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updated: 1/27/2012 8:05 AM

Harvard prof discusses religion, politics at Elmhurst College

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Religion is one of the most unifying forces in American society but also one of the most divisive, especially in the political arena.

With the U.S. presidential contest as a backdrop, Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam will explore the influence of religion on American public life when he presents "Religion, Democracy and Civic Engagement" Thursday, Feb. 9, at Elmhurst College.

Putnam describes America as a very religious country, whose communities of faith contribute to the vitality of its democracy.

"Over the last half century America has become more polarized in religious and political terms, but at the same time Americans are increasingly and surprisingly tolerant across religious lines," he says.

"How America manages to be religiously devout, religiously diverse, and yet religiously tolerant -- and thus how religion contributes to American democracy -- is the central puzzle in this talk."

Putnam is the co-author of "American Grace: How Religion Unites and Divides Us," a multifaceted study of American religious life and civic engagement. The book draws in large part from the Faith Matters Survey, conducted in 2006 and 2007, which asked more than 3,000 Americans about religion and their level of social and political engagement.

The survey found religious Americans are more active in civic affairs, more trusting of others and more apt to give time and money to charities, including secular ones. But the survey also revealed that deeply religious people are less supportive of government policies to address the structural causes of poverty, and not as accepting of other faiths.

Moreover, the survey showed people choose to attend or not to attend church in part because of their political views.

Putnam co-authored "American Grace" with David E. Campbell, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame, and last summer they reinterviewed some of those who participated in the Faith Matters Survey to learn more about the origins of the Tea Party movement.

Hailed by the Sunday Times of London as "the most influential academic in the world today," Putnam is the Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and the author of more than a dozen books, including "Better Together: Restoring the American Community" and "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community," a groundbreaking work that explores the disintegration of traditional American social structures.

Putnam's lecture is part of the Democracy Forum at Elmhurst College, a yearlong series of lectures on civic engagement and the promise and problems of democracy. It will begin at 7 p.m. in Hammerschmidt Memorial Chapel, 190 Prospect Ave., Elmhurst. The public lecture is free.

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