last year with someone who they knew was a Muslim. By comparison, more than half said they did not talk to someone who does not believe God exists and 41 percent said they did not have a conversation with an evangelical. Only 18 percent never talked to a Catholic.

• In the 2002 to 2003 Religion and Diversity Survey, 90 percent of respondents said they would welcome Christians becoming a stronger presence in the United States, but fewer than six in 10 said they would be as supportive of Hindus, Buddhists or Muslims. In the same survey, less than a quarter of respondents said they have had more than a little contact with Buddhists, Hindus or Muslims.

• When people met across faith lines, the experiences were mostly positive, according to the Religion and Diversity Survey. About two-thirds of respondents said their contacts with Muslims were mostly pleasant; 6 percent said they were mostly unpleasant. Three-quarters said their contacts with Buddhists were mostly pleasant, with 3 percent saying they were mostly unpleasant.

And therein lies the hope for the future.

The More You Know...

The effort to bring together people of diverse backgrounds "actually works," Campbell said.

You might think people just want to be with others like themselves, but Campbell said, "Our evidence suggests that it does go the other way," that the more people build relationships with people of different beliefs, the more accepting they are of other faiths.

For example, the authors found that the "feeling thermometer" score for evangelicals rose seven degrees among those people who gained an evangelical friend.

The increased civility did not stop there. Putnam and Campbell also found convincing evidence of a spillover effect, that "as people build more religious bridges they become warmer toward people of many different religions, not just those religions represented within their social network."

There are enough individuals today who are willing, like Beecher was more than 150 years ago, to paint members of religious groups from evangelicals to atheists to Muslims with the broad brush of being part of an unquestioning "army of soldiers ... spreading over the land" to do the bidding of anti-American leaders.

But they do not have to have the last word.

America's ability to foster and create webs of interlocking personal relationships among people of many different faiths is the key to solving the puzzle of religious pluralism, Putnam and Campbell write.

"This," the authors conclude, "is America's grace."

David Briggs writes the Ahead of the Trend column for the Association of Religion Data Archives.

 

Follow David Briggs on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ReligionData