February 28 2017
The country is becoming more intolerant; hate crimes are rampant. Donald Trump’s election is a sign that more Americans don’t trust people who are different from themselves. These are the mantras we hear repeated on cable news and public radio from morning ‘til night—which makes a new study released by Pew last week kind of difficult to explain:
When it comes to religion, Americans generally express more positive feelings toward various religious groups today than they did just a few years ago. Asked to rate a variety of groups on a “feeling thermometer” ranging from 0 to 100, U.S. adults give nearly all groups warmer ratings than they did in a June 2014 Pew Research Center survey.
For anyone paying attention to religious life in America for the past few decades, none of this will come as a surprise. As Robert Putnam and David Campbell chronicled in their book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, Americans who encounter people of other faiths are more likely to have positive feelings toward them than not. And as the country has grown more diverse and more geographically mobile, we are all more likely to meet people in minority faiths.
Geographic isolation is one reason, for instance, why Mormons have taken so long to garner warmer feelings from Americans. In 2007, a few weeks before the presidential primaries, I wrote a piece about why Mitt Romney was having a tough time in Iowa. Mormons then made up less than one half of 1% of the state’s population. But in the past three years alone, Mormons have gone from a forty-eight to a fifty-four in Pew’s national poll.
Jews have scored well on the thermometer for some time now, despite not having a broad geographical distribution. I’ve often wondered if this is more about culture than theology. There’s a popular perception that evangelical Christians harbor anti-Semitic views. I’ve never found this to be the case. Occasionally I’ve found a sense that Jews are misguided. Mormons tend to identify with Jews—both groups, they tell me, have been the victims of religious persecution.
The other reason for this warming trend is interreligious mixing. Pew’s 2014 Religious Landscape Survey found:
. . . almost four-in-ten Americans (39%) who have married since 2010 have a spouse who is in a different religious group. By contrast, only 19% of those who wed before 1960 report being in a religious intermarriage.
All of those marriages mean a lot of family gatherings with people from different religious backgrounds. Encountering people from other faiths in these casual intimate settings is generally a far better recipe for encouraging tolerance than any kind of diversity-training offered by schools or workplaces.
But the most compelling explanation for this trend may simply be the fact that America is becoming less religious in general. To the extent that Americans spend less time attending religious services and learning about their own faiths, they are less clear on the differences between themselves and others, and less concerned about the ones they do understand. This is what we might call a mixed blessing.