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Bowling Alone Author Robert Putnam '63 on How Religion Divides and Unites Us


Robert Putnam '63
Robert Putnam '63 talks with Protestant Advisor Joyce Tompkins (left) and President Rebecca Chopp.

Using his years at Swarthmore as the jumping-off point for a discussion of religious change in the United States over the last 50 years, Harvard University Professor of Public Policy Robert Putnam '63, H'90 recently spoke on campus about the findings outlined in his latest book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.

Focusing on the role of religion in American public life, the book's finding are based on data from two of the most comprehensive national surveys on religion and civic engagement ever conducted. American Grace is the winner of the American Political Science Association's 2011 Woodrow Wilson Foundation Award for the best book on government, politics, or international affairs.

Putnam was introduced by President Rebecca Chopp and Associate Professor of Political Science Benjamin Berger, who had studied under Putnam at Harvard.

"This is a meeting with one of the giants of social science," Berger said. "Not just somebody who's been influential social science proper, inside the academy, but somebody who's extended a broad net of influence over the wider world."

Putnam talked about the paradox of the United States being at once religiously diverse, yet also tolerant. He traced trends in religious beliefs and behaviors in the U.S. from the 1960's to current times, pinpointing both the causes and effects of these changes.

He frequently referenced his time at Swarthmore as an illustration of the changes. For example, when Putnam was a student at Swarthmore, two people of different genders were only allowed to visit one another's dormitory rooms on Sunday afternoons with the doors open and three feet on the floor at any time. Just a few short years later, the dorms were co-ed.

In addition to a public lecture, Putnam also met with a group of students to discuss their concerns as well as his latest research.

"He was really approachable and vibrant," says Jacqueline Small '13, who attended both the discussion and lecture. "Mostly, he talked about how he feels like our generation is much more politically engaged than any other generation since World War II. He said that he had pretty high expectations that we were going to fix some of the political problems now."

Putnam is the author of a dozen books, translated into 17 languages, including the best-selling Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, and more recently Better Together: Restoring the American Community, a study of promising new forms of social connectedness. His book, Making Democracy Work, was praised by The Economist as "a great work of social science, worthy to rank alongside de Tocqueville, Pareto and Weber."

Putnam graduated from Swarthmore in 1963 with highest honors and went on to study law at Oxford University on a Fulbright Award. He received his doctorate degree with distinction from Yale University in 1965 and holds several honorary doctorates, including an honorary doctor of laws degree from Swarthmore, awarded in 1990.