Want a more tolerant, united world? Make some friends.

As those who have been reading this blog for a while may remember, I wrote a long series of blog posts last summer discussing the problem of unity in The United Methodist Church.  I think unity is a problem in the church, but I also think it’s a general problem in society.  How do we stay together and stay talking to and working with each other when we’re so divided by politics, religion, race, ethnicity, class, culture, and a whole host of other characteristics?  I think figuring out how to balance diversity and unity or diversity and cooperation is one of the foremost challenges of the world of what comes next.

Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, which I’ve been blogging about for the past few weeks offers an answer.  It’s an answer that Putnam put forth in his earlier book Bowling Alone.  Putnam, like me, is worried about social disunity.  As a political scientist, he’s worried about Americans becoming divided and atomized in ways that cause the civic arena to suffer.

In American Grace, Putnam and Campbell set out to answer a question: How are Americans able to be so religiously devout and religiously diverse, while avoiding large-scale religious conflict?  Sure, there are tensions around religion, as reflected in many of the culture war issues.  But religion is not the source of violence in this country in the way it is in many places around the world.  Putnam and Campbell set out to figure out why.

The main answer that they provide is that we’re able to tolerate religious diversity despite being serious about religion because we know people of other religious backgrounds who are part of our friends and our family.  Putnam and Campbell talk about “Aunt Sue” and “My Pal Al”, both of whom are hypothetical people of other religious traditions who are nonetheless good people and important parts of our social networks.  Because we’re willing to accept Sue and Al, we’re more willing to accept people of other religions in general.

Putnam and Campbell don’t have the data to determine whether or not knowing someone of another political persuasion will make you more tolerant of people of the opposite political persuasion.  I tend to think so, though.  I know a number of people with conservative politics whom I respect and/or consider my friends, and it’s helped me be more understanding and tolerant of conservatives.  Research by others has shown that knowing people of other racial and ethnic backgrounds helps people be more accepting of other races and ethnicities in general.

So it turns out that the solution to the problem of balancing diversity and cooperation may be simple: making friends.  If you want the world to be a better, more tolerant place, make friends with someone who is not exactly like you.  Of course, friendships work better when people have something in common, but friends need not have everything in common.  Indeed, it may be a good source of personal growth as well as facilitating social unity to learn from a friend who is different from you.

This prescription to make friends also highlights one of the dangers of contemporary American society.  As niche marketing, exclusive neighborhoods, and social sorting of all sorts proceeds, it becomes ever more possible for us to be friends only with those who are already like us.  There is a real danger in this, as well as a loss.  The loss is a personal one, that we may miss out on knowing wonderful people who nonetheless differ from us in some regards and that we may miss out on learning from them.  The danger is social and political – that if we do not learn to get along with others who are different from us as friends, it will make it more difficult for us to get along with them as neighbors, co-workers, fellow church and association members, and fellow citizens.

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