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Interfaith Inform: April 27, 2021
Kaufman Interfaith Institute


Authors Putnam and Garrett
Interfaith Insight
Doug Kindschi
Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute
Finding hope in the midst of cultural division  
“Are we destined to live with ever more divisive politics and ever more divided societies, growing inequalities and increasing loneliness, less public regard for truth and ever more determined efforts to ban and demonize the voices with which we disagree?”  So asked the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi for the United Kingdom, in his last book “Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times.” Published in the United States in 2020 just prior to his untimely death, Sacks calls for a renewed morality in our public life.   

A similar call and hopeful message come from the recent book, “The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again.”  Authors Robert Putnam, research professor at Harvard, and Shaylyn Garrett, writer and social entrepreneur, analyze the economic, political, social, and political trends throughout the last century leading to the increased inequality and polarization of our current time. We have been here before, in the early 1900s, in what is referred to as the Gilded Age, but came out of that to a more egalitarian and cooperative society in what they call “the upswing.” Putnam’s vast sociological research documents that movement and together the authors analyze how that upswing developed -- and why it can happen again. 

A very stimulating summary of their work, along with questions from the current and three former presidents of GVSU, was recently presented in the one-hour Presidential Roundtable. (Watch at: www.bit.ly/GVSU-presidents.)  Putnam presents a graph starting in the early 1900s with very low levels of political collaboration, which then gave way to much increased collaboration mid-century during the Eisenhower presidency. That’s when the political parties cooperated to desegregate the armed forces, expand Social Security coverage, add more public housing, and promote better health care and education.  There was cooperation on a massive investment in infrastructure with the interstate highway system as the hallmark.  A Republican president along with a Democratic Congress worked together for a country that was rebuilding following World War II. That kind of cooperation then fades through the last half of the century with conflict and division around Vietnam, Watergate, and budget battles leading to government shutdowns. Putnam describes today’s polarization as back to the low point of the early 20th century and even worse.

Economic production and income during the 1900s, on average, grew in remarkable ways when adjusting for inflation. In the early part of the century, however, there was great disparity, with 1% of the population holding nearly one-half of all the wealth in contrast to the large number of immigrants who were struggling to survive. This disparity diminished in the mid-century with financial regulation, progressive tax rates, increased union membership, and expansion of public welfare programs. But again, in the latter half of the century economic disparity increased to levels like that of the early 1900s. 

Similar patterns were found when the research looked at social isolation and cultural self-centeredness. In each case they observed a similar curve going from an I-centered society to a more we-centered culture, but then returning to the current I-centered pattern.  While the pattern is instructive and the research impressive, what I found most enlightening was their analysis of the leading indicators for the “upswing” to the more collaborative spirit of the mid-century.

They looked for hints from the earlier upswing from the more selfish era, to more cooperation and concern for the larger welfare of society that marked the mid-century. What could we learn that would help us seek another upswing in our social and cultural life together?

Two factors are identified by the authors as critical to the beginning of the change. First was an increased concern for others, especially for the less fortunate.  This movement, sometimes referred to as the “social gospel,” brought religious groups together with a focus not so much on their differing beliefs, but on the common commitment to love your neighbor.

Is it possible that we are observing a similar moral awakening when persons of different religious, or no religion, are coming together in efforts to right the wrongs that have been done in the environment, or correct the racial disparity in how minorities are treated by the police or by others who carry ill will toward those who look or believe differently?  Is the interfaith movement our current moral effort to live out our common religious principles or deeply felt values to care for those in need?  Can the attitude of understanding and accepting those of different faith commitments become a new morality that seeks the common good in this era of difference and fear?

The second observation of what led to the upswing last century was the important leadership by the young.  They realized that while they had not created the problems, they could act to change society. It was a vision that society doesn’t need to be based on a competition, but on cooperation to help all thrive. The youth of today have lived through the decline of solidarity and cooperation, and have a right to be cynical, but Putnam pointedly stated to the youth, “people just like you turned America around… It’s not your fault but you have it in your power to change it.”

Garrett noted that this is the most diverse generation in America’s history, and it sees the necessity to affirm and accept all members of our society. She challenged the youth to do the “heart work” which is also “hard work,” to set a new course for our society.

We are becoming a nation of minorities. Can we extend the American dream of democracy to truly include and accept that diversity as we address the difficult issues in our society?

Look at the diversity in age and race in the Black Lives Matter movement. Look at the role of young people like Greta Thunberg in calling the world leaders to account for the damage done to the planet that her generation will inherit. Look at Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani girl who was deliberately shot in the head because of her outspoken defense of education for girls. Following her recovery, she continued her campaign and became, at age 17, the youngest person to ever receive the Nobel Peace Prize. 

Look at Amanda Gorman, who inspired the nation in her poem delivered at the Inauguration. In our own community, look at Hannah Huggett, a high school student in Holland, Michigan, who is an environmental activist, leader of her local chapter of the Sunshine Movement, and an inspiring panelist at our recent Healing Our Earth webinar.

Youth are stepping up to the cause; they are asserting their agency to change what is not right and work for a better society and a healthier world. Can we all, no matter our generation, join them in finding hope for a better world?

These weekly Insights are published in the Grand Rapids Press'  Religion section every Thursday.

For an archive of previous articles,
click here.